They've each enjoyed stellar individual seasons for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards, respectively, earning nods on the All-Star team. Irving was voted in as a starting backcourt member due to his immense popularity, and Wall was a shoo-in for the reserves.
Both are great, but who's better?
To answer the question, I'll be breaking down the three major facets of their games: offense, defense and intangibles. After determining the winner in each category, it'll be time to move on to the overall summation.
So, who ya got?
It's here that both young point guards truly thrive.
Wall is averaging 19.9 points and 8.6 assists per game while shooting 42.1 percent from the field, and his Cleveland counterpart is putting up 21.2 points and 6.2 assists per contest with a 42.5 field-goal percentage. On first glance, those are fairly comparable lines, especially because Irving is more potent shooting the ball from downtown and the charity stripe.
When you break down the advanced stats, though, it's not as tough to find the margin between the two:
|Irving Pulling Ahead|
The Cavaliers point guard is superior across the board, as Wall's shooting deficiencies definitely come back to bite him. Though he thrives as a rim-attacking floor general, Wall just doesn't threaten defenses to the point that he can remain efficient when the ball leaves his hand.
Irving trumps Wall is true shooting percentage, effective field-goal percentage and PER, but the truly impressive part is offensive win shares. Not only does he have more at this stage of the season, but he's accumulated them while spending over 130 fewer minutes on the court.
That's like four games.
So, what makes the difference?
Wall is the superior passer, but only from the standpoint of racking up assists. Irving's teammates have largely let him down, which allows his assist percentage to close the gap (at least partially), and he's much more careful with the ball in his hands.
The Cleveland 1-guard averages 0.8 fewer turnovers per game, and his turnover percentage of 11.5 leaves Wall's 15.2 percent in the dust. In general, he's just less reckless, recording fewer cough-ups via offensive foul and committing a turnover through a bad pass 42 fewer times than the Washington standout.
"I think just reading what the defense gave me," Wall told The Washington Post's Michael Lee, referring to what he could do to minimize the turnovers. "I had a couple of turnovers where they said I kicked the ball, then most of them, I hit the big man on the pocket or forced it into a window when it’s not there. Just try not to make the home-run plays and just the simple plays and I’ll be fine."
That quote came after a 102-101 victory over the New York Knicks in the middle of December, and Wall emerged from the contest averaging 3.7 turnovers per game. As Lee pointed out, that was the fourth-highest mark in the league.
Granted, he's cut back on them throughout the season, but 3.4 per contest is still too high and a clear negative when compared to Irving's numbers.
There's no doubt that Wall is the superior player when it comes to generating assists. NBA.com's SportVU data also shows that he creates more secondary assists per game and blows Irving out of the water when it comes to assist opportunities produced for his team.
But everything else belongs to the Duke product.
Not only does Irving turn the ball over with much less frequency, but he's the better scorer, both in terms of volume and efficiency. Overall, that makes it a tough call, but the Cleveland point guard holds a slight advantage, especially because he's playing with less talent surrounding him and while leading Mike Brown's simplistic offensive attack.
"Brown's a student of the 'let's see' movement," writes B/R's Zach Buckley. "As in, 'everyone get out of Kyrie Irving's way, and let's see what he can do.' It didn't look completely atrocious when the floor was opening up for LeBron James, but it was bad even back then."
The fact that he's putting up these types of numbers in that type of system is enough to tip the scales firmly in Irving's favor.
Neither player has a great reputation on this end of the court, but Irving generally draws more negative reviews.
"Irving spoke all summer about growing up, about becoming more of a leader and committing to defense under Mike Brown," espoused Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. "It sounded good, it has even looked good at times, but the Cavs are still floundering in the East and Irving is still getting beat by too many mediocre point guards in the NBA."
But let's not just look at subjective reviews. Instead, it's time to turn to the primary defensive metrics:
|Not So Pretty for Irving|
|Player||DRtg||DWS||Team Impact per 100 Possessions||PER Allowed to PGs|
|Kyrie Irving||109||1.2||8.4 points worse||18.1|
|John Wall||104||2.6||2.5 points better||16.6|
|Basketball-Reference and 82games.com|
It's just not even close.
Wall blows out Irving in this category, and the third stat is the most striking. Although on-court/off-court splits can be misleading, that's too big a difference to be a fluke. When Irving plays, the Cavaliers allow 8.4 more points per 100 possessions than when he sits; when Wall plays, the Wizards allow 2.5 fewer.
That can't just be overlooked, even if Wall hasn't gained a reputation as a defensive asset. That's starting to change, as more and more viewers recognize just how much the former Kentucky standout has improved on the less glamorous end of the court.
As Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote for ESPN late in January, "He's not much of a shooting threat, but his terrorizing defense is a threat to all shooters. If Curry dazzled playoff audiences with 3-pointers from all angles, Wall might loudly announce his playoff arrival with steals and swats that defy geometry."
Wall has had some sensational blocks, like the one you can see up above. But his improvement is more mental than anything else, as he's firmly committed to that style of play.
"I think I’ve showed spurts of great defense at times, but don’t do it enough," Wall told Lee back in December after a great defensive showing against the Boston Celtics. "For me to be the player that I want to be, to be a superstar, or all-star in this league, you do both ends on a nightly basis. That’s something I’m really focusing my mind on, watching film on that more and trying to be consistent and doing a better job on that side."
It sounds awfully similar to what Irving said heading into the 2013-14 campaign.
Difference is, Wall actually followed through, morphing into what looks like a free safety in Randy Wittman's schemes. While his Cleveland counterpart has remained one of the biggest liabilities in the Association, he's become an asset.
Offense might have been close, but this isn't.
Cleveland fans, I'd encourage you to skip to the next time you see bolded text. This isn't going to be pretty.
Spoiler alert: Wall wins.
Throughout the 2013-14 season, Irving has been absolutely lambasted by the media, drawing labels that all seem to have negative connotations. Then again, how can being called a pouter ever be a positive?
"Two opposing general managers this season have told me they think Irving is pouting. Over what is anyone's guess," Lloyd reported in late January, when the Cavaliers were at the height of their struggles.
Remember this quote from last season, via the Associated Press (h/t The Chronicle-Telegram)? The point guard delivered it after an 18-point loss to the Detroit Pistons:
We came out soft, and we played that way for the whole game. I take full responsibility for that, because I didn’t play with energy, and that trickles down to the rest of the team. I let things that happened in the game bother me, and I got disinterested and let the game get away from me. I can promise that won’t ever happen again.
That's never something you want your star player to say.
It would be one thing if Irving's attitude had changed over the offseason, but there have been far too many moments—and entire games—that forced the point guard's words back into the forefront of our minds.
When the going gets tough, Irving sometimes stops going.
On top of that, there's this report from Lloyd, which came shortly after he revealed the anonymous GM quotes mentioned up above:
The rumbles within the Cavaliers locker room have been growing louder for weeks. Players who initially didn’t want to talk about what is plaguing this team are beginning to open up, and most of the issues are pointing back to guards Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, along with an unhappiness with Mike Brown and his staff.
“He’s acting like he doesn’t care,” one Cavs player said of Irving.
Irving, whether he cares to admit it or not, has been a distraction. Between the incessant rumors he wants out of Cleveland to the reported bickering with Dion Waiters, it's not an all-is-fine-and-dandy type of situation.
Wall couldn't be any more different.
In the past, he wasn't much of a leader, failing to assert himself vocally and letting veterans take responsibility. But even then, he didn't serve as much of a distraction. Now, his leadership skills are growing, and he's still not a negative for the franchise in any respect.
There's no point in going into much detail, simply because Wall typically avoids creating negative stories and only tends to make headlines with his play.
A cursory glance back at each category shows us that Wall took two of three, but let's also look at the fashion in which he won them.
The competition for best offensive point guard was close, with Irving squeezing out a victory thanks to his improved care of the ball and role within the simplistic Cleveland system. But Wall won the other two categories—defense and intangibles—in landslides.
Neither was even remotely close.
Add in superior rebounding numbers while leading his team to significantly more success in the Eastern Conference, and Wall is the obvious winner. The fact that Cleveland is five games behind has to count for something.
Right now, it's not particularly close. Irving may have gotten the nod as the All-Star starter, but it's the Washington floor general who has become the best point guard in the East.
But will it stay that way?
The future is always difficult to predict, but keep in mind that Irving will turn 22 in late March, and Wall will be 24 years old before the start of the 2013-14 campaign. The former has almost two years of development before he reaches the latter's current age, and he's also got one fewer season under his belt.
Don't be surprised when the competition swings back and forth for years to come. The belt currently belongs to Wall, but that could change multiple times during the foreseeable future.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference and are current as of Feb. 22.
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