No NBA player has had a better offseason than Kyrie Irving, whose role with the Cleveland Cavaliers has (thankfully) changed tremendously over the past few months. Irving will be taking a backseat to LeBron James and Kevin Love on the new-look Cavs, which could do wonders for him.
When Irving burst onto the scene with a sensational 2011-12 rookie campaign, he was anointed the league's next great point guard. The two years since, marred by inefficient scoring and locker room squabbles, have been ugly, but it's unfair to heap too much blame on Irving given both the Cavs' unimaginative offense and lack of talent over the past few seasons.
Neither of those are issues for the current Cavaliers. Irving is now flanked by two consensus top-10 players (one of whom is the best player in the world), and new head coach David Blatt is set to install an exciting, innovative offensive system.
Blatt's offense is a variant of the famed “Princeton” offense, which (in the simplest terms) uses strings of pick-and-rolls and off-ball movement to generate easy shots at the basket and from deep.
He's sure to make some changes now that James and Love are in tow, but the basic tenets of his offense fit the Cavs' personnel quite well. BballBreakdown's Coach Nick recently did an excellent video analysis on Cleveland demonstrating that.
As you might imagine, Irving's going to have to do some adjusting to fit in with both his new teammates and Blatt's system, but with any luck, he'll be looking at a career year.
The main change Irving is facing is less shot creation and more off-ball sets. James is set to eat up a lot of time as the Cavs' primary creator, and as a result, more of Irving's looks are going to be spot-up attempts from the corners or shots coming off of screens.
That could end up doing wonders for Irving's efficiency, but it also isn't as easy an adjustment as it sounds for a guy who does the vast majority of his scoring off the dribble.
Less than 20 percent of Irving's attempts per game last season were catch-and-shoot jumpers, and he had bizarre problems hitting on those shots. He connected on just 32 percent of his spot-up threes, and had one of the lowest effective field-goal percentages (46 percent) of any Cleveland rotation player on catch-and-shoot looks.
With that being said, Irving's success when shooting on the move would indicate that those numbers are an anomaly—very few shooters are actually worse when they have time to catch and fire.
James is one of the NBA's best at creating corner threes, per B Sports, and even if it takes some time to grow accustomed to not handling the ball as much, Irving should get a real bump in efficiency from it.
Of course, Irving's still going to spend big chunks of time on the ball, and that's when he'll be most fun to watch. For the first time in his career, he will be surrounded by shooting, and it could change his game.
Thanks to the Cavs' mostly cramped spacing, Irving's weapon of choice over the past three years has been his pull-up jumper. Last season, he took 446 shots from mid-range compared to just 313 at the rim. He hits from mid-range at a decent (40 percent) clip, but even so, it's just not an effective way to score.
Irving's new teammates—particularly Love—could change all of that. Big men who can shoot like Love are transformational offensively. Look at what Goran Dragic told Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry about playing alongside Channing Frye:
This year, when we play pick-and-roll, Channing stretches the floor so I have room to operate; I can get inside the paint and make other plays for him and everybody else. He just gives us that spacing, and especially for me and Eric he makes things much easier because nobody can rotate from him.
Love has that same kind of pull on defenses. You couldn't begin to count the number of times last season that Love's Minnesota Timberwolves teammate, point guard Ricky Rubio, was gifted a free run to the basket because Love's defender quite literally ignored him in favor of hovering nearby the stretch 4 extraordinaire.
Irving should feast on that kind of spacing. He's historically a strong finisher at the rim despite not getting much in the way of easy looks there and is a clever enough passer to generate a lot of open threes and easy dunks for his bigs. Now that he has room to work with, we should see a whole lot more of that.
The one thing that may not be quite so easy for Irving to adjust to is the kind of ball movement Blatt's teams typically rely on. Irving isn't a huge ball-stopper, but he is prone to pounding his dribble aimlessly at times.
Though Irving has one of the best handles in the league, that can actually be a problem at times. He sometimes seems so sure he can get by his man that he'll over dribble into a tight spot rather than simply move the ball along or use a screen to attack the defense from a new angle. The clip below is the perfect example of that.
There's nothing wrong with attacking in isolation, and Blatt's scheme will give Irving plenty of chances to do that. But stuff like the sequence above is poor offense and far easier to defend than the sideline-to-sideline mania that the NBA's best teams can create.
Irving's tendency to over dribble is likely just a product of having to do far too much shot creating for Cleveland over the past few years, but even so, it's something to monitor moving forward.
Irving's been handed a dream situation in Cleveland. He'll need to make a few adjustments, sure, but the positives here—less offensive responsibility, far more space to operate, no pressure to assume a leadership role—far outweigh the scant potential negatives.
Though his base numbers are sure to fall due to his decreased usage, Irving should easily set a career high in scoring efficiency and enjoy his best all-around season to date.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com unless specifically stated otherwise.
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