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Amid Career Year, Kyrie Irving Is Making a Case for NBA MVP

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2019

Boston Celtics' Kyrie Irving reacts after making a three-pointer in overtime during an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Cases for the NBA's MVP award are assembled, packaged and delivered haphazardly this time of the year. 

Team schedules are nearing their halfway poles, and standout performances are cementing themselves as new normals. There exists this rush to capitalize on and contextualize that hype, particularly for those on the fringes of the MVP discussion.

Enough critical thought, after all, is being dedicated to the odds-on favorites and usual suspects at this point. They might be exceeding expectations, but their initial bar called for MVP consideration.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, even Joel Embiid—they all entered the season with clear paths to the tippy top of the field. In some instances, their candidacies have accelerated or faded, but their close proximity to the conversation comes as no surprise.

Less obvious options offer more of a thought exercise as coverage and support for everyone else crawls toward exhaustion. It is more fun to talk about Nikola Jokic leading the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference's best record amid injuries. It is more novel to throw Paul George's name into the ring for the effect his career year is having on the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

From this search for MVP alternatives, for deserving long shots with a puncher's chance of sneaking up on the front-runners, Kyrie Irving's own argument is born. It's a case that lacks both fanfare and probability but not foundation.

Subtly, quietly, Irving is piecing together the best season of his career—and certainly the most impactful. 

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To go along with his 23.1 points per game, he's averaging personal bests in assists (6.6), rebounds (4.9) and steals (1.6) and tying his second-best three-point clip (40.8 percent), all without a major uptick in minutes. His free-throw rate is at rock bottom and he's not getting to the rim especially often, but he's shooting a preposterously high 49.6 percent from mid-range—right in line with last year's mark (49.8 percent) and sixth-best among every player throwing up at least three such looks a night. 

On the surface, this is much to-do over very little deviation. Irving has not expanded his game so much as fortified it.

Has Irving elevated his game enough to crash the MVP discussion?
Has Irving elevated his game enough to crash the MVP discussion?Darren Abate/Associated Press

This will be the third consecutive year in which he clears 25 points per 36 minutes while shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Curry is the only player with more of these seasons to his name.

Irving is playing better defense, but that's a tale as old as his Boston Celtics tenure. Though, to his credit, he continues to improve.

He isn't as much of a pushover in the pick-and-roll or when coming around wide on screens. When he's forced to switch into a mismatch, Boston isn't as worried about bailing him out, and he's making more aggressive plays on the ball:

B/R

Irving is still good for a few off-action lapses every game, but his engagement keeps shining through. He's making smarter rotations around the basket:

B/R

And even some more complicated reads:

B/R

Most of Irving's fouls, which are up slightly from last season, begin with him trying to make the right play. He is still guilty of off-ball reach-ins, half-baked box-outs and causeless double-teams, but a lot more of his whistles are coming on shot contests, aggressive entry-pass denials and effort rotations:

B/R

The Celtics are allowing more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, but that speaks more to the identity of their bench. (Al Horford finds himself in the same boat.) Irving is currently eighth among point guards in ESPN's Defensive Real-Plus Minus, up from 62nd last season and 56th in 2016-17, and he's on pace to finish as a net positive in NBA Math's Defensive Points Saved for the first time of his career.

Granted, MVP cases are not built on weaknesses turning into, well, smaller weaknesses. Irving needs to hold up against the relative indispensability of the game's 15 or so best players, an area in which he's always sort of struggled. His defensive performance typically hurts him, and the appeal of his offense has suffered from what, at times, feels like unbidden difficulty—superfluous dribbling, forced circus finishes and unpredictable passing.

That aspect of the Irving experience persists, with the exception of his progression as a floor general. His first instinct isn't to defer. He's actually throwing fewer passes than last season on an almost identical number of touches per game. But he's averaging more potential dimes and notching his best assist-to-pass ratio since at least 2013-14, which is as far back as NBA.com's tracking data goes.

And yet, this season, nothing about the way Irving carries himself on offense feels inessential.

"What's ordinarily useless fun is a necessary parts of Kyrie's game," SB Nation's Zito Madu wrote. "He's an elite marriage of aesthetically pleasing style and numbers. He doesn't have to take those difficult layups, but he does, and he actually makes them. He over-dribbles in ways that get disciplined out of other players, but in doing so he creates space and opportunity. He has to dance around in order to make those game-tying or buzzer-beating game-winners."

Gordon Hayward is back. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are another year older. Marcus Morris is going to get some All-Star votes. And somehow, someway, Irving is more integral to the Celtics offense than last season.

Boston is scoring 14.6 points per 100 possessions fewer with him on the bench. That not only leads the team and is noticeably higher than last year's mark (minus-8.8), but it is also the sixth-largest differential in the league among every player to tally at least 500 minutes:

Dan Favale @danfavale

here are the NBA's 20 largest offensive rating differentials (minimum 500 MP): https://t.co/VOBZa8f1qU

Irving is 15th in overall net-rating change as well. Durant (seventh), George (eighth) and Embiid (14th) are the only MVP-adjacent names in front of him.

This view of Irving holds on a much larger scale. Average together his ranks in eight of the most cited catch-all metrics, both cumulative and rolling, and he grades out as a...top-eight player, per the Hardwood Knocks podcast's Andrew Bailey: 

Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey

Current top 30 players in the NBA this season, according to the AVERAGE OF THEIR RANKS in 8 catch-alls... Total Points Added & Box +/- Win Shares & Win Shares per 48 MIN Real +/- Wins & Real +/- Player Impact +/- Wins & Player Impact +/- https://t.co/QHlCWuD3cn

Whatever the consensus opinion of Irving up until now, this is the closest he has come to entrenching himself as one of the Association's top 10 players. That he's not registering in the MVP discussion even as an outside dark horse verges on awkward.

Basketball Reference's MVP tracker doesn't have him as one of the 10 most likely winners. His chances will take a huge hit if his scratched eyes keep him out of action for more than a few games.

Boston, for its part, needs to be better if Irving is going to crash the MVP ranks. Russell Westbrook is the only recipient since 1982 (Moses Malone) to come from a team that won fewer than 60 percent of its games. The Celtics are playing below a 49-win pace. Irving won't get any love if they hover around fourth and fifth place in the Eastern Conference all year.

Still, the door is open.

Irving deserves an honorary mention in the MVP discussion.
Irving deserves an honorary mention in the MVP discussion.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Antetokounmpo is the closest this race has to an open-and-shut case, and his isn't an airtight argument. Harden has wedged his way into the favorites circle over the past month. A scorching-hot few weeks from the Celtics could do the same for Irving.

Or maybe it won't. Maybe it can't. Maybe that streak never comes.

Maybe the gap separating Irving from the top five candidates is too big to adequately trim. Maybe the Celtics' on-paper name power means his savior act will go almost unnoticed. That's fine.

Missing out on an honorable mention in the MVP chase does not diminish what Irving is doing now: playing the best, most meaningful basketball of his career.   

       

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Jan. 2. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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