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Kyrie Irving is currently the second-best point guard in the league. To me, this should be obvious to anyone who has watched him and the Celtics play this season and taken even a slight look at his numbers, normal and advanced. If you haven’t, I’m about to lay out the facts for you. But first, we have to understand what it means to be a better player than someone. There is honestly a correct way of looking at things, and a rudimentary way. The rudimentary way would be saying player A does X, Y, and Z better than player B, and therefore he is the superior player. In some cases, this formula is perfectly acceptable. Especially when comparing players who are not on the same level. For example, Giannis rebounds, scores, and defends better than Nic Batum. He’s better. There is no deeper analysis needed. However, you could also say that Paul George defends and shoots better than Giannis. If we extend this rudimentary analysis into distinct categories by which to judge players, such as shooting, scoring, passing, defending, and rebounding, then that would give George the edge in two out of five categories.

Are we going to claim Paul George is a better scorer because he averages .5 more points, or Giannis a better passer because he averages 2 more assists, devoid of any context? Or are we going to start looking at their individual skillsets and trying to determine how much value they bring to their team and how valuable their skillset is around the league + in high pressure situations? The latter seems like a better way of doing things.
None of that is to say Giannis is better than Paul George or the other way around, it simply is to put forward the notion that when we compare elite players we cannot simply look at things so simply.

And so when we talk about the elite point guards in the league today, we cannot say who does what better than the other and leave it at that. We have to go for the other proposed method of analyzing the value of players. That is why Curry is undoubtedly the best point guard in the league. He surely is not the best defender, rebounder, or passer, and in some definitions may not even be the best scorer (if we go by scoring arsenal he is not, if we simply want to look at ppg combined with volume and efficiency, then he is. Neither is wrong, it’s simply about how you define best scorer), but what he does in terms of off ball movement, shooting off of the dribble and the catch, provides more value than perhaps any other player in the league and makes him probably the most feared player in the league on offense. All due respect to what James Harden is doing, in clearly a unanimous MVP season, but Curry beyond the arc still sends defenses scrambling like nothing else. Often times, Harden simply has the defense at his mercy and they have to live with it because by all means, they are playing the correct defense, forcing him into tough, contested 3’s. but he’s better at those than any player perhaps ever.

But to my point now, Kyrie being the second-best point guard in the league. Looking at the counting stats, nothing is particularly eye popping.  23.5 points, 6.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game to go with 1.7 steals, in 32.5 minutes per game. What really is setting Irving apart this season is his outstanding efficiency, combined with his usual diverse scoring attack, and his commitment to team ball. If we take players averaging a usage rate of at least 22% and 30 minutes per game, Kyrie is second in effective field goal percentage, with only Buddy Hield and Steph Curry ahead of him when it comes to other guards. Of those same players, he is fifth in overall net rating, Curry being the only point guard in front of him. He is third in assist/turnover ratio among guards, behind mike conley and chris paul, two of the better offensive conductors in the league and one among the all-time greats. This uber-high efficiency scoring and protection of the ball is where Kyrie derives most of his value. In the playoffs it could be argued that isolation scoring, the ability to score against locked in defenses one on one is the most valuable individual skill, and Kyrie is guaranteed to get an efficient look every time. He shoots 62% at the rim, and close to 50% from mid range (57% from 10-16 feet), and 41% from 3.

There is no bad shots with Kyrie, and his ability to create shots from all 3 areas of the court is unparallel at the guard position. So while it can be argued that efficiency is not the end all be all in terms of who the better player is, it does play a huge part especially when one of the players is among the most efficient in the league at his position from anywhere on the court. That type of play will win you games in the post season and in high pressure situations. His scoring ability gives the Celtics an opportunity to win games against any high level opponent (see the two most recent Toronto games, the sixers game on Christmas, against Washington [albeit not a good team but masterful shot making]). It is also worth nothing that Kyrie’s 37.9 clutch time net rating leads the league when accounting for players that have played a similar volume of clutch games and clutch minutes. That’s not a coincidence.

One of the most common critiques of Kyrie’s value has been how well the Celtics have performed when he isn’t in the lineup. Detractors point to their record without him last season (15-7, a winning percentage hardly distinguishable from their 40-20 record with him, to say nothing of strength of schedule in those time periods either) and their eventual run to the eastern conference finals and pushing the Cleveland cavaliers to game 7. But even though that success would seem to put a huge hit on the value of Kyrie, they must be analyzed further. In the Milwaukee series, the team needed 7 games to beat a frankly not all that good Milwaukee team. And let’s not pretend like the coaching matchup, Brad Stevens vs Joe Prunty, was not one of the more lopsided coaching mismatches in recent memory. Against the Sixers, nearly every game was close. Again, what gave Boston the edge was the fact they had Brad Stevens and a steady veteran presence in Horford, going against the inexperienced Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Even so, if a few possessions go a different way, Boston may have very well lost that series.

And none of this undermines the fact that if Boston wants to be a championship team, they need Kyrie. Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown faltered in game 7  of the conference finals, and only Tatum looked prepared for the moment. The Celtics, through superior coaching, effort, and depth would make the playoffs without Kyrie in the east. Perhaps they win a series or two depending on the matchups. The team has an insanely high floor. But Irving raises the ceiling astronomically. At their best, they are championship contenders with him.

Since November 26th, when the Celtics settled on a starting lineup, Kyrie has a net rating of 15.6, the highest on the team behind Aron Baynes, who has played nearly 550 less minutes than than Kyrie in that time period. When he plays, the Celtics boast an offensive rating of`119. When he sits, that number drops to 107. Looking at the numbers for all the other members of the Celtics, you can see that the teams offensive rating does not drop below 110 when any other member of the team is on the bench. Furthermore, the Celtics maintain a 5.0 net rating when any member of the team is on the bench (for example, when Marcus Smart is on the bench the Celtics have a 5.0 net rating) but when Irving is resting or out, the team has only a 0.8 net rating. Barely in the positive. Kyrie has been carrying the offense this season both as a scorer and facilitator, his mere presence on the court has lifted his team and teammates.

To further drive this point home, we can look at the numbers of his teammates with and without Kyrie.

Every member of the Boston team that plays major minutes with Kyrie sees their efg% rise next to him. Hayward and Tatum are particularly interesting cases. Without Kyrie they post a below average efg%. With Kyrie however, they are above the league average. Some people have posited that Tatum and Kyrie have too much of a skill overlap, however looking at this it is clear that Kyrie has a positive influence on Tatum’s scoring. In the case of Hayward we can see a player who attracts defensive attention such as Kyrie can aid Hayward, a player coming off of a major injury.

While Kyrie’s assist numbers are not anything to write home about (not that near 7 assists per game is bad), it, like everything else, has to be contextualized. No player on the Celtics is ever going to have eye-popping assist numbers because Stevens runs a system that places emphasis on quick passing, multiple ball handlers and player freedom and player strengths. This means that player such as Tatum and Morris and Brown have the freedom to attack mismatches in the post, as does Kyrie on the perimeter, and it means there will be possessions where Kyrie will not be the main ball handler, or even the secondary one, thus not in position to garner assists, but using his gravity off the ball to open up better opportunities for teammates. Looking at Kyrie’s assist per touch since November 26th, he actually would have a higher mark in that category than Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons, both of whom rank in the top 10 in assists per game.

Kyrie also is the league leader in secondary assists per game, meaning his passing has often been the kick starter for ball movement within the Celtics offense.  One of the more overlooked aspects of playmaking is if the player receiving the pass actually has the ability to make the shot. In the case of Kyrie, that is most certainly the case.

What this image shows is that on passes from Kyrie Irving that have the potential to turn into an assist, the Celtics are shooting 18% higher than they would on any other potential assist, the highest mark in the league. Kyrie is putting his teammates in position to score, and while he does not possess the passing ability or vision of a lebron james or chris paul, he learned to leverage his scoring into high quality looks for his teammates, making them into better, more effective players.

Defensively, I believe it is wholly unimportant to discuss that side of the ball in most cases when determining the value of a guard, especially when we begin talking about elite offensive talents. Not that defense isn’t important, it’s just that there are very few guards who make a game to game impact on that side of the ball (Marcus Smart, Jrue Holiday, etc.,) Kyrie’s defense has been better this season, and the Celtics only give up 103.5 points per 100 when he’s on the court. What is valuable for a guard or any player really, is to create turnovers without sacrificing defensive positioning. So far this season, Kyrie is in the top 10 for charges drawn among guards, and has 109 deflections, more than Kyle Lowry (an elite point guard defender) in a similar number of minutes. Kyrie has been a plus on that end, especially when necessary (every elite offensive player takes plays off defensively), but even if he hadn’t, we need to remember that offense and defense is not 1:1 in terms of importance. If it were, we’d be talking about Jrue Holiday as potentially the best PG in the league. Kyrie’s impact on the offensive end are more valuable than any defense brought by other high level point guards, it is an irrelevant talking point and only goes to serve the rudimentary type of analysis I’ve mentioned previously.

In conclusion, Kyrie’s near perfect scoring arsenal, from his finishing, isolation scoring, and 3 point shooting, his lifting of the teams ceiling, and ability to make his teammates better regardless of overall assist numbers have him playing at the highest level of his career, and has put him right next to the best players in the league in terms of value, but only behind Steph Curry in the conversation of who the best point guard in the league is.
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