Kyrie Irving is one hell of a basketball player, that much has never been debated, but there seems to be something about him that causes basketball teams to struggle. Granted Irving was a member of the title winning Cleveland Cavaliers side in 2016, however he wasn’t the primary ball handler on that team. LeBron James was.
It’s an issue that can be traced back through Irving’s career, to an extent, whenever he has been the primary option on a team he has excelled and looked like a phenomenal basketball player, putting in some of the best performances we have seen in the last decade. However, when he is in that role, his teams seem to lose far more basketball games than we expect. Especially looking at Boston and Brookyln as examples, both had exceptional seasons that surpassed all expectations the year before he arrived and both teams then under performed with him on the roster.
When he was selected first overall in the 2011 NBA draft, following Cleveland’s disastrous first season without LeBron James, there was a lot of buzz around the Cavs, many were interested to see where the talented young guard would take that team. It’s safe to say that Irving impressed in his early years, becoming the only unanimous selection to the All-Rookie First Team as well as winning Rookie of the Year. By his second season he was selected to his first All Star team, finishing the season averaging over 22 points per game and almost six assists.
Meanwhile the Cavs were still struggling and would fail to make the playoffs in any of Irving’s first three years with the team. It all changed when LeBron James returned to town, determined to win a ring in his home city.
Irving would go on to play some of the best statistical basketball of his career in this three year stretch with James. Recording career highs in games played, minutes per game, three point percentage, steals per game, free throw percentage and points per game. However after three years Irving felt he was ready to lead his own team, with many critics curious to see how this would play out following his formative years in Cleveland.
The former number one pick was traded to the conference rival Boston Celtics, replacing Isaiah Thomas as their starting point guard and joining an incredible young core. Unfortunately Irving would be plagued by injury during his first year in Boston, missing 22 games througout the course of the season as well as the entire stretch and playoff run, in which Boston played some of their best basketball. Coming out of the season after a fantastic playoff run pushed by their young core, notably Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum, many experts were tipping the Celtics to regin atop the East for years to come.
Alas, it was not to be.
Upon his return for the 2018/19 season Irving made it very clear that he was the leader of that Boston team and he would hold players responsible if he felt they weren’t performing. Throughout the season tensions grew incredibly high, with Irving clashing with younger players via the media frequently and Boston’s season very quickly turned sour, finishing the year with a record of 44-33, six less wins than they had achieved the year before without both Irving and Hayward for large chunks of the season.
Following their dismal under performance and meek exit in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Irving decided that it was time for him to move on and start a new chapter of his career in Brooklyn with the Nets, a team that had massively overachieved in the previous season and seemed to be building a very bright future. The additions of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were expected to vault them up to the top of the conference, even without Durant suiting up this season.
Irving was replaced in Boston by Kemba Walker who himself is a top tier point guard, though many would argue that he was very slight downgrade from Irving.
The Nets started the season poorly, amassing a 4-7 record through the first 11 games of the season before Kyrie Irving would once again go down with an injury (he has only played over 70 games in a season three times in his eight year career), meanwhile Boston were 10-1, with Kemba Walker flourishing in his new jersey.
Not only is Walker filling in for Irving and putting up numbers that are just as good, but the Celtics’ young players have found their groove again, with Tatum and Brown both having standout years. Gordon Hayward had seemed to be looking more like his old self before going down with injury and despite being a team that many picked to struggle in the east this year, the Celtics are having an impressive season without Irving.
Meanwhile following Irving’s injury, Spencer Dinwiddie once again resumed control of the Nets offence and has since led on a 9-3 run, almost returning to the form that helped them make the playoffs last season. It looks like the Nets are a better team without Irving, as are the Celtics and while the Cavs struggled throughout the season Irving was traded, they only finished the year with one less win and still made The Finals.
It seems as though every time Irving has been on, does better once he leaves or goes down injured, despite the fact that he is one of the best point guards in the NBA. It seems as though coaches struggle to find a system that suits Irving and the rest of the players as their disposal, but it is a worrying sign for Brooklyn that they are performing better without Irving than they were with him.
To top it all off there have once more been reports and rumours of friction in the locker room between Irving and his teammates – though they have been quick to shoot this down.
Overall it’s incredibly hard to figure out exactly why teams seem to thrive so much without Irving. He brings scoring and playmaking to a team, he spaces the floor with an ability to score from deep and drive to the rim. The key issue seems to be his ability to lead a squad and act as the primary facilitator. With James in control of the Cavs and Irving taking control while he was off the floor, the team flourished. Irving had a far lesser role in leading the team as players looked to LeBron. However since leaving it has become clear that Irving doesn’t quite posses that ability… yet.
It will be interesting to see how the remainder of this season unfolds in Brooklyn, once Irving returns from injury. Perhaps their new found form matching up with Irving missing time is simply a coincidence… we shall see.