Why Kyrie Irving’s defense is holding him back

Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

After the All-Star Game Sunday night, in which he won the MVP award with 31 points and 14 assists, Kyrie Irving received a lot of praise. The entire league was buzzing about how Kyrie had dazzled, both with his passing early and his shooting in a late-game comeback by the East, throughout the game. However, one comment in particular struck me as both surprising and inaccurate. After the game, LeBron James was asked about his thoughts on Kyrie, and what he said was somewhat surprising (Bolding added for emphasis):

“Kyrie is special,” James said. “His ability to shoot the ball, get into the lane, make shots around the rim, he has a total package. And I’ve always known that.”

Now, I know what LeBron meant here. Strictly offensively speaking, Kyrie has a nicely well-rounded set of tools. He can hurt you in many, many ways offensively, and that’s the total package to which LeBron is probably referring. However, to have the actual “total package” in the NBA, there’s something Kyrie’s lacking.LeBron, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul are all stars because they can get points at any time they want, yes. But there’s more to their games than just offensive flashiness. Defensively, the highest echelon of NBA players all excel. LeBron and Durant are both good defensive players. Paul George is a defensive stud, Kevin Love has shortcomings but is a handful in the post, and Blake Griffin is quietly becoming a very useful defensive player. Paul is either the first or second-best point guard in the NBA, and Russell Westbrook has long been praised for his abilities as a two-way player.

Irving, on the other hand, has been a sieve on defense throughout his career so far. He has shown no interest in developing on that side of the ball, and his shortcomings often can hurt the Cavs as much as his offense helps. There are positives to Kyrie’s defensive game, sure; he has spots where he looks like he has potential to excel in. It also is well-documented that it often takes a few years for a player to fully get acclimated to the nuances of today’s sophisticated NBA defenses (1). However, if Kyrie wants to make the leap from dazzling player to legitimate NBA superstar, it’s in this area that he needs to focus his time.

Defense is difficult to quantify by the numbers, of course. However, the stats we do have available don’t paint a great picture for Kyrie. The Cavaliers give up 107.8 points/100 possessions when Kyrie is on the floor this season, and 99.1 points/100 possessions when he is sitting, per NBA.com (2). The Cavs are also much better at limiting perimeter shots with Irving off the floor, giving up 33.2 percent when Irving is on the bench as opposed to 37.8 percent when he is playing. In individual efficiency, Irving is rated as the 291st best defensive player by Synergy, firmly placing him in the “below-average” category of NBA players. Opponents are scoring 0.92 points per possession on Irving, and that’s a problem, especially with the number of highly talented offensive point guards currently in the league. Comparatively, here are the numbers for some of the other elite point guards this season:

Player

Synergy D-Ranking

Team D-Rtg On-court

Team D-Rtg Off-court

Net D-Rtg

Opp. 3PT% On-court

Opp. 3PT% Off-court

Net 3PT%

Chris Paul

34

101.0

103.3

+2.3

34.1%

31.6%

-2.5

Russell Westbrook

80

100.7

98.6

-2.1

35.5%

33.4%

-2.1%

Stephen Curry

94

100.1

97.5

-2.6

37%

30.9%

-6.1%

John Wall

122

101.7

104.4

+2.7

35.2%

35.4%

+0.2%

Kyrie Irving

291

107.8

99.1

-8.7

37.8%

33.2%

-5.6%

Kyrie’s numbers here are the worst of every player here by a wide margin. Since these are some of the players he should be getting compared to based on his offensive ability, the defensive numbers are concerning.

We knock Kyrie’s pick-and-roll defense all the time, but the numbers are actually pretty forgiving towards Kyrie. He’s giving up 0.77 points per possession on this play this season, which is 90th in the league: Not great, but certainly not awful. The eye test, however, is not kind. Kyrie’s major problem is that he attacks every screen the same exact way. First, Irving is a split second late in reading his opponent’s movements, leading him to struggle with guards taking him off the dribble already. Kyrie’s biggest flaw in the PNR, however, is that he defends every PNR the same way. If you attempt to set a pick on Kyrie, he will try to fight under it. Below are three examples from random points during the season:

The first is from a January 22nd game against the Bulls. Kyrie tries to fight under a Taj Gibson screen, and after Augustin immediately turns the corner, as you can see, Kyrie is left trailing Augustin at a horrible angle. Augustin hit a layup on this play.

The second is from a November loss to the Pelicans. Kyrie’s decision to undercut the double Anthony Davis/Ryan Anderson screen here is a good one, as he has enough space to undercut the screens and chase Jrue Holiday, get in position, and contest the shot, which he did, and Holiday missed.


On the third, from last week’s Kings game, Kyrie tries to undercut a Boogie Cousins screen, gets tripped up because DMC is a large human being, and gives up an easy Isaiah Thomas jumper. All three scenarios are from completely different points of the season; all three are different types of PNR; and Kyrie attempts to undercut all three of them. This is the trend if you watch Kyrie defend this play this season.

The major problem with the philosophy to have Kyrie go under every pick is that, as illustrated above, it doesn’t fit with every PNR he’s going to face. In the Pelicans one, it’s the perfect decision, because Holiday left a lot of space between him and the screeners, allowing Kyrie to chase without much resistance. In the Bulls one, it’s a much tighter screen, and it might have made more sense to try to go over the screen or switch and let Tristan Thompson defend Augustin’s roll into the paint, because Augustin isn’t much of a mid-range shooter. Going under the DMC screen is impermissible. Thomas and Cousins run that screen so tightly that even if Kyrie was in position to guard Thomas’s drive (he wasn’t), Kyrie never had a chance of staying on top of Thomas through that screen. The appropriate defense of this might have been to have Tristan Thompson, who’s sagging to prevent a roll by Cousins, to hedge Thomas while Kyrie fights over the Cousins screen to prevent a roll. Kyrie instead defended each situation in the same manner, which just isn’t practical. I believe this is what’s leading to his struggles in the pick and roll more than anything.

However, this isn’t the worst area of Kyrie’s defensive game. Kyrie is currently the 218th-rated spot-up defender in the league, giving up 1.04 points per possession, per Synergy. That’s really not good. It also points to Kyrie’s larger struggles, in that his off-ball defense is horrid. Kyrie doesn’t do a good job of keeping an eye on both the ball and his man when playing weak side defense, and often loses his guy when the ball is swung around the perimeter. He watches the ball almost exclusively, and doesn’t have great positioning, often straying too far into the middle to adequately close out on a perimeter shooter. This example from last week’s game against Detroit is a good one for this. Kyrie is looking almost exclusively at where the ball is, and has drifted about 5-7 feet off Brandon Jennings.

As Kyrie watches a well-defended post-up happen on the other side of the floor, he’s about to get duped by Jennings and Greg Monroe. Jennings drifts to the corner as Monroe comes to screen Kyrie, who hasn’t looked back at Jennings once in the four seconds since Jennings passed the ball.

Once Jennings is in position, Josh Smith whips a pass to Jennings, and Irving has to scramble.

This is the perfect encapsulation of Kyrie’s off-ball defense. He’s lingering too far off a guy he knows will shoot it, watching the ball on the other side of the court, and getting trapped in a screen and not being able to get to his man in time. Everything about this play is bad off-ball defense, and Irving does all of this routinely.

Granted, there are areas where Irving does excel defensively. He’s decent at navigating dribble-hand-offs, and if he’s actually in position, he forces turnovers at a high rate in pick-and-rolls and post-ups. However, by far he defends the pick and roll and spot-ups the most, and he’s just not good enough at recognizing the situation and putting himself in a position to defend these plays well. A lot of that will come with time, as some of this is just acclimatizing to the nuances of NBA defense, which can take years to get down. The effort is also consistently there as of late, which we hadn’t seen for much of the early part of the season. Things are improving for Kyrie defensively, but the next step is nailing down positioning and improving his on-court awareness.

Kyrie is a great offensive player and a lot of that stems from his ability see the whole floor. There are several players who could be considered elite, like James Harden, who excel offensively without playing good defense. However, for him to take that next leap to being a great all-around player, he needs to work on his abilities on defense, and become more proficient at recognizing the opponent’s game plans offensively. As shown in the chart above, even Steph Curry has become a solid defender this season, and he was the poster child for offensive elites who were defensive matadors just two years ago. If Irving can become better at that, even enough to become a passable defensive player, that’s when he will likely make the leap from All-Star to playoff-franchise cornerstone.

(1) Granted, part of this is because Byron Scott taught him nothing about how to defend at the NBA level. Mike Brown’s system will take time to learn, as well.

(2) That’s an 8.7 point swing, enough to go from playing at a rate that is comparably worse than the Jazz’s last-place 107.3 team defensive rating to playing at the third-best defensive rating in the league.

Topics: Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving

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