Kyrie Irving Is Becoming ‘The Man’

Kyrie Irving’s latest clutch dagger for Team USA is just an addendum in what’s going to be a book of epic proportions when it’s all said and done. The 24-year-old is just scratching the surface.

Oh boy! That Kyrie Irving.

He’s too cool for school. Is there a modern-day baller who plays with more swagger?

No, not the kind of swagger that certain players apparently possess for sporting an outlandish haircut, spinning with dance moves or playing with a ton of anger.

The source of Irving’s swagger is his game itself.

Those wondrous handles. The stepback J. The soft touch around the rim. The tear-drop. The ability to breeze past defenders without breaking a sweat.

Irving’s game is an art form. It’s easy on the eye.

And he’s capable of such things:

Kyrie Irving: Universally beloved

Even the staunchest of LeBron James haters (is there a dearth of them?) aren’t hesitant to drop their jaws in awe of Irving every once in a while.

When Irving has the ball, it’s his show. It doesn’t matter who else is on the court. Even those rooting against the Cleveland Cavaliers can see beyond the jersey.

Irving has never been hailed a top-five player. And yet, he’s consistently top-five in annual jersey sales. Kids love his game. And it’s easy to see why.

When Warriors fans rehabbed from blowing a 3-1 Finals lead, a sinking feeling no other fan base has experienced, they used a bunch of adjectives to appreciate what Irving was doing to their team. It’s rather easy to be in awe of Irving.

James was rightfully voted as Finals MVP. But Irving made the shot that has etched its place in basketball folklore more so than any other clutch dagger in history.

This is no exaggeration. Just think about it: the teams were tied at 89-89 with 4:39 left in the fourth quarter of Game 7. Irving’s shot didn’t come until the final minute.

There was a period of 226 seconds when James missed three shots (a 22-foot jumper, a 13-foot shot and a layup), Stephen Curry missed two three-point shots, Klay Thompson missed a 15-foot jumper and Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala each missed a three.

With 1:50 left, Iguodala’s layup was denied by that epic James block. But then James missed another shot.

At that stage, it felt like the stars were afraid to seal the deal. The announcers were gasping with comments such as: “Does anybody want this? Who is going to ice this?”

And that’s when the legend of Kyrie Irving was born.

Irving, the go-getter, admittedly channeled his inner Mamba and let it rip.

After Cleveland’s blowout losses in Games 1 and 2, which saw Irving miss 24 out of 36 shots, several analysts were critical of the point guard for playing hero ball and not instigating ball movement.

But the fearless Irving continued to shoot the ball, not allowing the magnitude of the occasion curb his natural instincts. He facetimed Kobe Bryant, the greatest gunner ever, after Game 7 for a reason. Prime Bryant would go 2-for-18 from the field and still let it rip without a conscience.

Despite evoking his inner Mamba Mentality, Irving isn’t this generation’s Kobe. Irving is a generational talent but he’s not a two-way threat like Bryant, who made a record 12 All-Defensive Teams, the most by any guard in NBA history.

Irving impacts games as a scorer, not so much as a floor general or a defensive stopper. And that’s why analysts would hesitate to rank Irving among the uppermost echelon of players.

Kyrie Irving is a more efficient version of Allen Iverson. Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Kyrie Irving: A.I. Upgrade

This proclamation could draw the ire of A.I. faithful: Irving is an enhanced version of Allen Iverson.

While Iverson attempted 7,513 shots through his first five seasons (1996-2001), Irving has attempted 5,168 shots in his five years in Cleveland.

Irving averaged a career-high 18.1 field goal attempts in 2012-13, when he didn’t have James to defer to. Iverson was averaging 19.8 shots per game as a rookie and averaged 25.5 shots during his fifth season.

Irving has never been afforded the luxury of jacking up volume shots. So could you imagine his impact on a stat sheet when he is allowed to shoot 25 times a game?

Iverson wasn’t an efficient shooter or sound floor general. And that’s why analytics don’t show The Answer in great light. Irving, on the other hand, is a darling of advanced stats.

Despite his high usage rate (career: 28.3 percentage), Irving boasts of a true shooting percentage of 55 and trumps Iverson in nearly every metric including Win Shares, Player Efficiency Rating and Assist Percentage.

Both A.I. and K.I. love to the attack the rim. Last season, Irving scored more points driving to the basket than bigger and stronger forwards such as Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. Similarly, the feisty Iverson used to score most of his points in the post while also drawing contact.

Irving’s handles are just as sweet as Iverson’s. But Irving is a better shooter. One could argue that Iverson played with more hustle and intent. But Irving has just as many tools as a scorer.

While Iverson’s first step was explosive, too, this ESPN Sports Science video explains how Irving accelerates to the rim in just 1.5 seconds, 1/15ths of a second faster than the average point guard.

The comparison is a tad unfair since Iverson had to overcome stronger odds due to his size. Irving is three inches taller. However, he does everything that Iverson used to, only with advanced efficiency.

Kyrie Irving vs. Stephen Curry

Now, here is a brewing rivalry that got swept under the rug after the Finals.

While everyone was busy praising LeBron James, Irving thoroughly outplayed Curry during the Finals.

Even though Klay Thompson shared the responsibility of guarding the Cavs guard, Curry was guarded by Irving, and only Irving, through most of the seven games. Irving did a phenomenal job of guarding the two-time MVP while also attacking his counterpart on the other end.

Irving finished the finals with a better Offensive Rating than LeBron James, Curry and Thompson. He averaged 27.1 points and shot 40 percent from deep, stats that would have warranted Finals MVP honors in nearly any other Finals series in history.

Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving will endure many more battles. Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Granted, Curry was reportedly carrying a few injuries, but the Finals proved that Irving is the better overall scorer than Curry.

While Curry, a system player, gets most of his shots through off-the-ball screens and supreme ball movement, Irving is capable of dominating any and all guards in 1-on-1 matchups.

Again, just like the A.I. comparison, Curry has enjoyed more of a green light. Irving shot four fewer shots per game than Curry in the previous regular season. There’s no reason to doubt that Irving is capable of averaging 30 points per game when given the alpha male status.

Advanced stats still favor Curry because of his immaculate three-point shooting percentage. And rightfully so.

However, if Curry’s shot goes cold, he’s not himself, as evidenced in Game 7. If Irving’s shot goes cold, he can still get to the rim at will. And that’s why Irving is a more well-rounded scorer.

Curry, arguably the greatest shooter in history, is still a better playmaker than Irving, who hasn’t evolved into the floor general that he was expected to become.

Therefore, Curry remains the better overall player. However, it’s important to acknowledge that Irving is four years younger.

Irving could likely surpass the likes of Curry, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook as the best point guard in four years time. Why not? With LeBron James turning 32 this December, the Cavs offense is going to go where Irving takes them in the coming years. And James has enough faith in Irving.

It’s possible that Irving never gets immortalized like James. Even a statue of Curry’s step back J is mostly going to be erected outside Oracle Arena.

But Irving is becoming the clutch icon of this era. In the 1980s, you wanted Larry Bird to take the buzzer beaters. In the ’90s, it was Michael Jordan. Then came Kobe Bryant. Irving is on the clock.

It’s time to appreciate Kyrie Irving. A lot more.

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