It’s a well-known fact that Kyrie Irving has benefited from playing with LeBron James, but what isn’t stated enough is that it’s a mutually advantageous dynamic.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have reached the NBA Finals in three consecutive seasons, including the championship campaign of 2016. The driving force behind that success has been the unrivaled brilliance of four-time league MVP LeBron James.
The player who has rounded the Cavaliers into championship form, however, has been starting point guard and go-to clutch scorer Kyrie Irving.
Throughout James’ career, he’s been able to take any level of talent to the finish line. He elevates the quality of every team he plays for, and has proven capable of achieving 50 and 60-win seasons with even the most limited of rosters.
The one role in which James has experienced trouble with, however, has been as a closer.
James is far more clutch than anyone gives him credit for, primarily as a playmaker and defensive Swiss Army Knife. When he’s asked to carry his team through 45 minutes of action in a playoff game, however, the signs of fatigue inevitably surface.
Few, if any in NBA history have elevated their teams in the way that James has been able to, but going on 33 years of age, it’s only a matter of time before his style of play fully catches up to him.
The fact that James has never missed any substantial period of time is both a blessing and a curse. Despite the false narrative that he’s constantly resting, James is something of an NBA iron man.
James has missed more than eight games in a single season just once in his career. He boasts a career average of 38.9 minutes played per game. That number jumps to 42.1 minutes played per game in the playoffs.
Between the regular season and the postseason, James has appeared in 1,278 games and played 50,339 minutes.
James may still be the best player in the world, but it’s beginning to catch up to him—and that’s why he needs Irving.
If LeBron James continues to be the ball-dominant creator of everything in Cleveland, then he’ll need Kyrie Irving by his side. With more than 50,000 minutes of wear and tear on his body, James has reached a point in his career where he has two options.
Either James can take a step back and preserve energy for clutch situations, or he can continue to be the ball-dominant force who needs a closer for when he runs out of gas.
This isn’t an attempt to suggest that James can’t close, but instead an acknowledgement of the fact that he shouldn’t if this is his approach. Dead legs have been an issue throughout his 30s, and that’s of no fault of his own.
The 2015 NBA Finals are the extreme example of this, as James dominated the first three quarters of games, but simply had nothing left by the end of the fourth quarter.
It’s why his dominant driving turned into settling for midrange jump shots—and why Irving has been encouraged to embrace his clutch gene.
In order to avoid the same results occurring in the future, James needs to have a teammate who’s built for the biggest of moments. Say what you will about the rest of his game, but Irving has proven without a shadow of a doubt that he wants the ball in those situations.
James may want it, too, but it’s quite clear that he knows how clutch Irving is.
It’s why the best player in the world watched his teammate go ISO for the biggest shot in franchise history.
It may be easy to get caught up in the narratives, but Irving’s isn’t some quality role player whom James has elevated to new heights. He’s a four-time All-Star who plays up to the level of his competition and elevates his game come the playoffs.
Whether or not Irving can win on his own, there’s one undeniable truth: He helps James win.
In 2016-17, Irving became the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 25.0 points on a slash line of .470/.400/.900 or better. The other players on that list are Larry Bird, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki.
Over the Cavaliers’ past two postseason appearances, Irving has appeared in 39 games and averaged 25.5 points per game on a slash line of .472/.406/.890.
Over the course of Cleveland’s past two NBA Finals appearances, Irving has averaged 28.1 points per game on a slash line of .469/.412/.925—and he’s done so against two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry.
Those may not be advanced metrics, but sometimes, the most basic of numbers can display a player’s value.
The question is: Will LeBron James and Kyrie Irving find a common ground? Or will the dynamic duo split up before it finds its perfect balance?
The Cleveland Cavaliers should be hoping for the former. Every ball-dominant creator needs their closer.
James is no different.