With LeBron James resting Wednesday, Kyrie Irving took center stage, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers in scoring and making a game-saving steal to ice a 99-98 win over the Dallas Mavericks. (The NBA acknowledged Thursday that Irving should have been called for a foul on the play leading up to the steal, as Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle suggested, but that doesn't actually change anything except for perhaps the shade of red Mark Cuban's face turns when thinking about the play.)
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After the game, though, the big story wasn't Irving's defensive stand or game-high 33 points. It was the significantly smaller number he logged in the column that starts with an "a." From Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:
After the game, a few players were puzzled to how their point guard managed to register just one measly assist while playing 39 minutes. They were frustrated, but the win and Irving's huge defensive play lessened the anger.
The notion within the locker room is that the situation is tolerable, because it isn't permanent. If the Cavaliers were dealt the misfortune of playing without James for an extended period of time, this locker room would be boiling over.
Players are growing tired of Irving's inability to not only register a proper amount of assists at the lead guard position, but also to just move the ball.
Did Irving pass more than once? Of course, but only when he was forced to do so. At one point in the second quarter, he dribbled relentlessly for 24 seconds and went nowhere. Dallas' Chandler Parsons stayed in front of him and let him do all that fancy dribbling in one spot. Irving ended up settling for a tough mid-range jumper that clanked off the rim.
His teammates were in disbelief.
Irving's play also caught the attention of Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
[Cavaliers coach] Tyronn Lue singled out [Kevin] Love and Irving prior to the game. It was on them to figure out how to win a game against a playoff contender without their best player. The results weren’t always pretty. They blew a pair of 20-point leads and without James to take the ball away, Irving dribbled and dribbled and dribbled and dribbled around the court. When he was used as an inbounder in the first half, it occurred to me that’s the only way to ensure Irving makes a pass. If there is a way to dribble the ball inbounds off an out-of-bounds play, Irving will be the one to find it. [...]
“I was just doing whatever it took to win,” Irving said. “A couple shots, a couple iso plays that I normally make, they were forcing me to take long jump shots, which I happily obliged because most of the time I feel confident in making those.”
This isn't the first time that Irving's tendency to look for his own shot has caused some agita inside the Cavaliers locker room.
When Cleveland got off to a rocky start early last season, James lamented the "bad habits" that had been built during the Cavs' years of losing following his departure to the Miami Heat: "When we get to that point where every possession matters, no possessions off, we have to move the ball, share the ball, be unselfish, we’ll be a better team." The next night, after Irving racked up 34 points without an assist in a loss to the Utah Jazz, the two reportedly exchanged words "about the direction of the Cavs' offense."
“I just wanted him to understand that he could mean so much more to our team by also being a playmaker for the guys that can’t play-make for themselves at times,” James told Lloyd earlier this year. “Obviously, he’s able to go through two and three guys every single possession if he wants … My game earlier in the season last year was all predicated on figuring out how to get these guys, and mostly Kyrie, to understand how important it is getting other guys involved.”
James and Irving would later downplay their disagreement, and would eventually learn to coexist as the top guns on a team that finished the season ranked fourth in the NBA in points scored per possession and won the Eastern Conference. Cleveland ranks fourth again this season, and holds a two-game advantage over the Toronto Raptors for the top spot in the East.
From a statistical perspective, the notion that Irving's an inveterate ball hog seems to be something of a mixed bag.
As ProBasketballTalk's Dan Feldman notes, Irving ranks near the bottom of the pack among starting point guards in mutliple ball-distribution metrics, including assists per game, with Kyrie averaging a career-low 4.5 helpers per contest. However, Irving also leads the Cavs in secondary or "hockey" assists — the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the bucket — and averages 8.6 "potential assists" (passes that would go down as an assist if his teammate would make the shot) per game. That's right in line with C.J. McCollum and Dwyane Wade, two other score-first guards who share the floor with another ball-dominating lead distributor.
Irving has spent more than 71 percent of his minutes this season sharing the floor with James, who typically operates as the Cavs' lead ball-handler and playmaker, averaging more touches per game than Irving does. Even so, Irving has averaged the same number of passes per game as LeBron, with teammates shooting a higher overall percentage this season off Irving's feeds than James'. Plus, as FOX Sports' Michael Pina points out, the share of Cavaliers buckets on which Irving assists nearly doubles when James sits, with Kyrie dropping dimes on nearly 38 percent of Cleveland's baskets, which would be the NBA's seventh-best mark over the course of the full season.
That said, Kyrie's average time of possession is higher than LeBron's, and his average touches last longer, feature more dribbling and produce fewer points than James', providing some support for the claim that, on balance, Kyrie's offensive stewardship might be a "more is less" scenario. Even so, Irving's "less" is still a hell of a lot more than what most other players can muster. His devastating handle, lightning-quick first step and shot-making ability make him one of the game's premier one-on-one players; among high-volume isolators, only Chris Bosh, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard score more effectively on iso possessions than Kyrie, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data. With no LeBron around, you could argue that a Kyrie iso ranks among the best plays the Cavs can run.
During the Mavs game in question, Irving made a Cavs-high 62 passes against the Mavs, 18 more than backcourt buddy Matthew Dellavedova. But as Lloyd of the Beacon Journal noted, "most of Irving’s passes [...] were early offense passes [that] often resulted in Irving getting the ball back," and he also led the team with 104 touches, 32 more than fellow star Kevin Love. Then again, SportVU credited Irving with eight potential assist passes in Wednesday's game, meaning his line might've looked much more balanced had his teammates knocked down a few more shots.
The glass-half-empty take, though, would suggest that with so much of the offense running through his hands, Irving could've easily worked his way toward an even higher potential total; for example, Dellavedova had four more in 15 fewer minutes. But even that must be considered in context, because as Scott Sargent wrote at Waiting for Next Year, Lue chose to pair Irving and Dellavedova for 13 minutes, allowing Kyrie to work off the ball so he could more freely attack the basket. It worked: Cleveland outscored Dallas by nine points during those minutes.
“I told Ky I need him to be aggressive,” Lue said, according to Lloyd. “I need him to score and his aggressiveness will open his passing.”
That might be the most interesting dynamic here. If multiple Cavaliers believe Irving's being too selfish with the ball — even if the numbers don't totally bear that out, and even if Lue literally told him to be — to the degree that they're anonymously grumbling about it, even after a win, then maybe the chemistry issue that Chris Mannix of The Vertical wrote about a week and a half ago extends beyond just Irving and James.
James recently discussed the value that he believes internal tension can have for the growth of individual players and a team dynamic, and Haynes' report that "within the locker room [...] the situation is tolerable" seems to bode well for the Cavs' capacity to resolve any conflict and keep pushing ahead. But with Cleveland still struggling to lock into a consistent groove, alternating stellar outings against top-flight teams with underwhelming losses to shorthanded opponents, every bit of uncertainty and potential dissension could have a major impact on the Cavs' efforts to hold off the hard-charging Raptors in the race for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
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