Will Kyrie Irving be better or worse without LeBron James?

Is Kyrie Irving a superstar?

It’s a silly question, the answer primarily dependent on subjective definitions and not entirely dependent on basketball. But the on-court aspect of it is one of the central matters underlying Irving’s request for a trade from Cleveland.

Irving apparently wants his own team. Or he wants a bigger share of a team, a share not engulfed by the shadow of LeBron James. Irving thinks he is ready to flourish as the guy, rather than as the sidekick to the guy, and it seems likely that, sooner or later, he will get his wish.

And when he does, he’ll get his chance to answer the pressing question: Is he actually ready? Has James been a help or a hindrance? Will Irving be better off without him?

Skepticism reigns. Doubters lead with Irving’s win-loss record sans James — not good — and Cleveland’s performance with Irving on the court and James on the bench — not promising. They follow with his lackluster defense. They conclude that he is in for a rude awakening.

But there are also reasons to believe Irving can blossom once freed from the Cavalier shackles and handed the keys to a franchise.

At the very least, those reasons make for a two-sided argument. And they make a compelling case that we should give Irving the chance to prove himself right. After all, that’s exactly what he wants.

Why Irving will be worse without LeBron

The simplest and most persuasive argument for why Irving will struggle without the world’s greatest player is that he has struggled without the world’s greatest player.

In three seasons since LeBron’s arrival, including both regular season and playoffs, Irving-led units, with LeBron on the bench, have been outscored by 2.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Wowy. That -2.1 net rating is much better than the -11.5 net rating the Cavs have compiled with both LeBron and Kyrie off the court, but it’s significantly worse than the 9.8 net rating with LeBron in the game and Kyrie sitting. And when Kyrie and LeBron share the floor, that number only jumps to 10.4.

(Yahoo Sports/Henry Bushnell)
(Yahoo Sports/Henry Bushnell)

The main reason for the disparities: defense. To illustrate the point, we can specify the on-/off-court comparisons, as CBS Sports’ Matt More did on Twitter. Over the past three seasons, the Cavs are plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions when James, Irving and Tristan Thompson are in the game. When Irving sits, but James and Thompson play, Cleveland is plus-8.3. But the way they achieve those similar marks is very different. The threesome that includes Irving scores a whopping 117.2 points per 100 possessions; that rate falls to 111.0 per 100 without Irving. But the with-Irving groups allow opponents to score 107.1 points per 100 trips, while the without-Irving groups are more stingy at 102.7 per 100 possessions.

Irving just isn’t a good on-ball defender, nor is his off-ball ability anything to write home about. His effort oscillates between uninterested and energy-conserving, and his alertness is unreliable. He’s been a minus defender in each of his six NBA seasons, his defensive box plus-minus ranging from -0.9 (2013-14) to -2.3 (2016-17).

Irving isn’t quite Isaiah Thomas-level poor on the defensive end. He’s big enough and athletic enough to be decent when he wants to be. But because of the lack of effort, he’s porous enough that the Cavs sunk to 22nd in defensive efficiency in 2016-17, behind defensive juggernauts such as the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards. Irving is terrible fighting over screens and guarding the pick-and-roll, and not much better in one-on-one situations. His weakness at the point of attack was the foremost reason for the Cavs’ shortcomings.

And there is little to no reason to believe he will improve in this department. There might even be more reason to believe he’ll become worse, with increased offensive responsibility creating greater incentive to take plays off. Even if his lack of effort can be rectified, it might not behoove Irving to play with maximum intensity possession after possession, making him more of a liability.

The increased responsibility could prove damaging on the offensive end too. Irving wants the ball in his hands more; but with more touches comes more attention. Most signs point to Irving succeeding as the focal point of an offense, and being unperturbed by that heightened attention. But LeBron has blessed Irving with more space and less scrutiny. Without either of those advantages, is there a chance he would falter?

The final point is the most rudimentary: In terms of wins and losses, Irving has failed as the guy. His first three Cleveland teams were 78-152 before LeBron’s arrival. He’s just 4-13 in games without LeBron since. How could a player with such a poor record as a No. 1 option expect to have success once he truly becomes the top dog?

Why Irving will be better without LeBron

Judging Irving based on the first three years of his career at the head of a franchise in flux is foolish. Let’s get that out of the way to begin, to refute that last point above. Who cares what 20-year-old Kyrie did with Dion Waiters and Anderson Varajao as his second and third options? That’s borderline irrelevant.

And the 4-13 mark in games that LeBron sat out? That’s a very small sample size. Furthermore, it came against 17 teams that were a combined 140 games over .500. Fourteen of the 17 were .500 or better. Is it really that surprising that a team built entirely around the league’s best player would be a below-average NBA team without that player? It shouldn’t be.

In fact, it is generally difficult to pin down Irving’s influence because of the scope of LeBron’s greatness. Those on-/off-court comparisons above are somewhat alarming, but there are alternative interpretations. One of them: Sure, the Cavs were bad when LeBron sat and Irving played (-2.1 per 100), but they were also much worse when both Irving and LeBron sat (-11.5 per 100). Irving, on a team sans-LeBron, made a very significant difference of 9.4 points per 100 possessions. The rest of the numbers, therefore, are much more about how freakishly influential James is than how overrated or underrated Irving is.

(Yahoo Sports/Henry Bushnell)
(Yahoo Sports/Henry Bushnell)

Plus, everything in Cleveland over the past three years has revolved around James, from the construction of the roster to the flow of the offense. That has not only made sans-James units ill-equipped to succeed; it has perhaps stunted Irving’s development as the lead playmaker he was destined to be.

That idea presents us with the case for Kyrie improving once he gets out from under LeBron’s enormous wing. Irving has played his offensive role extremely well in Cleveland. But he hasn’t been the complete playmaker he’ll have to be as the guy elsewhere because he hasn’t had to be. He hasn’t been asked to be. He has shared scoring duties with LeBron. He has ceded the majority of playmaking duties, and all leadership duty.

Irving has been good off the ball. He hit 80 of his 166 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts in 2016-17, the third best percentage (48.2) in the NBA among players with at least 50 such attempts. But he’s still most valuable as the ball handler initiating the offense, and it’s not all that close. He was the only player in the NBA who isolated on more than 10 percent of possessions (Irving’s iso frequency: 21.4 percent) to also score more than 1.10 points per possession on those plays (Irving scored 1.12). He wasn’t as effective in the pick-and-roll, but also didn’t have as many opportunities in Cleveland’s offense; perhaps he’ll improve with more reps.

Detractors will note Irving’s relatively pedestrian passing ability, and construe it as a sign that he’s not ready to lead a high-powered offense. It’s a fair criticism; Irving is often so hell-bent on scoring that getting others involved becomes an afterthought. But how much of that can be attributed to Irving’s mindset, and how much of it can be situationally attributed? LeBron was Cleveland’s playmaker. Irving was the supplementary scorer. Irving had the ball in his hands plenty; he took plenty of shots; but that doesn’t equate to a grasp on the role of undisputed, do-it-all point guard.

That’s the role Irving wants, and it’s one he hasn’t really had since he was 21 years old. Thousands of people don’t think he’s suited for it. They don’t think he can win on his own. They don’t think he can develop into a first-team All-NBA-er. They don’t think he’s a superstar.

In a way, though, that’s exactly why Irving feels the need to escape Cleveland. Those thousands of people might be correct. They also might be incorrect. Because Irving hasn’t been the guy, he’s never had the opportunity to prove either faction right or wrong.

So is Irving a superstar? We don’t know. But we might be about to find out. And that’s all Irving is asking for.

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