The NBA is a point guard driven league. Think about the best teams – Cleveland, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Toronto, San Antonio, the Clippers, etc. – all of them have star point guards. Moreover, all of these point guards can pass as well as score. This is one of the key differentiating factors in today’s NBA versus that of the mid-2000s. Sure, certain teams had guards like prime Tony Parker and prime Steve Nash, but many elite teams also trotted out the Derek Fishers, Rajon Rondos, and post-prime Gary Paytons.
Consequently, today’s NBA needs different tiers for the on-court quarterback. For the past two seasons the top-tier has been clear: Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul. Sure, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, and Mike Conely are great talents – some of which who would contend for the aforementioned elite tier in the mid-2000s – but frankly, they did not do all of the things well as the top-tier nor as well as Curry, Westbrook, and Paul did them.
Now, however, we must start considering Kyrie Irving part of that elite bracket of point guards. For the longest time, Irving was considered a scoring specialist, someone who could get points at will, but could not defend or pass well enough to be elite. And for most of this season, to the frustration of Cavs fans, this remained the case. Yet, that changed in the playoffs, as Kyrie delivered one of the statistically greatest two-month performances of all-time.
In order to understand how the analytics view Kyrie Irving’s playoff performance it is important to lay out basic metrics. Consequently, we will only examine those players who played a minimum of ten games during the postseason. This way, players who have had a historic series but were defeated – while valuable – are not taken into consideration due to limits on sample size. Secondly, we want players have averaged a usage percentage – or a number that represents the percentage of plays called for a player while he is on the floor – over twenty percent, or that averaged by what the league terms “stars.” Therefore, role players will not be taken into this conversation.
Theoretically, we could stop with limits to the study here, but I want to add two more limitations, both of which have to do with efficiency. The first is players must average a true shooting percentage of 53.4%, or a league average percentage. Essentially, true shooting percentage weights shots due to their in-game value. I.E., a three-point shot is worth more points than a two-point shot, and consequently true shooting percentage weights its value differently. Thus, this analysis will not consider players who are inefficient shooters. Furthermore, the last limitation is that players must have a turnover percentage – or the percentage of plays where a player turns the ball over – under ten percent, or league average. These two metrics will ensure that we are also measuring efficiency in the analysis. Consequently, we are looking at the historically best, most efficient, and most successful postseasons.
Thus, let’s examine the first advanced stat: win shares. Win shares is a metric developed by sabermetric pioneer, Bill James, that uses box score data and regression analysis to examine how many wins a player contributed to his team. Kyrie Irving’s 2015-16 playoff performance ranks twelfth all-time in regards to win shares. But, let’s compare this number solely with other point guards:
Figure 1 Data Via Basketball-Reference
What this chart shows is, in terms of win shares, Kyrie Irving had the greatest postseason of any point guard in NBA history. Now, there is one major criticism of win shares, which argues that because – by definition – “negative win shares” do not exist, the metric places extra value on offense rather than defense. This is a fair criticism, consequently, let’s look at Box Plus-Minus, or a regression analysis that evaluates players based on what they contribute to both offensive and defensive box scores. Here, Kyrie Irving ranks as having the thirty-third best postseason of all-time. As done previously, however, let’s compare the rankings solely with other point guards.
Figure 2 Data Via Basketball-Reference
Again we see that Kyrie Irving has delivered a top-five playoff performance amongst point guards. Notably, though, we also see that the improvement is negligible since the 2015 NBA playoffs. More than anything, this shows that the former Duke guard has been able to replicate excellent performances over a two-year stretch. Yet, the issue with the past two stats is that they do not show how Irving compares against the average player. I.E., are Kyrie’s performances reflective of LeBron? Thus, we will like into the statistic Value Over Replacement Player, or VORP. This statistic runs multiple regression analysis to see the difference between “player A” and your league average player. Here, Irving ranks as having the sixteenth greatest postseason of all-time. Let’s now compare Kyrie using this stat to other point guards:
Figure 3 Data Via Basketball-Reference
Thus, we see that Kyrie Irving’s 2016 playoff performance ranks in the top-five postseason VORP scores for point guards of all-time. In common terms, Kyrie Irving’s superb postseason occurred independently from having LeBron as his teammate. Further, unlike in box plus-minus, Irving made noticeable improvements to his already great VORP score from one year ago.
Consequently, three of the biggest advanced statistics to analyze basketball players – all of which run intense regression analysis to create fair, analytical scores – rank Kyrie’s 2016 playoffs as a top-five greatest performance of all-time. Keep in mind, Irving played twenty-one games in the 2016 postseason, or over 25% of an NBA regular season, which is absolutely enough games to fairly analyze his performance. Thus, when the former Duke guard’s 2016 postseason ranks as one of the five greatest performances for every point guard in NBA history, it is clear that he belongs in the elite group of basketball quarterbacks in today’s association. And if the critics still believe Irving to be a one-trick pony, well, just watch these videos:
Or you could just watch Kyrie’s series-winning shot in the 2016 NBA Finals.
EDIT: A change was made regarding the graphs. The original post had Jeff Hornacek listed on the chart due to his percentage of time during the 1996 playoffs as a point guard. Nonetheless, that is incorrect, and the charts have been updated to change that mistake.