Already an All-Star and Team USA starter with a Nike signature shoe in the works, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving was a recognizable figure on the global stage by 2014, but he transformed into an NBA champion and a borderline superstar after LeBron James returned to Cleveland. With the news of Irving’s trade request, there is some debate as to how much James had to do with that transformation.
Highly respected ESPN writer Tom Haberstroh tackled that premise with his customary deft, demonstrating with extensive advanced statistical proof that Irving, without James on the floor to guide him, remains more in the mindset of a Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas or (gulp!) Ben Gordon than the “Mamba mentality” of five-time champion Kobe Bryant that Kyrie himself believes he embodies.
Only Lillard took one exception to that comparison. To put it bluntly: He’s no loser like solo Irving.
Haberstroh demonstrated how Irving continues to prove himself an exceptional scorer in what amounts to a full season’s worth of statistics without LeBron on the floor with him over the past three seasons, but the Cavs have been outscored by 1.7 points per 48 minutes in that same span and own a 4-13 record in games Kyrie has started and LeBron hasn’t since the start of the 2014-15 season. With James and no Irving, they’ve been 25-11 and outscored opponents by a healthy 9.1 points per 48 minutes.
Add Irving’s 64-117 record in three seasons on the Cavaliers before James’ return, and it’s all fairly damning evidence of Kyrie’s engrossing offense and porous defense — traits that have been masked by playing alongside one of the game’s most unselfish offensive and versatile defensive weapons.
Meanwhile, Lillard — also a score-first point guard, two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year with a subpar defensive reputation — has led his team to a 216-180 record through five seasons in Portland. Lineups featuring Lillard have outscored opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions since 2012. He has missed just 14 games in his career, and the Trail Blazers carry a 5-9 record in those contests.
Lillard leaves out his rookie year, when the Blazers finished 33-49 (still better than Kyrie’s Cavs that season), and last year, when Portland went 41-41 after reaching the Western Conference semifinals in 2016, when he says, “Over .500 and in the playoffs every year,” but we get his point of contention.
We might also point out that Lillard’s 50-plus-win seasons in Years 2 and 3 of his career came playing alongside All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge and future max contract players Wes Matthews and Nic Batum. Meanwhile, Irving was rolling with the likes of Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters and Alonzo Gee.
In 2,640 minutes, or the equivalent of a full season, with Lillard on the floor and Aldridge off the court over their three years together in Portland, the Blazers were outscored by 2.2 points per 48 minutes. That’s not dissimilar to Kyrie’s lack of success sans LeBron, so Haberstroh’s argument is a valid one, too. Swap Irving for Lillard last season, and it’s not difficult to imagine the Blazers still finishing .500.
Come to think of it, let’s do this. Get the Cavs and Blazers on the phone and do this deal. That way we solve Irving’s trade request and the question of whether a Lillard comparison is disrespectful or not.
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