It’s time to rethink how we view Kyrie Irving in the context of his NBA peers.
Irving is, without question, one of the 10 most talented players in the league. He is a champion. But the Brooklyn Nets’ guard is not a superstar or a franchise player. In fact, he never was. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time when LeBron James returned to Cleveland, where they teamed up for an NBA title in 2016.
Instead, Irving was always destined to be more Stephon Marbury than Stephen Curry.
Superstar players elevate their teams to new heights. They turn average teams into good teams and good teams into great teams. Irving operates in this peripheral space where his abilities and statistics parallel the game’s best players, but his impact on his team’s record is oddly irrelevant. If he’s on an average team, he’s going to put on a show and fill up a box score, but the team will remain average. If he’s on a good team, he’s going to put on a show and fill up a box score, but the team will remain merely good.
This season, he’s on yet another middling team, and despite playing just 11 games to date, he was back in the headlines earlier this week for the first time since his nonsensical Instagram post criticizing Boston fans the night before Thanksgiving. Irving, who has been sidelined with a mysterious shoulder injury since Nov. 14, said he chose to get a cortisone shot in his right shoulder on Christmas Eve rather than have surgery. But if the injection doesn’t work, he’ll have surgery and likely miss the rest of this season. He found a way, of course, to put a little Kyrie-twist on things: “I tried to go without any anti-inflammatories, which is why it took so long.”
It’s always something with Kyrie. If he misses the rest of the season, Brooklyn got the full post-Cavs Kyrie experience in only 11 games. He was aesthetically captivating, statistically spectacular (28.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 7.2 apg), unnecessarily aloof and had an immaterial impact on winning. (The Nets were 4-7 with him and are 12-13 without him).
Wait, an immaterial impact on winning? That’s right. In the three seasons since forcing his way out of Cleveland, Irving has had an immaterial, even slightly negative impact on winning. Over that time, he has played in 138 games and his teams have gone 82-56 (.594 winning percentage). Over the same time, he’s missed 62 games and his teams have gone 38-24 (.613 winning percentage).
How is this possible? Kyrie played like a superstar in back-to-back NBA Finals when he was 24 and 25 years old. He made “The Shot.” He outplayed Steph Curry. Why is his career seemingly taking a U-turn out of the Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame parking lot back onto Route 91?
Here’s my theory: Kyrie Irving has always been the next Stephon Marbury. He was never meant to be a franchise player. He was only meant to be a self-absorbed performer — an artist, as Kevin Durant described him. Winning has always been tangential to the show Kyrie puts on every time he steps on the court.