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Deep Dives

Is Kyrie Irving Worth the Risk in 2020-21?

by Mike Gallagher
Updated On: May 7, 2020, 2:02 am ET

We've reached volume four in Deep Dives. If you missed it, check out Kevin Durant (link here), John Wall (link here) and Jonathan Isaac (link here) for plenty of stats and an idea of when you might want to take them in drafts. You can also follow me on Twitter @MikeSGallagher for other stats and fantasy takes. Today we're checking out one of KD's teammates.

 

If you look at just per-game averages, Kyrie Irving was outstanding in his first year in Brooklyn. He was fifth per game in nine-category fantasy leagues, averaging 27.4 points, 5.2 boards, 6.4 dimes, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, 2.6 turnovers and 2.8 treys on a 48/39/92 shooting line. However, Irving lasted just 20 games due to a lingering shoulder issue and he was expected to miss the rest of the season.

The missed games for Irving have been a huge problem, missing an average of 27.6 games per season over the last five years. Sure, missing 62 games one year does skew it a bit, but still he was at 19 per season over his previous four years. It’s really tough to draft a guy in the early rounds if he’s frequently missing a quarter of the season, and he’s missed at least 10 games in all but one season over his career.

Here’s a rundown of the injuries for Irving that cost him several games over the years. I’ll recap it, so I don’t blame you if you want to skip down past the bullet points.

  • As mentioned above, a shoulder injury cost him 26 games, he returned for three weeks, and had season-ending surgery to end his 2019-20 campaign. Kyrie also had right hamstring tightness in January, and had a face contusion in preseason.
  • In 2018-19, a right knee contusion kept him out for one game, back soreness was one game in March, a left thigh contusion cost him two games in February, a left hip strain cost him a game, a right hip strain cost him a game in January, he missed one game for a right quad contusion, and two more January games for an eye injury. It’s noteworthy Kyrie had right shoulder soreness in December, but didn’t miss games.
  • In 2017-18, Irving had surgery on his right knee in March. It was called a minimally invasive surgery at first, but it was announced Irving would have another surgery in April to remove two screws in his left patella to keep him out 4-5 months. Irving also missed three games for another right quad contusion, and missed another one in December for a left quad.
  • In his last year in Cleveland, Irving had his second healthiest year of his career with only 10 missed games in 2016-17, only three multiple-game stints on the sidelines and no missed playoff games. The Cavs rested him for the last two games of the regular season, but he did have a left-knee flare up a few days earlier. Right hammy tightness cost him three games and the Cavs rested him in both games of a back-to-back set in December.
  • Irving’s championship 2015-16 season started off rough with knee surgery due to a fractured patella during the 2015 NBA Finals. The surgery in June kept him out for the first 24 games of the season with 17 minutes during his debut on Dec. 20. Irving was expected to be ready for camp, though. After that debut, Irving didn’t miss consecutive games the rest of the year with “rest” being the reason for almost all of them.
  • Prior to this five-year stretch, here’s a quick rundown of injuries that cost him time: eight games for a bicep injury in March 2014, eight games for a left shoulder sprain in March 2013, right knee soreness for three games in February 2013, 12 games for a finger fracture in November 2012, and 10 games for another right shoulder injury in March 2012. Irving had a right foot injury in his time at Duke before being the first pick of the 2011 draft.

 

So many injuries. Perhaps the most noteworthy one to me was Irving having two other right shoulder problems before the 2019-20 season. Irving’s right knee is the other obvious issue with the big NBA Finals injury at Oracle in 2015, and then another surgery to end his season in 2017-18. Besides those two, it was mostly bumps and bruises with a slew of contusions over the years. Still, it’s hard to chalk this up to bad luck. Irving is 28 now, and he’s mentioned before that he may not have a long NBA career.

His propensity to miss games is clearly the headline to his fantasy value, but there’s still plenty to discuss on Kyrie on his 20 games in 2019-20. He had a career-high 31.8 usage rate in his 20 games, and it was even higher before he started missing games at 32.9 with no other Net even close to him. Spencer Dinwiddie was second on the team in usage rate a 28.7 on the season, but he had just a 20.9 usage rate in his minutes next to Kyrie.

Irving played several minutes with low-usage guys with Taurean Prince (511 minutes with Kyrie), Joe Harris (482) and Jarrett Allen (473) as the clear top three next to him. Spencer Dinwiddie (305) and Caris LeVert (284) were a distant fourth and fifth, and those two guys were second and third on the team in usage rate (Dinwiddie 28.7, LeVert 27.7).

As you might expect, Irving’s stats did drop with Dinwiddie and LeVert. He still was able to put up a scoring-heavy 29/3/3 (points/boards/assists) line per 36 with them in just 67 minutes, but without those two he was a monster at a 31/5/8 line per 36 in a 136-minute sample. Although, a split with just Dinwiddie isn’t as stark with a 29/6/6 per-36 line with him in 305 minutes and a 31/5/7 line per-36 without him in 353 minutes. Usage rate wise, he had a 33.4 with Spencer and a 29.0 without him.

That brings us to the biggest non-injury factor to Irving getting shots: Kevin Durant. As you might expect, KD being on the court had a major impact on his point guard. Here’s a look at the usage rate with KD (first column), usage rate without him (second), TS% with (third), TS% without (fourth), per-36 line with (points/boards/dimes, fifth), and per-36 line without (last) for Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook over the last six seasons with KD.

So yeah, that’s some huge differences on usage rates with an eight-plus percent boost without him in four of the last six years, and massive scoring boosts for each without him, too. Steph did get a decent efficiency boost in two of his three seasons with KD, but didn’t in 2017-18. Westbrook was actually more efficient without KD, which speaks to his style of scoring and how he’s usually contested or scoring on transition.

Of course, Kyrie has played with an all-time offensive player before in LeBron James. In their last season together, Kyrie had a 29.5 usage rate, which was more than LeBron’s 29.2. The only other guy who was taking a decent amount of shots that year was Kevin Love, so there will be a little more competition for shots in Brooklyn with Dinwiddie getting some two-PG minutes and Caris LeVert having a late-season breakout (assuming no trades, we’ll get to that). 

It’s also worth a mention that LeVert was sitting at a 29.6 usage rate in February and March. Yes, a big reason for that was Kyrie not being around, but it’s still rare to see that kind of volume. In fact, since Feb. 3, LeVert was one of just seven players with 12-plus games played, 30-plus minutes per game, and a 30-plus usage rate over that span with the other guys all being All-Stars (Trae, Beal, Donovan Mitchell, James Harden, LeBron, Giannis; 242 players played 12+ games since Feb. 3). The Nets will play KD at the four a whole lot, so LeVert should see plenty of minutes next to both KD and Kyrie.

Irving’s usage rate is certainly going to drop from his 31.8, and that’s fine. He’s likely going to be closer to the 28.6% he had with the Celtics in his last year there, and that would still be solid if he can repeat the 104.3 pace he had with the Nets last season. Sure, Kenny Atkinson is gone, but GM Sean Marks’ vision is a pace-and-space offense with shooters and an up-tempo style. Even if KD goes YOLO mode with a usage rate in the mid-30s, Irving should still get enough shots to score in the mid-20s.

It’s only a 20-game sample on Kyrie last year, but we can still get an idea of how he was able to get buckets. Irving is widely viewed as one of the best dribblers in the game, and things have changed over the years on how he’s scored off the dribble. Here’s a look at how often he scored on three-plus dribbles and the efficiency on those.

He really let it loose last season with almost three-quarters of his shots coming off three-plus dribbles, but it didn’t really cost him efficiency-wise. Prior to that, coach Brad Stevens did dial him back on those because he likes more motion in his offense, and it’s still somewhat surprising that Kyrie’s three-plus dribble shots were over 60 percent with LeBron James. You’d expect that his three-plus dribble shots would decrease, which is actually a good thing because ...

Kyrie has turned into an elite catch-and-shoot player over the years. Last season, he had a 65.6 eFG% on his catch-and-shoot shots, in 2018-19 he was at 63.9 eFG%, in 2017-18 it was 57.8 eFG%, and in 2016-17 he had a 66.6 eFG% in his last year with LeBron. Even with Kyrie being lights out last year, he was still at just 52.3 eFG% when he was wide open last year. In the previous years, he was at 66.8 eFG% in 2018-19, 59.3 eFG% in 2017-18, and 67.2 eFG% in his last year with LeBron in 2016-17. He should be open more and make more of those shots with KD, so betting Kyrie has a career-high TS% is a decent bet to make (61.0 TS% in 2017-18).

Kyrie also had a career-high 5.1 free throw makes per game last year, and it was all about him being uber-aggressive. He had a whopping 10.5 points in the paint per game, which is almost two above his previous career-high, and those points per game have also increased in every season since 2015-16. He also put up a career-high 14.2 drives per game in 2019-20, which was a big bump after hanging in the 11s in each of the previous three seasons.

All of those stats from the previous paragraph are related to how he shot 65.3% at the rim with those shots accounting for 22.8% of his shot total. The efficiency at the rim is his best of his career by far and there’s been a clear increase of performance there over his career. Starting with 2012-13, here are his FG%s at the rim: 55.6, 56.9, 58.2, 58.8, 57.6, 61.6, 62.2, 65.3. That’s an increase each year with just one exception. However, distribution wise it’s not as clear over this span starting with 2012-13 again: 25.9%, 25.3%, 30.2%, 25.9%, 28.2%, 25.7%, 26.4%, 22.8%. While the numbers themselves are kind of all over the place, the situation tells some of the story. The first two were without LeBron, the next three were with LeBron and had two of the highest distributions in this span, Boston for two, and then the career-low 22.8% with the Nets to close it. You’d think that Kyrie could get close to the basket more often next to KD, and he could really rack ‘em up if he gets even better than his 65.3% at the rim.

Kyrie is always fascinating from a play-type perspective. Last year, he had 12.3 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game to put him fourth in the league (Trae, Dame, Luka). Not only would that number lead the league last year, but it was close to doubling the 6.6 PNR handler possessions Kyrie had last year in Boston. Prior to that, he was at just 6.7, 8.1 and 8.8 per game. Obviously, the Brad Stevens factor explains a lot of it and Kemba Walker fell from the league leader in 2018-19 to rank just 11th in 2019-20, but Kyrie certainly deserved to score more in PNR based on his efficiency. Starting with 2015-16, here are his percentiles on efficiency on that play type: 80.3, 82.9, 96.2, 85.7, 90.8. Coach Kenny Atkinson loved his PGs to use PNR with Irving, D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, so hopefully whoever they hire is on the same page with GM Sean Marks to lean on that play type. Of course, Kyrie probably won’t be above 10 per game because of KD sucking up usage, but man, a Kyrie-KD PNR sounds super fun (only 0.5 KD roll-man possessions per game in 2018-19). It’s kinda hard to really gauge how KD affected PNR with the Warriors because it’s such a different system, but Russ Westbrook was only eighth in PNR possessions per game in 2015-16 and jumped to second at 11.9 without him when KD moved west -- a lot of that is just about pure volume, though.

As great as Kyrie is off the dribble, he’s not really an isolation guy at 3.3 possessions per game last year (3.0 in 2018-19, 3.5 in 2017-18, 5.1 with LeBron in 2016-17). Stephen Curry had just 1.3 per game in 2018-19 with KD around, but again it’s about the system. Although, Kyrie’s off-ball game should replace isolation possessions, which are the least efficient play anyway. Curry’s isolation possessions were also much higher prior to KD showing up (2.5 in 2015-16), for what it’s worth (not much). 

Transition hasn't really been a big part of Kyrie's game with just 11.1% of his points coming via fast break last year. Prior to that, he was at 15.0% in 2018-19, 8.6%, 9.7%, 11.7% and 11.1% in 2014-15. Maybe with KD handling the ball a little more often, Kyrie can get out ahead on defensive rebounds for some easier buckets.

Another part of Kyrie’s game that has increased has been his assists with 6.4 per game in 2019-20 and a career-high 6.9 in 2018-19. The Nets were assisting at a higher rate when Irving was playing at 18.1 dimes per 36 as a team compared to when he wasn’t. That number is a tick down from Boston’s 19.9 last year with Kyrie, but up from 17.3 in 2017-18. Irving’s passes per game also dropped last season at a career-low 48.1. Here’s a quick look at some of Kyrie’s touch and pass numbers over the years:

If you want to see his per-minute stats on these stats, I’ll direct you to one of my tweets (I’m going to explain it below anyway).

Minutes were a huge factor here, but you can spot some differences. Two things that really stuck out in 2019-20 were his lack of frontcourt touches and his dip in passes. That makes his 6.4 dimes even more impressive with Kyrie being a bit of a stat-stuffing machine with such limited frontcourt opportunity. As far as touch-per-minute stat goes overall, he really had big chances last year, his second year with LeBron and his first year in Boston. His passes per minute have dropped in each of the last three years, too. The light playing time in that second year with LeBron was a huge factor, and the other two years he wasn’t quite as involved with the ball in his hands compared to the other years.

The last part is that we’re not sure the Nets are still going to have Dinwiddie and LeVert. There have been some trade rumors with the Nets using those team-friendly contracts to land another stud. The Nets would probably want to add a defense-first kind of player into the mix, but they may go the route of just trying to outscore everyone. I’d pretty much call it a wash because the two possible trade options aren’t slouches when it comes to usage.

A whole lot going on here. The first part of the column, it really showed just how risky Kyrie is. Besides maybe Joel Embiid, it doesn’t get any riskier on guys who you could consider taking in the top 25. You generally want to avoid risk in your draft, so Irving is probably going to slide, which is certainly justified.

Even before his top-five per game output in nine-category leagues last year, Irving was ninth in 2018-19, 14th in 2017-18, and 17th in 2016-17. He’s a fantasy stud per game. I’ll admit that before I dug through the numbers that there was no way I was going to take Kyrie in the top 30. However, even with what should be a hit to his usage rate, Irving could still up his per-minute production with better efficiency while he’s already proven this year a hit to his touch time may not cause a decrease in overall output. Irving did turn 28 back in March, he has eight years of high-volume experience and again he’s hinted he may cut his career short, so he’s arguably more likely to miss games than ever before (excluding the season he started hurt, of course).

The bottom line is if I’m sitting at the round 2-3 turn and all the point guards are drying up, I’m not totally against taking Kyrie. I’d take him over Kemba Walker, but I’d take Jrue Holiday over Kyrie. I’ll add that the PG well drying up early in the third does make Damian Lillard and Trae Young as more viable picks in the top eight (side note: I’ve had Harden No. 1 all along), especially if you’re playing eight cat. Additionally, if you did want to take the plunge on Irving, you really want to tie yourself to reliable guys. That basically rules out a 2-3 turn of Kristaps Porzingis and Kyrie, and I certainly wouldn’t pair him with Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Deandre Ayton, Stephen Curry or maybe even Anthony Davis unless Kyrie really falls. On the other hand, if you do grab reliable guys like some combo of James Harden, Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic or Karl-Anthony Towns (yes, I’d still call KAT reliable after his catastrophic 2019-20) in the first round with maybe a Bam Adebayo in the second, it does make some sense to go Irving in round three.

Mike Gallagher
Mike Gallagher has covered fantasy hoops for eight years and this season is his second with Rotoworld. You can find him on Twitter talking about a player's shots at the rim.