Kyrie Irving has been playing outstanding basketball, but putting him at the top of your MVP ladder isn’t warranted.
After losing the first two games of the season, the Boston Celtics have rattled off 16-straight victories. The driving force has been their defense, but Kyrie Irving has turned a lot of heads serving as the number one option. He’s missed just one game so far. In the other 17, he’s putting up 22.5 points and 5.3 with a true shooting percentage of 58.2. The MVP talk is getting louder and louder, and the Celtics come-from-behind win over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday is only amplifying it.
In that contest, Kyrie poured in 47 points and was unstoppable during the overtime period. We’ve come to expect those heroics from Irving. He’s the most unguardable player in the NBA, carrying a bag of moves so deep he looks like basketball’s Mary Poppins. Irving’s ankle-shattering crossover leaves defenders in the dust, and he can pair that with a hesitation or behind-the-back move that makes Tommy Heinsohn lose his mind. Of course, the million dollar execution is nothing without the finish. Irving has those areas covered as well. Few guys can execute the layups he does. For someone who’s not a tremendous athlete, Irving has phenomenal body control and can hang in the air juuuust long enough. There are, however, a few aspects that quickly deny his case for MVP.
Boston’s been stifling on the defensive end. It should get most of the credit for their league-leading record. Here are some of the Celtics’ rankings as of Tuesday:
- Defensive Rating: 95.8, first
- Opponent Points Per Game: 94.8, first
- Opponent Field Goal Percentage: 42.9, second
- Opponent Three-Point Field Goal Percentage: 32.1, second
- Opponent Three-Pointers Made: 8.4, second
- Opponent Field Goals Made: 35.7, third
- Opponent’s Plus/Minus: minus-8.1, third
Al Horford is the anchor of this group, and he’s building a case to be the Defensive Player of the Year. When a team like Boston is as reliant on defense as they are, taking away Horford would ruin them. Looking at it like that is how you could even build him an MVP case. For now, though, we’re going to look at Kyrie, who’s occupying a spot that the Celtics desperately need.
Without a go-to scorer, the Celtics aren’t contenders. Irving fills that void. Every playoff team needs someone who can get them a bucket when the time calls. When Irving got traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers, that wasn’t the issue. Instead, there were concerns about him continuing to be a defensive liability. However, these two squads are different. Back during his days in Cleveland, it was easier to see Irving’s weaknesses because the Cavaliers defense was atrocious. With Boston, Brad Stevens can hide his All-Star point guard. Is it coincidental that Irving’s defensive box plus/minus was minus-2.3 last year, but is now plus-0.9? He’s more engaged and aware, but that’s a huge jump that’s aided by the team.
Irving’s defensive rating is also a career-low. Basketball Reference lists it at 97.9, whereas NBA.com has it at 97.4. That’s not a massive discrepancy, and it’s down significantly from last year. However, the Celtics defense does not improve when Irving is on the floor. According to Basketball Reference, Boston allows 100.1 points per 100 possessions, a 4.4-point increase when Kyrie is out there. The Celtics win games because of their defense, but can someone be an MVP candidate when they’re detrimental to what their team does best?
Last season, Russell Westbrook brought home the MVP because of his statistical accomplishments, beating out James Harden who finished two rebounds shy of a triple-double on a 55-win team. This year, Irving’s scoring average is 17th-best, and his assists are 26th-best. Last year, numbers mattered and winning didn’t. It’s now flipped.
There seems like there’s an anti-Harden agenda. Right now, if we were looking objectively, James Harden should be the choice to bring home the award even though we haven’t yet played 20 games. He was my pick last season but was not my pick for this one; that was Giannis Antetokounmpo. I still think that’s in play, but Harden has been playing incredible basketball thus far, and it’s silly to have Irving over him.
Harden has the edge in each of the five major categories, is shooting the long ball better and is still managing to work his way to the free throw line more than nine times a night despite the rule change that eliminated foul-baiting. The only edge Irving has is overall field goal percentage:
|James Harden||Kyrie Irving|
|Points Per Game||31.6 (leads league)||22.5|
|Rebounds Per Game||4.8||3.2|
|Assists Per Game||9.9 (leads league)||5.3|
|Steals Per Game||1.7||1.6|
|Blocks Per Game||0.5||0.4|
The advanced stats also favor Harden. Although they don’t tell the whole story, they highlight just how important he is to his team:
|James Harden||Kyrie Irving|
|PER||30.4 (leads league)||25.0|
|True Shooting Percentage||62.7||58.2|
|Win Shares||4.0 (leads league)||2.9|
|Win Shares / 48 Mins||.313 (leads league)||.260|
|Box Plus/Minus||10.7 (leads league)||7.6|
|VORP||2.0 (leads league)||1.3|
Those are a lot of numbers. My head hurts now. No matter how you feel about advanced stats, it’s foolish to discredit them and say they don’t matter. Last season, Westbrook led in PER, BPM and VORP. They have merit. But are also only half of the conversation.
One of the most prominent sins when talking about the MVP is swapping players. We won’t do that because certain organizations architect their team around one player (like Houston). Would we be talking about Irving like this if he were on the Houston Rockets? He’s not the right fit for them, so no. Should that argument arise, steer the conversation to something along the lines of what would happen if that player just wasn’t on the team. There are fewer variables to think about. If we took Harden off of the Rockets, they’d crash and burn in a spectacular, vomit-inducing fashion. If we took Kyrie off of the Celtics, they’d have an elite defense with suspect offense. Which is worse?
I can’t believe I’m writing about the NBA MVP in November. It’s wild, man. It’s also fun to talk about and watch everyone overreact, myself included. Both James Harden and Kyrie Irving have been magnificent so far, and they’re leading the Rockets and Celtics down the right paths. As of now, Harden is more deserving of the MVP than Irving is, but things can change. There are still more than 60 games left.
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