The Diff: Did #NBARank actually overrate Kyrie Irving?

The Diff

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote about an estimate of Kirk Goldsberry’s new ShotScore statistic. This week, I’m writing about arbitrary player ranking systems, for some odd reason.

The Diff

#NBARank is a fabulous concept. It’s scientifically proven that people love lists … just ask BuzzFeed. And what else should ESPN.com do in the usually unexciting waning moments of the NBA preseason? Either way, the 215-person forecast panel has done a fairly good job over the last two years. There are always going to be head-scratchers, undoubtedly. Yet now, I’m left wondering this question: Is Kyrie Irving suddenly overrated after being ranked #8 in this year’s edition?

Two years ago as a rookie, Irving was only #140 in the inaugural ranking system. Fast forward another year, and I still vividly remember posting the article when Irving was announced as the new #22. It felt like validation; the NBA media had recognized his sensational Rookie of the Year season and rewarded him. Perhaps however, we weren’t even considering what #22 really meant.

Back in January, in my first-ever edition of The Diff, I wrote at length – with help from my brother Sam – about Kyrie Irving’s potential in the NBA. Here are two different segments from that article, which you should read as an introduction to some of my additional thoughts today.

Sam: We do have the hardest part of rebuilding out of the way: We have a superstar. If Kyrie isn’t a top 10 player in the NBA already, then I don’t know who is.

Jacob: That’s the argument I started on Twitter right now. In Rick’s recap from the Hawks game, he wrote that Kyrie clearly has the potential to be a top 5 NBA player. It’s an unwinnable argument, as Rick said, because we’re dealing with “potential,” but for some reason, I think I disagree with that. I also clearly don’t think he’s top 10 right now. That’s a huge reach.

So Mitchell’s point is valid about Kyrie being so awful defensively right now, that how could he possibly be a top 5 player (as in, top 2 or 3 guard) in the NBA ever? But then you wrestle back to this final point: Kyrie is 20. He only turns 21 in March. He’s younger than Dion Waiters. In fact, Irving is the fifth-youngest player in the NBA when you look at players with at least 750 minutes played this season.

Of course, that article was written only about 10 days before Irving was selected as an Eastern Conference All-Star. If you recall, I was covering the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards that night and wrote about Irving’s immediate thoughts. As an All-Star, that puts Irving squarely in the top 25-30 at least, just as the ESPN crew slotted last fall.

But now, with Irving at #8 and nine months after my earlier article in The Diff, I’m struggling again with regards to Irving’s potential and where he ranks in the NBA landscape. Here are four related thoughts after the recent #NBARank news.

Maybe Irving shouldn’t have jumped over so many players just yet.

Because I’m strange and love research projects, I made a spreadsheet yesterday of all the top-100ish guys in all three #NBARank preseason editions. From this information, I’m able to glean out the top risers and fallers, and all sorts of interesting trends.

From my varied thoughts, I’ll present six players for consideration of folks I view likely more favorably than Kyrie Irving. Of course, the caveat to that sentence is the projection consideration of this year’s ranking. Voters were asked to “predict the overall level of play for each player for the upcoming NBA season. This includes both the quality and the quantity of his expected contributions, combined in one overall rating.”

Looking at the last two seasons of concrete data, for players with a minimum of 2,000 minutes, Irving ranked 17th in the NBA with his 21.4 PER. Some possibly surprising players listed above Irving in the popular efficiency metric: Kobe Bryant (#25 in #NBARank), Brook Lopez (#28), Al Jefferson (#52) and new Cavalier Andrew Bynum (#100).

That kink in the #NBARank rating throws the whole statistical evaluation process for a loop. By asking raters to consider some abstract and unverified future, there’s no way to concretely analyze the rankings. In my mind though, I’d bank on better 2013-14 seasons from the subsequent six:

#10 Marc Gasol (2012: #24; 2011: #26)
Easily the most underrated big man in the NBA. The 28-year-old Spaniard is just now reaching his prime after his Defensive Player of the Year season. He averaged 14.1 points, 4.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds with a 19.5 PER. More importantly, he anchored the Memphis squad on both sides all year. Take Gasol away and this team is very mediocre.

#11 Kevin Love (2012: #7, 2011: #16)
Injuries decimated Love again last year, limiting him to just 18 below-average games. But alas, he’s still only 25 and is still viewed as the game’s best offensive rebounder, per NBA GMs. Again, he’s averaged 22.2 points, 14.4 rebounds and a 24.0 PER over the last three years. That’s insane production. Unless these injuries are suddenly career-threatening, he’ll be just fine.

#12 Tony Parker (2012: #16; 2011: #28)
NBA Twitter blew up when Parker was announced as #12 last week. At the time, I proclaimed him the league’s most underrated player. He’s only 31 and already has had a star-studded career. He showed absolutely no signs of regression in a career season last year. If he hadn’t missed 16 games, his 20.3 points, 7.6 assists and 23.0 PER would have been very MVP candidate-worthy.

#14 Blake Griffin (2012: #14; 2011: #10)
Crazy to think Griffin is now 24 years old and was drafted 4.5 years ago. He has averaged at least 20 points, 9 rebounds and a 21.9 PER in all three of his seasons, despite some downward-leaning stat trends (more on this shortly). He’s a far better all-around offensive player than usually considered. Not too many big men also average 4 assists and 2 steals/blocks per game.

#15 Carmelo Anthony (2012: #17; 2011: #12)
A 29-year-old Anthony is probably a more skilled offensive weapon than Irving right now. Both have all-around and defensive limitations, but Anthony is up there with the best NBA offensive players. He averaged a career-high 27.8 points and 24.8 PER last year, plus 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

#22 Roy Hibbert (2012: #35; 2011: #96)
Indiana’s outstanding defense – and entire ground-breaking scheme – is not possible without the 26-year-old Georgetown product. He had a poor offensive start to the season, averaging 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and a 17.3 PER overall. But he’s arguably the league’s most impactful defensive presence. And did you notice a trend with big men?

Maybe guards are a bit less valuable than big men.

It should be no surprise that I’m a fan of Dave Berri’s Wages of Wins work. Heck, I even had him help me preview the 2009-10 Cavs season here at WFNY. There is a bit of Twitter distaste for Berri’s analysis, which heavily favors rebounding and big men via a Wins Produced metric. But I think the conceptual argument is valid of further discussion: Does the scarcity of big men make guards inherently less valuable? Check out this 2006 post from Dave.

Just consider: How many All-Star low-post players are there anymore? Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan (ish), Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah are the only names I spot in #NBARank’s top 25. Yet, how many star guards are there? Tons, as highlighted by Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Irving and Derrick Rose all in the top 10.

I’ve shared before how guards are clearly less efficient in the NBA context. The ideal offensive shooting zones are in the paint or three-pointers. Guards tend to prefer those dreadful mid-range opportunities. Most guards don’t provide much in terms of rebounding (which creates extra possessions, the whole purpose of basketball). Many others, such as shooting guards, don’t provide too many assists either. Those are obviously just peripheral counting stats, yet those stats are our easiest form of analysis.

By the ever-controversial Wins Produced/48, Kyrie Irving was right around average last season. Only a handful of guards are viewed that favorably in general. But even in the context of those, Irving was sandwiched in between DJ Augustin and Jeff Teague, nowhere near the highest echelon.

So, ceteris paribus, would you rather have a star center or a star guard to build your team around? Maybe a guard means more in today’s NBA landscape, but there are still many more out there. The players listed above are an example of how I think Irving probably shouldn’t have passed so many talented forwards who can possibly impact the game in more ways.

Maybe Irving didn’t actually improve in his sophomore season.

This is perhaps the most damning concept in relation to Irving’s current standing and his long-term potential. I really enjoyed Andrew Lynch’s article last week at Hardwood Paroxysm titled “Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving and Great Expectations”. I linked to it already in While We’re Waiting, but since it was so good, here’s another related excerpt:

Yes, he’d had a phenomenal rookie year, the thinking goes, but he’d not improved in any measurable way (at least, measurable by the box score) as Cleveland started to put a better team around him. The fact that he was able to maintain the lofty heights which he’d already attained, even as he combated several fluke injuries that limited his playing time and his abilities, without actually surpassing them opens Irving up to the same criticism. Yet once again, glances at the box score obscure the improvement in Irving’s game.

Lynch went on to share how Irving’s occasional understanding of defensive schemes and his highlight-reel ability to dominate offensively proved his improvement in his sophomore season. Yet, it will be tough to combat the ever-growing expectations of his career, a la Blake Griffin since his impressive rookie year.

Looking at those potentially deceiving stats, Irving had an exactly even 21.4 PER in his sophomore season. His efficiency field goal percentage dipped by a percent to 55.3%. His assists and rebounds both were down slightly on a per-minute basis. I’ve written before about young guards and high usage rates, with many talented players peaking at a younger age than many first expected. How will Irving statistically take the next leap?

There’s no question Irving needs to drastically improve on the defensive end. But his other needed areas of improvements continue to be an underrated Cavs storyline.

Maybe this was just a really pointless way to waste 1,800 words.

Eh. #NBARank is great. It makes us writers articulate what makes players “better” than one another. It pushes us to think critically about the merits of every statistical tool out there. And in the end, it makes us all as fans really appreciate the special talent that is Kyrie Irving. I don’t mean to be overly pessimistic; I’m just not certain he’s a top-10 player right now. He certainly could be sometime very soon. Or maybe we’re just getting a bit too excited, too early.

  • Steve

    Excellent, excellent work.

  • WFNYJacob

    Thanks, Steve.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Did you really count the number of words used? I want to measure the WFNY staphers with a new statistical measurement: Words Per Article or WPA! It’s time we see where you all rank.

    As for Kyrie overall he’s top 10 so I don’t have much of a problem with #8.

  • cleveland_endures

    Slight correction: Marc Gasol is a center, not a forward.

    But I’m with you. I’m shocked that Parker was higher than Irving, and as much as I love Kyrie he’s been horrific on defense his first two years. He’s an exceptional scorer and very efficient for a guard, but I’m not comfortable saying he’s Top 10 when he’s never played a playoff game (not entirely his fault) and hasn’t played a lick of defense.

  • Steve

    I feel the part where you discuss big men or guards may get underrated. I completely agree, we see so many scoring guards in the league, and I think the replacement level is higher, especially as we keep trending towards looking for bench guys who fill out niche roles rather than just being worse all-around players. It’s incredibly tough to find quality big men.

  • WFNYJacob

    Yup, you’re right on Gasol. Inadvertent. I like to loosely just refer to those players as “low-post players” or big men, since traditional center role is a bit out-dated.

  • WFNYJacob

    Yup, WordPress gives us a word count every time.

    Andrew or Jon probably would beat me in such a WPA. Neither post as many short headlines on the site, so my weekend duty would skew me down in the standings.

  • WFNYJacob

    It’s certainly plausible, especially when all things are equal. Obviously, Kyrie’s a rare species because we’re having this debate with him as a 21-year-old.

    All the big men I mentioned like Love, Gasol, Griffin, Lopez, Hibbert, etc, are all much older. But if we had a transcendent 21-year-old talent with two years of near All-Star performance as a big man, that could be more valuable in NBA landscape.

  • Steve

    I’ve read some work done on NBA aging curves, but I think the variations in each player’s game makes it incredibly difficult to apply. I’d guess longer careers for guys like Gasol or Hibbert, whose success is less dependent on athleticism than Kyrie. And I think it’s a long term issue how much abuse Irving’s body has taken already.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    Ummm…Kyrie’s game isn’t nearly as much about athleticism as it is sneaky good change of pace and crazy handle (as well as lights out shooting.) Almost all of his current set of skills actually ages well.

  • Steve

    I’d classify ability to change direction and speeds quickly, agility and acceleration respectively, as part of athleticism.

    Do agree that his shooting will last, but, like almost every PG, he does use his athleticism to get himself jumpers much more often than the average player. 42% of Irving’s makes outside 15 feet come off an assist, but that number is 72% for the rest of the league. As he loses some athleticism (whether thats two years or twelve years from now) those shots are going to be better contested, and fall less often.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You are the Michael Brantley of WFNY!

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Yes, it’ll definitely be key for Kyrie to adapt his game as he gets older and loses athleticism. I think a lot of players are faced with this dilemma and their longevity in the league is decided by how well they are able to make those changes. Derrick Rose is also going to have to figure this out at some point.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com/ WFNYRick

    I will say that a player who is 20 years old can certainly improve enough defensively over the next few years to be included in the top 5. Defense, as they say is more about hustle, desire and ‘want to’. Kyrie could develop this attitude. LeBron did.

  • mgbode

    good thing for Kyrie is that unlike Rose, he has an outside shot to fall back on. I think Kyrie can do what Kidd or Billups have done for their teams when he gets to the ‘aging gracefully’ phase of his career.

  • WFNYJacob

    Hey, Kyrie is even playing a bit more 2-guard this preseason alongside Delly. That’s where he’s starting tonight with Jack in the backcourt.

  • DontbringLBJback

    I would totally disagree with the idea that a “big man” is worth more. The NBA “big man” is becoming a thing of the past. I like Kevin Love, but it’s because he can play big man, go out and shoot the 3, and run the floor. Gasol is solid too, but I wouldn’t build a team around him. Griffin is fun to watch, but I wouldn’t trade 2 of him for Kyrie. Hibbert is like 12 feet tall, but he’ll never be an elite player. Dwight Howard in his prime was the one guy I’d say you could build around, because they did, and it worked. He was unstopable back then. But big men are MORE overrated in my mind, and if you don’t have a guy that can “run the show”, you are never going to win. Just ask Kobe.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    The “big man” (especially guys like Gasol and Hibbert) when they’re on their game are quite likely worth more than a “wing” player. There are certain exceptions (transcendent talents like Lebron or Durant) to this rule…but generally speaking, if you have a guy like Gasol on your team, you have a lot more options (particularly defensively) than you do with a guy like Kyrie. Because there are so many good guards in this league, they actually become worth less. Whereas, the very limited number of legit “big man” bodies available actually adds to their value. If you can get a guy like Dwight, you do so…even if he is coming off of a season where he recovered from a back injury. If you can get a talent like Bynum, you come up with a clever little contract like what we did…and if it pans out, you look like a super genius.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    He has some athleticism, but he doesn’t rely on sheer athleticism like guys like Wall/Rose/Westbrook do. Those are guys who are going to crash hard when they lose their athleticism if they don’t develop more of an all-around game like Kyrie has. Kyrie relies far less on limited athleticism, but intelligent (and instictual) talents as well as skills that tend to age gracefully. He’s basically what guys like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash are…but he’s doing it now. He’s learned their end-of-career adaptations before joining the league.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    “42% of Irving’s makes outside 15 feet come off an assist, but that number is 72% for the rest of the league. ”
    Who was going to get him the ball in those situations? A rookie Dion Waiters who was more apt to take a 15 foot step back? A guy like Shaun Livingston (who scared nobody as an offensive threat?) Of course his percentages were skewed below league average. The options on this team (or lack thereof) caused it.

  • WFNYJacob

    For the record, Kyrie Irving was 20th in SI.com’s Top 100 players of 2014 ranking: http://nba.si.com/2013/09/19/top-100-players-of-2014-nos-20-11/.

    Here’s a quick image that shows the top 25 averaged out for the two rankings. Gasol, Love, Parker and Anthony all jumped above Kyrie.

  • Steve

    Doesn’t change the fact that part of his ability to hit jumpers was the necessary athleticism to shake his defender. As he loses athleticism, he’s going to have face tougher looks at the basket.

    I’m not sure why you’re limiting athleticism to seemingly straight line speed. Kyrie losing his agility and acceleration will be a serious blow to his ability. Regarding the two comps, Nash was an elite athlete well into his 30s. A freak athlete that hopefully Irving can match. Kidd rebounded like a big man, and was an elite defender. Both had elite court vision (in the Lebron range) that we’ve yet to see Kyrie match. They’ve shown a lot more “old man skills” than Kyrie, which is understandable. Kyrie is a 20 year old who can dominate offensively through his athleticism and jumper. Hopefully he can improve his vision, defense, and maybe even rebounding, and obviously stay healthy enough to keep his quicks into his 30s.

  • mgbode

    if you have watched Kidd the past few years, then you know he still could pass the ball, but couldn’t play defense anymore other than try to intercept errant passes.

    on offense, he basically relied on the defense leaving him open and hitting wide-open shots. Kyrie will do just fine in that role 12-15yrs from now :)

    in the meantime, we’ll enjoy him breaking ankles (and hopefully not his own).

  • Ben Frambaugh

    Who said I was limiting athleticism to “seemingly straight line speed”? I’m not saying he’s unathletic. But he uses his athleticism in a way that goes well beyond “conventional athleticism.” He has a great feel for the game with the way that he changes speeds. His handle with the ball is just sick…and while it certainly takes an athletic ability to do what he does at the level he does it…he plays the game far more like a savvy veteran the way he sets people up for his sick cross overs. He plays smarter than he does athleticically.