I have a bit of a confession to make: LeBron James isn’t my favorite player in the NBA.
He used to be, until about two years ago. Neither is Russ Westbrook, though if you look at my Twitter on most days you’d think so. And while LBJ very much used to be my favorite player, and is why I went from casual Cavaliers fan, to casual Miami fan, to casual Cavaliers fan again, he isn’t my favorite in the league anymore. That title goes to Kyrie Irving, who both made me a more serious Cleveland fan, and a more serious NBA fan.
I love Kyrie Irving because of his exceptional talents mixed with his lethality in one-on-one play. I really believe that Irving is the single best one-on-one player in the entire NBA, and what’s dope is that he does too! (He once had an “argument” with Kobe about being able to beat him in one-on-one because Kobe wouldn’t be able to guard him.)
And while Kyrie’s mystifying ball-handling, exceptional court-vision, and ability to make a layup that looks like an elaborate middle-finger aimed directly at physics, the absolute best part of his game is better suited for a full game situation than in one-on-one. Let me explain. Or rather, let Mark Jackson explain.
When talking about how Kyrie and the Cavs get the matchup they want – Steph Curry matched up one-on-one – Jackson says, “It’s time to dance. Gets him one-on-one, lulls him to sleep, forces a late contest…” and that pretty much sums up how lethal Kyrie is in one-on-one situations with other guys on the floor. It’s kind of hard to see how late Steph’s defense is on that shot, especially in real time, and super especially if you don’t watch a lot of basketball. But here’s a comparison of Kyrie’s shot in game 7 of last seasons finals to this last Christmas when he hit another game-winner, this time over Klay Thompson.
You start to get a little bit of a clearer picture here, but if we slow it down even further we can get a better read on how effective lulling the defender to sleep really is.
A brief aside about videos and frame rate to help you understand the timing here. Klay Thompson on the right has his hands up in a good defensive position about eight frames faster than Steph does on the left. For 30 FPS video (which most television is broadcasted in), a frame is 1/30th of a second, so eight frames is less than a third of a second. In that time, Kyrie is able to get the shot he wants, rather than having to adjust his shot because of the defender. NBA players are obscenely athletic.
Let’s say that, instead of getting caught shuffling with his hands low, Steph is ready for the pull-up jumper and gets his hands up a third of a second faster. If Kyrie is forced to adjust to that, he probably has to fade away, like he does against Thompson. This is when distance from the basket means everything, and a fade away jumper from behind the arc is really not a great shot at all. But Kyrie has Steph thinking about a million different things – it’s a tie game with an NBA championship on the line. Kyrie has Steph on isolation, which is what the Cavs want. Steph already knows that Kyrie is most deadly when he’s got the ball on the floor moving toward the hoop, so that’s his top priority to stop. When you’re thinking about so much at once, it’s easy to be a third of a second late in contesting a jumper. Even when you’re on time, like Thompson (arguably the Warriors best perimeter defender and second-best defender behind Draymond Green), it can kill you. Being late makes it that much more likely.
Even though Kyrie gets off a good shot backing up Thompson, he’d much rather get that extra third of a second he got against Curry. That’s easier when he’s facing the basket than having his back to it. Squaring up, he gets to dribble and move forward, where he’s most dangerous, instead of having to kick the ball out, move backward, or take a lower percentage shot.
Here’s Irving against Oklahoma City this past weekend. Coming up the floor, he’s matched up one-on-one with Álex Abrines, a 6-6 Spanish shooting guard playing in his first season in the NBA. Notice this sequence of events.
See how Irving goes from attack mode, to holding up for just a brief moment, and then is suddenly zooming past Abrines for the easy bucket. It’s only the smallest moment throughout the entire possession, but remember how costly being a third of a second late on defense can be. In that millisecond of hesitation, a ton of other things can go through Abrines’ head. Is the rest of the defense back and in position? Do they have the shooters covered in case of a drive and kick? Is Steven Adams in position to defend Tristan Thompson in case Kyrie tries to dish it to him low? Is Adams in position to help on defense if Kyrie moves toward the basket? (He was, but Kyrie threw him off by taking the layup on his off-side foot. I could write several more words on that move too, but won’t at this time.) Is Kyrie going to cross Abrines up similar to what he did to Russ in an earlier possession?
These are all important things to think about, and a lot to try and process while guarding one of the best scoring point guards in the NBA. Notice how, in the moment of hesitation, Abrines’ body doesn’t even seem to relax. You can’t even tell that he’s beat until – well, he get’s beat. The sudden move from Kyrie, the burst to the basket and layup, happens so fast you almost miss the setup. All of Kyrie’s moves beforehand – the between the legs, brief fake pull-up, a few more between the legs – keep Abrines on high alert. And then he pauses for a moment and scans the floor, and just as Abrines thinks he can blink, Kyrie is gone. It’s unfair.
A lot of players do this; using sudden changes in speed and acceleration/deceleration isn’t a new thing or something unique to Kyrie. He’s not even the best passer on his team, let alone in the NBA. But his superior ball-handling and ability to finish at the rim is so difficult to stop, that it allows his passing to thrive. This makes him a danger to every defense anytime he’s going to the hole. So, when he’s not, you would think you wouldn’t have a problem. But that’s the problem. You’re thinking, which is exactly what Kyrie wants. You’re stuck having a thought and he’s already running back on defense because he’s already scored. I love Kyrie Irving so much.