SLAM Top 50: Kyrie Irving, No. 11

Out of LeBron's shadow, it's Kyrie's time to shine.

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My goodness. Where do I even start.

I suppose I’ll start here: Kyrie Irving is a wonderful basketball player who, at his best, is as unstoppable offensively as any player in the NBA. That’s the easy part.

The hard part… well, there are a couple of hard parts. Specific to his track record, to the six seasons of NBA resume he’s built up thus far, the hard part is knowing a) how often Kyrie is “at his best,” and b) what exactly that means for the team he plays for.

He averaged 25.2 points on 47.3 percent shooting last season (both career highs), but did so in a season in which his Cleveland Cavaliers won a mere 51 games (and no NBA titles). Should it matter that, by comparison, a season earlier, when he played 19 fewer games and averaged nearly six fewer points, the Cavs won six more regular season games and a championship?

The answer, of course, is “no.” It shouldn’t matter because numbers are meaningless without context, and because anyway the Cavs wouldn’t have won that 2016 title without Kyrie’s 25.2 often very clutch playoff points per game. But the discrepancies do bring up a question about what who and what the best Kyrie Irving is for a team hoping to contend for an NBA championship.

Kyrie was a 20-year-old, second-year pro back in 2012-13 when he averaged nearly 23 ppg on a very bad Cavs team; a year later, he put up 20.8 ppg (and a career-high 6.1 assist) on a better but still not very good Cleveland squad. A year later, running alongside LeBron James for the first time, he scored 21.7 ppg during the regular season before seeing his playoff run, and the Cavs’ title chances, cut short.

All of this is to say that, six seasons in, we’ve seen Kyrie be the best player on bad teams, and a more-than-capable second option on great teams. What we haven’t seen… well, you know what we haven’t seen. Kyrie knows too, which is why Kyrie is now a Boston Celtic.

And so this is the other hard part, the part that involves trying to figure out what is going in this dude’s very interesting mind. As far as we can tell—and the hints have not been particularly subtle—Kyrie Irving was sick of being on the same basketball roster as LeBron James. How much of this had to do with actually playing with LeBron—the three-time champion and one of the two or three greatest players in NBA history—versus just sharing the same space with him is hard to know. Probably only Kyrie knows for sure.

Honestly maybe even that’s a stretch.

The point is that Kyrie Irving is what happens if you gave the Expanding Brain meme a killer crossover and an Instagram account, and none of us is entirely sure what makes him tick. You can bet that “none of us” at some point will include his new coach and teammates in Boston. Is Kyrie out to stake a First-Team All-NBA claim this season? He has to know it’s not a realistic goal: scoring numbers aside, a guy who’s never averaged four rebounds per game is hardly a threat to match the statistical insanity of Westbrook and Harden, and can you imagine a scenario in which anyone puts him ahead of Steph?

As for team goals: Being the best player on a Celtics team that beats LeBron’s Cavs to next year’s Finals would probably feel pretty good. And he just might do it, taking over where IT left off, gaining Brad Stevens’ trust (or at least tolerance), and going for 30 per this season as the C’s establish themselves as the best in the East, for whatever that might be worth. Whether that would justify Kyrie’s move in his own mind seems irrelevant; outside justification does not seem to be among his concerns.

Nor should it! Like any person on this big, not perfectly round but still definitely globular planet, Kyrie Irving should work somewhere he can be happy and fulfilled and able to do his best work. If that’s Boston, good for him. It should be fun to watch.

Previous Rankings:
2016: No. 12
2015: No. 15
2014: No. 16
2013: No. 9

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2017-18—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.

No. 50 – Dion Waiters
No. 49 – Ben Simmons 
No. 48 – Brook Lopez
No. 47 — Harrison Barnes
No. 46 — Jrue Holiday
No. 45 — Lonzo Ball
No. 44 — Myles Turner
No. 43 — Goran Dragic
No. 42 — Andre Drummond
No. 41 — Al Horford
No. 40 — LaMarcus Aldridge
No. 39 — Kevin Love
No. 38 — Paul Millsap
No. 37 — Hassan Whiteside
No. 36 — Andrew Wiggins
No. 35 — Marc Gasol
No. 34 – DeAndre Jordan
No. 33 — Bradley Beal
No. 32 — Kemba Walker
No. 31 — CJ McCollum
No. 30 — Devin Booker
No. 29 — Nikola Jokic
No. 28 — Joel Embiid
No. 27 — Mike Conley 
No. 26 — Kyle Lowry
No. 25 — Rudy Gobert

No. 24 — Gordon Hayward
No. 23 — Kristaps Porzingis
No. 22 — Carmelo Anthony
No. 21 — DeMar DeRozan
No. 20 — Blake Griffin
No. 19 — Draymond Green
No. 18 — Chris Paul
No. 17 — Klay Thompson
No. 16 — Jimmy Butler
No. 15 — Isaiah Thomas
No. 14 — Karl-Anthony Towns
No. 13 — Damian Lillard
No. 12 — DeMarcus Cousins

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