SLAM Top 50: Kyrie Irving, No. 12

It can’t be about the shot. At least, it can’t only be about the shot.

The shot, well, I’m not going to offend you by explaining that. The fact that it’s not clearly the defining moment of the 2016 NBA Finals has everything to do with his quite-possibly-GOAT teammate’s knack for immaculately timed chase downs and in no way diminishes the importance and all-time, cold-blooded clutch status of the shot itself. The shot was friggin’ YUGE. The timing, the stakes, the (ahem) defender. Shots get no bigger than this particular shot.

But that can’t, objectively, be the reason we think Kyrie Irving is a better basketball player than he was this time last year.

This is just one ranking, of course, and rankings in general are bad and should be avoided at all costs, but here we are. The point is that last year, we ranked Kyrie Irving the 15th best player in the NBA, this coming off a season in which he averaged 21.7 points and 5.2 assists per game. This year, coming off a season in which he averaged 19.6 point and 4.7 assists, we’ve got him 12th.

So what’s that even about.

Well, let’s acknowledge some context. Kyrie missed the Cavs’ first 24 games last season—nearly a third of the schedule!—while coming back from injury, and once he was back, he averaged about five fewer minutes per game. As such, his per-36 numbers are probably a better measure of his effectiveness, and in that, he was actually slightly more productive than he was in 2014-15. Then again, his percentages were down from the field and behind the arc, and his PER and win shares were both down as well. If his regular-season numbers don’t show that Irving dropped off last season, they surely don’t show that he made any great leap forward, either.

But yeah, regular-season numbers. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this argument plays itself. Maybe you’re right: Irving played 53 regular-season games while working his way back from injury, and working himself into game shape. Starting in late April, he played 21 games that mattered, against increasingly difficult competition, and averaged a very efficient 25.2 ppg. In the seven games that mattered most, against a historically great opponent, he was mostly excellent, and occasionally brilliant—never more so than on the last made basket of the series.

Now pretend for a second that he missed.

Maybe the Cavs still pull out the win. Maybe they don’t. Either way, it’s not like Kyrie’s entire legacy is shattered by missing a contested three with nearly a minute left in a tied Game 7. He might have gotten another chance that night. Odds are good he’ll have more chances down the road.

But if he’d missed? Win or lose, he still had a terrific series, much of it while matched against the reigning League MVP. Make or miss, that one shot shouldn’t really matter in how we regard a player’s entire body of work. But it sure feels like it does.

Kyrie acknowledged as much last month, telling that his life “changed drastically” after the shot, that the moment represented “validation” for his place among the game’s elite. That makes sense. We expect the greats to be at their greatest when the stakes are highest. With that shot, he earned his spot. Maybe just as important, he earned it with his play throughout the series, without which the Cavs weren’t in a position to win a decisive Game 7 in the first place.

He’s five seasons in, just 24 years old. It’ll take more than a single shot (no matter how big) to get him into the top 10, to crack All-NBA First Team status, to start stealing MVP votes. One shot doesn’t put Kyrie in the best-in-the-game conversation. But maybe it tells us he’s the sort of dude who expects to be there before long.


2011: –
2012: 17
2013: 9
2014: 16
2015: 15

2016: 12

SLAM Top 50 Players 2016
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Ben Simmons 76ers SF 9
49 D’Angelo Russell Lakers PG 12
48 Derrick Favors Jazz PF 12
47 Devin Booker Suns SG 8
46 Chris Bosh Heat PF 11
45 Bradley Beal Wizards SG 7
44 Eric Bledsoe Suns PG 11
43 Serge Ibaka Magic PF 10
42 CJ McCollum Blazers SG 6
41 Pau Gasol Spurs PF 9
40 Rudy Gobert Jazz C 9
39 Kevin Love Cavs PF 8
38 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 7
37 Kristaps Porzingis Knicks PF 6
36 Kemba Walker Hornets PG 10
35 Dwight Howard Hawks C 8
34 Hassan Whiteside Heat C 7
33 Gordon Hayward Jazz SF 8
32 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 9
31 Andrew Wiggins T-Wolves SF 7
30 Dwyane Wade Bulls SG 5
29 Paul Millsap Hawks PF 5
28 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 6
27 Al Horford Celtics C 5
26 Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks SF 6
25 Isaiah Thomas Celtics PG 8
24 DeMar DeRozan Raptors SG 4
23 DeAndre Jordan Clippers C 4
22 Andre Drummond Pistons C 3
21 Kyle Lowry Raptors PG 7
20 Karl-Anthony Towns T-Wolves C 2
19 Jimmy Butler Bulls SG 3
18 LaMarcus Aldridge Spurs PF 4
17 John Wall Wizards PG 6
16 Draymond Green Warriors PF 3
15 Carmelo Anthony Knicks SF 5
14 Blake Griffin Clippers PF 2
13 Klay Thompson Warriors SG 2
12 Kyrie Irving Cavs PG 5
11 Chris Paul Clippers PG 4
10 Damian Lillard Blazers PG 3
9 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 1
8 Paul George Pacers SF 4
7 James Harden Rockets SG 1
6 Anthony Davis Pelicans PF 1
5 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 3
4 Kevin Durant Warriors SF 2
3 Russell Westbrook Thunder PG 2
2 Stephen Curry Warriors PG 1
1 LeBron James Cavs SF 1

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2016-17—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.

Follow the entire SLAM Top 50 countdown.