SLAM Top 50: Kyrie Irving, no. 15

by Tessa Yesselman and Sam Rubenstein

March 12, 2015. Twenty of 32 from the field. Seven of 7 from three. Ten of 10 form the line. Five assists, 4 steals, 3 boards. 57 points.

The game-tying three to force overtime. All of this against the mighty Spurs.

Was this you playing 2K in your room? You wish! This was max Kyrie with the NBA season high. He also had the second-highest scoring night of the year, hitting 11 threes including the game-winner. Please, continue to foam at the mouth raving about Westbrook or the Beard and their so-called big nights.

Kyrie Irving is a special talent. His footwork is dizzying and his handle is so spectacular that Allen Iverson is quoted as saying that Irving’s handle is superior to his. Allen Iverson. Indeed, it seems that the only person capable of beating Kyrie Irving is Kyrie himself.

At 23 years of age, he’s racked up a very impressive list of accolades. Rookie of the Year, three-time All Star and All Star MVP, to name a couple. Unfortunately, he’s also racked up a list of injuries typically associated with older players. Starting in college, Irving has been plagued by injuries to his feet, face, hands and fingers, and most recently, a fractured kneecap sustained during the 2015 NBA finals which threatens to sideline him well in to the 2015-16 season.

When Irving inked his $90 million extension with Cleveland in 2014, there were questions about his career trajectory. His talent was undeniable, but speculation swirled that he may be more of an entertaining, high-volume scorer and less of a franchise player. Was he a true point guard, or was his style of play too selfish? Would he improve defensively to become less of a liability? Did he make the players around him better, or did he always need the ball in his hands to score?

With LeBron back in Cleveland, and the addition of Kevin Love, expectations for the Cavs were sky high. Irving, like the rest of the Cavs, stumbled a bit out of the gate in the 2014-15 season. The scrutiny surrounding him intensified, as his performances in the first four games were less than inspiring.

The third and fourth games of the season featured a back-to-back at Portland and Utah. In Portland, Irving shot 3-17 and was publicly criticized by LeBron after the game, with James noting that Irving had developed “bad habits.” The following night in Utah was no better. Irving scored 34 points but logged 0 assists, and the Cavs came up empty on their early West Coast trip, falling to 1-3 on the season.

But now, those growing pains are a distant memory and much of the doubt about Irving has been quelled.

He is a star, and is one of the faces of the future of the NBA. The relationship with LeBron improved as the season went on, and Irving similarly improved. When LeBron is on your team, you’re going to have the ball less. And with the ball in his hands less, Irving got better.

He took nearly one shot less per game, but his three-point shooting percentage dramatically jumped, and he finished the season with a career high true shooting percentage. He became especially deadly in the paint, causing LeBron to dub him “the best below the rim finisher,” not in the NBA today—but in the history of the League.

On the other side of the ball, he took strides in the right direction. Perhaps most importantly, he showed increased interest in playing defense, even publicly saying in November that he wanted to take on a bigger role on that end of the floor. After making that proclamation, the Cavs went on an eight-game winning streak and performed better defensively with Irving on the floor, which was a definite marked change.

Overall, they allowed 98.6 points for every 100 possessions (fifth in the League), and with Irving on the floor, that average fell to 97.6 points. There will never be a magical transformation in to Gary Payton, but he should be lauded for his efforts to improve.

A year in to his partnership with LeBron, Kyrie Irving seems to have hit his stride. Instead of being overshadowed by the best basketball player alive, he has confirmed his own status as a star.

The Cavs came up short against the Warriors in the Finals, maybe because Kyrie wasn’t able to go (if these rankings were voted on during the Finals, Dellavedova would be top-three) and will be playing with a chip on their shoulder.

We don’t yet know when to expect Irving back on the floor, but when he does return, we can expect him to come out hungry and ready for revenge.


SLAM Top 50 Players 2015
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Rajon Rondo Kings PG 14
49 Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks SF 8
48 Rudy Gobert Jazz C 10
47 Al Jefferson Hornets C 9
46 DeMar DeRozan Raptors SG 7
45 Goran Dragic Heat PG 13
44 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 11
43 Jeff Teague Hawks PG 12
42 Bradley Beal Wizards SG 6
41 Joakim Noah Bulls C 8
40 Eric Bledsoe Suns PG 11
39 Tony Parker Spurs PG 10
38 Andrew Wiggins T-Wolves SF 7
37 Kyle Lowry Raptors PG 9
36 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 10
35 Gordon Hayward Jazz SF 6
34 Pau Gasol Bulls PF 9
33 Paul Millsap Hawks PF 8
32 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 8
31 Andre Drummond Pistons C 7
30 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 7
29 Draymond Green Warriors PF 6
28 Kobe Bryant Lakers SG 5
27 Dwyane Wade Heat SG 4
26 DeAndre Jordan Clippers C 6
25 Tim Duncan Spurs C 5
24 Derrick Rose Bulls PG 7
23 Al Horford Hawks C 4
22 Paul George Pacers SF 5
21 Chris Bosh Heat PF 5
20 Kevin Love Cavs PF 4
19 Dwight Howard Rockets C 3
18 Jimmy Butler Bulls SG 3
17 Klay Thompson Warriors SG 2
16 Damian Lillard Blazers PG 6
15 Kyrie Irving Cavs PG 5

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.