When the Cavaliers were struggling to close out the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, ESPN’s Zach Lowe penned a column placing much of the blame on the Cavs’ defense, and in particular on Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. As he criticized their efforts in the pick-and-roll, he threw in this aside about the 2015 Finals (emphasis mine):
Opponents know this stuff. They are putting Irving and Love into twice as many pick-and-rolls each game as they averaged in the regular-season, a massive jump out of proportion to the slight uptick in minutes the two are playing together. These are the sort of numbers that had members of the Golden State Warriors’ coaching staff quietly fretting when both Love and Irving missed last year’s NBA Finals, forcing the Cavs to play superior defenders in their place.
Love missed last year’s Finals because of a dislocated shoulder, and Irving fractured his kneecap in Game 1. Cleveland’s offense ground to a halt, but their suddenly stout defense made life hell for the Warriors for three games. But Golden State eventually broke through, War Boy Matthew Dellavedova went to the hospital with dehydration, and the Warriors won the series 4-2.
As the two teams’ rosters, especially at the top, are largely unchanged from last year, these repeat NBA Finals have been a litmus test for the Warriors’ coaching staff’s worry, and it sure seems like they were correct. At every opportunity the Warriors are putting Love and Irving into pick and rolls, and punishing them. And while Love has been bad, Irving has been downright atrocious.
According to FiveThirtyEight intern Kyle Wagner, Irving’s defense has gone from bad to nonexistent: he gave up an effective field goal percentage of 50.5 in the regular season, 59.2 in the playoffs, and 66.7 in Game 1. He was especially abused by Shaun Livingston in Game 1, and in Game 2 Draymond Green went off in part because Cavs defenders were helping off him to assist Irving.
The flip side here, of course, is that Irving has played like trash on offense too. He is a miserable 12 for 36 from the floor in the Finals, with more turnovers than assists. He repeatedly pounds the ball on possessions with one or zero passes, driving into the teeth of a prepared defense only to back out for a contested pull-up jumper. He’s a series low -36, and frankly it’s a surprise that number isn’t any lower.
I don’t want to overreact to a two-game sample, but Irving’s defense has been awful since he entered the league five seasons ago, and furthermore, no matter what advanced metric you look at, he grades out as good-but-not great. Despite this, he has a max contract, a signature shoe deal, three All-Star games, an appearance on the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup team, and all the other trappings associated with being one of the league’s superstars.
So, with two more days before Game 3, here are the big questions: Are the Cavs better without Kyrie Irving than with him, and is there anything they’re willing to do about it?