Through the first couple of weeks of the NBA season, no player has had a larger impact on their team than Kyrie Irving has had on the Brooklyn Nets. Yes, the Nets are just 2-4 and have hit some early speedbumps, but Irving’s arrival in NYC has made a spectacular splash.
Over the summer, both Irving and Kevin Durant lauded Kenny Atkinson’s offence that helped the 2018-19 Nets improve by 14 wins and make the playoffs for the first time in four years. Durant, in particular, praised what he saw as a ball movement-based, egalitarian offence that would thrive with the talent infusion he and Irving would provide.
It’s disputable whether that basketball ideal he described was ever truly present – Brooklyn was just 19th in offence and 21st in assists last season – but it is clear that to start this season, that system has changed. The Nets are now, for both better and worse, Kyrie Irving’s team.
With Durant likely out for the entire season, this is a bridge year for the franchise. Any playoff success will be a fantastic bonus but the priority is to take steps to improve on last season and be prepared to make the leap once the – now accurately measured – 6-foot-10 superstar returns healthy. In the meantime, Irving has been making the most of his year as the undisputed No. 1 option.
Through six games, Irving is averaging a career-high 30.5 points, just trailing James Harden after his 59-point explosion last week in Washington. Irving is also only behind Harden in field goal attempts per game (23.0) and is seventh in attempted 3s per game (9.0).
The most illuminating stat, though, is Irving’s usage, which is all the way up at 33.6 percent. That’s the fifth-highest in the league, behind only Harden, Derrick Rose, Kawhi Leonard and Trae Young. That number is a notable step up from Irving’s previous career-high of 29.8 percent in his first year as a Boston Celtic.
Without Durant, Irving is the unquestioned leader of this team. As he goes, so does the offence. The only other Nets with usages over 19.0 percent are Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie’s 28.2 percent usage is second on the team, but that number is so high largely because he plays almost two-thirds of his minutes with Irving on the bench. In the 10 minutes per game the two share the court, Dinwiddie’s usage falls all the way to 22.6 percent.
As you’d expect, this trend magnifies in clutch situations. Brooklyn has played a league-leading 31 clutch minutes this season and Irving has been on the floor for all of them. He has scored 42 points on 31 shots in those minutes. The entire rest of the Nets roster has just 34 points on 23 shots. Irving’s clutch usage is an unbelievable 50.0 percent.
On many of those clutch possessions, the ball is Irving’s to do with what he wants. Often, the game seems to come to a standstill to watch him attack one-on-one and inevitably take a pull-up jumper late in the clock. He’s averaging just 3.5 assists per 36 minutes in the clutch, well below both his season average of 8.0 assists/36 and his 8.4 assists/36 in clutch situations last year.
Those shots go in an incredible amount of the time, but there has to be some downside to offensive flow when both his teammates and opponents know how the possession will end as soon as Irving gets the ball in his hands.
That issue is indicative of a larger problem with the Nets offence. This just hasn’t been a good passing team to start the year. They average 19.3 turnovers and 246.5 passes per game, which are down at 29th and 27th in the league, respectively. Last year’s offence that Durant and Irving praised averaged 309 passes per game, eighth-most in the league.
Time will tell if this is just an early-season trend or one that will hinder the Nets all year. A positive sign is that many of their best offensive lineups so far feature remaining core players of last year’s team surrounded by pieces added this summer. To me, that appears to indicate that the stagnant offence should improve over the season as Irving gets more and more game reps with his new teammates.
To be clear, even with the issues they’ve faced, this isn’t a criticism of Irving. The Nets may be just 2-4 but have had a top-five offence when Irving has been on the floor. The team may not be flowing as well as it should, but 183 points through six games is a notable feat regardless of lagging results.
What is obvious, however, is that Irving is now the bar by which the Nets will be measured. Fair or not, usage will inevitably be justified by the wins it produces. 30 points per game is spectacular in early November even if it comes in a loss, but those stats will carry a lot less weight if the Nets are still floundering in the lottery come December.
For the time being, it’s worth praising Irving’s scoring while recognizing the lack of wins that have come along with it. He has a real shot at being the first player in the East to win a scoring title since Carmelo Anthony. And while regular-season accolades only hold so much value, this season will remain focused on improvement as long as Durant is on the sideline.
For the foreseeable future, it will remain the Kyrie Irving show in Brooklyn.