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Kyrie Irving's excellence is a maddening riddle

The arrival of LeBron James changed Kyrie Irving’s reputation, but did it change his game? And does that even matter?

2017 NBA Finals - Game Four Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

It isn’t quite right to consider Kyrie Irving an anachronistic player. He shoots and sinks a huge number of threes, unlike the players who we traditionally consider “old-school” these days (like DeMar DeRozan or Tyreke Evans). Kyrie is instead more a hybrid of a modern guard (with his quick, effective trigger from outside) and a turn-of-the-millennium lead guard (a score-first dribble wizard who loves acrobatic finishes at the rim).

This framing — understanding what Irving really represents as a player — is vital to appropriately casting him within this golden age of point guards. It’s everything else that makes fair judgment impossible.

Kyrie is a one-way player: He just does not defend well with any consistency. Yet it rarely appears to be an issue of effort (he’s picked up a couple of floor burns in these NBA Finals), which makes it more difficult to critique harshly. NBA defense is cerebral and relies on team-wide focus and effort; too often, Kyrie misses an assignment because the other team outsmarts him or Irving’s man scores because help didn’t arrive on time.

It’s valuable to contrast Kyrie’s defensive problems with those of Kevin Love, who more so seems physically limited in terms of his ability to challenge shots with length and move laterally. Love knows where he needs to be and often struggles to get there. Irving could get there if he always knew where he is going.

He has no such problem on offense. Kyrie knows exactly where he’s supposed to be on that end: Trotting back up the court after dropping in a lay-up or draining a three. He plays the role well. He averaged 22 points per game in his second season, and had two All-Star nods despite leading an awful team within his first three seasons. He was a quintessential Big Numbers, Bad Team player, much like DeMarcus Cousins, Brook Lopez, and Love. No one blamed Kyrie for Cleveland’s problems, but it was difficult to extract one from the other given the player’s outsized role on the team. It was hard to imagine what a successful Kyrie Irving team looked like.

Enter LeBron.

Something LeBron said during the excellent Uninterrupted barbershop video with Draymond Green and 2 Chainz stuck with me in relation to Kyrie. LeBron was talking about how many players in the NBA don’t know how to play basketball, and someone mentioned that some players don’t even watch much basketball. (This gave LeBron an opportunity to share his wonder at having recently watched a Division II team run a flex set for 40 minutes ... and win.)

This isn’t to say that Kyrie doesn’t know how to play basketball or that he doesn’t study tape and watch as much as he can. But pre-LeBron, Kyrie seemed like that kind of player, the type who refined his skills to perfection and didn’t really understand how to bring his teammates along with him. The result was a string of trips to the NBA draft lottery.

Some of this is surely a function of youth and the displacement of veterans: LeBron ran into these issues in 2003 and 2004 as well. But the distance between Kyrie’s individual skills (simply incredible) and the broader abilities required of a successful star is great, and it makes you wonder.

It’s illustrative to wonder what Kyrie would be like now had LeBron not decided to return to Cleveland. Most stars don’t get the benefit of an all-time great joining up three years into their careers. There’s no question that Irving would have been a top-15 scorer with a ridiculous list of highlights. He’d have continued to make All-Star teams. Maybe eventually the Cavaliers’ front office would have found some combination of players around him through the draft or free agency to make it work. (Recall that Cleveland was preparing to offer Gordon Hayward a max deal when LeBron decided to return home. Utah would have matched that offer sheet, but the Cavs were on a smarter path than they’d been in the prior couple offseasons.)

Perhaps Irving would instead have been left to languish in perpetual mediocrity like Love had been in Minnesota or Cousins in Sacramento. We would have debated as to whether the problem with the Cavaliers was Irving’s lack of leadership, or whether the problem with Irving was that he was stuck on a hopeless team. Like Love, Cousins, Anthony Davis, and so many others, his ability to win and compete in high-pressure situations would have been challenged.

Through LeBron, Kyrie earned the chance to prove he could thrive in high-pressure situations. He’s scored 40 in NBA Finals elimination games ... twice! After being locked up by Klay Thompson twice to open these Finals, he broke free for back-to-back bonanzas.

For whatever reason, though, his excellence in the latter games begs the question as to why he couldn’t do anything in the first two games. What changed? And why is Irving unable to contribute much of anything when he can’t score? Why, even when he’s playing well, can he not recognize that shots like the ones he took late in Game 3 are not great shots? Kyrie can be so damn good sometimes that we curse he’s not even so much as good all of the time.

The truth is that most great players are a lot like Kyrie. The LeBrons — players who don’t need a co-star or a high-level veteran to help them win — are the exceptions. Carmelo Anthony is an interesting case: He won a title in college and never missed the playoffs in Denver. He still earned (fair) criticism of his defense; he was, like Kyrie, a player who was invisible if he wasn’t getting buckets. Melo ended up with some great teammates (including Andre Miller early and Chauncey Billups later), but no one like LeBron. (Yet.) And so the knocks about knowing how to win and playing a team game have dogged him into the twilight of his career.

Kyrie remains a riddle, and cracking it is more difficult because of the early-career jolt that LeBron’s arrival created. As a player, based on the data and the tape, Kyrie hasn’t changed one bit. But his narrative couldn’t be more different than circa early 2014.

It feels as though we’ve both learned who Kyrie is as a player and learned nothing at all at the same time. No matter what happens in Game 5 and beyond, resolution on the matter of whether Kyrie is indisputably excellent seems impossible to resolve. Kyrie partisans will argue the matter is obviously settled based on the 2016 Finals; Kyrie skeptics will suggest he’d be just another Good Player On A Bad Team if not for LeBron.

Nothing Kyrie can do on the court, good or bad, is likely to change anyone’s mind at this point. Only time and the history to be made can tell which narrative will win out in the end.