It’s time to rethink how we view Kyrie Irving in the context of his NBA peers.
Irving is, without question, one of the 10 most talented players in the league. He is a champion. But the Brooklyn Nets' guard is not a superstar or a franchise player. In fact, he never was. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time when LeBron James returned to Cleveland, where they teamed up for an NBA title in 2016.
Instead, Irving was always destined to be more Stephon Marbury than Stephen Curry.
Superstar players elevate their teams to new heights. They turn average teams into good teams and good teams into great teams. Irving operates in this peripheral space where his abilities and statistics parallel the game’s best players, but his impact on his team’s record is oddly irrelevant. If he’s on an average team, he’s going to put on a show and fill up a box score, but the team will remain average. If he’s on a good team, he’s going to put on a show and fill up a box score, but the team will remain merely good.
This season, he's on yet another middling team, and despite playing just 11 games to date, he was back in the headlines earlier this week for the first time since his nonsensical Instagram post criticizing Boston fans the night before Thanksgiving. Irving, who has been sidelined with a mysterious shoulder injury since Nov. 14, said he chose to get a cortisone shot in his right shoulder on Christmas Eve rather than have surgery. But if the injection doesn’t work, he’ll have surgery and likely miss the rest of this season. He found a way, of course, to put a little Kyrie-twist on things: "I tried to go without any anti-inflammatories, which is why it took so long."
It’s always something with Kyrie. If he misses the rest of the season, Brooklyn got the full post-Cavs Kyrie experience in only 11 games. He was aesthetically captivating, statistically spectacular (28.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 7.2 apg), unnecessarily aloof and had an immaterial impact on winning. (The Nets were 4-7 with him and are 12-13 without him).
Wait, an immaterial impact on winning? That’s right. In the three seasons since forcing his way out of Cleveland, Irving has had an immaterial, even slightly negative impact on winning. Over that time, he has played in 138 games and his teams have gone 82-56 (.594 winning percentage). Over the same time, he’s missed 62 games and his teams have gone 38-24 (.613 winning percentage).
How is this possible? Kyrie played like a superstar in back-to-back NBA Finals when he was 24 and 25 years old. He made “The Shot.” He outplayed Steph Curry. Why is his career seemingly taking a U-turn out of the Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame parking lot back onto Route 91?
Here’s my theory: Kyrie Irving has always been the next Stephon Marbury. He was never meant to be a franchise player. He was only meant to be a self-absorbed performer — an artist, as Kevin Durant described him. Winning has always been tangential to the show Kyrie puts on every time he steps on the court.
Stephon “Starbury” Marbury was the same way. He was a New York hoops legend who was immensely skilled from a young age and captivating to NBA fans. He had all the makings of a superstar, but he was more concerned with getting his stats and being rich and famous. Winning never seemed to be a priority for him. He advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once, when he was a 32-year-old backup point guard on the Celtics in 2009.
As with Irving, there was never a direct correlation between Marbury’s statistical excellence and his team’s success. During his eight-year prime, Marbury averaged 20.6 points and 8.3 assists per game. Yet he made the playoffs in only four of those seasons. In this chart, the boldfaced shows the teams Marbury played for and their records. They were either horrible or average. The season after he was gone, those teams were better — in the Suns' case, much, much better.
|1998-99||Minnesota Timberwolves||25-25 (Lockout season; traded during season)|
|2000-01||New Jersey Nets||26-56|
|2001-02||New Jersey Nets||52-30 (Made Finals)|
|2003-04||Phoenix Suns||29-53 (traded during season)|
|2004-05||Phoenix Suns||62-20 (Made Western Conference Finals)|
This is insane.
Marbury forced his way off an up-and-coming Minnesota team midway through the lockout season in 1999 once he realized he wasn’t getting a $126M extension like Kevin Garnett's. In dealing Marbury to the Nets, the T-Wolves acquired a less talented but less volatile Terrell Brandon and won 50 games the next season. The Nets paid Marbury. Then they saw an opportunity to flip him to the Suns for Jason Kidd a year later and went from being one of the worst teams in the league to reaching the Finals each of the next two seasons. Phoenix gave Marbury a three-year leash — he led the team to two playoff wins — then the Suns shipped him to the Knicks, signed Steve Nash, and subsequently had the best record in the NBA and made the Western Conference Finals the next season.
While Kyrie Irving hasn’t had that dramatic of an impact on the two teams he’s left thus far in his career, it’s worth pointing out that the Cavs were 51-31 and lost in the Finals in Irving’s last season with the team. Cleveland was 50-32 and lost in the Finals the very next season, without him. It remains to be seen how the Celtics finish this season, but their 25-10 record would suggest that they will easily eclipse their 49-33 record from last season, Irving’s tumultuous final one with the team.
It’s also worth noting that Irving, like Marbury, has been no stranger to drama throughout his career. (You can Google Marbury's issues.) To name a few: There was Irving's alleged fight with Dion Waiters. In LeBron’s first season back, there was the locker room altercation with The King after Irving finished a game with 34 points and zero assists. There was the time he didn’t talk to his Cavs teammates for multiple days during the playoffs. There was the trade demand. There was the time Irving skipped a Game 7 in Boston against the Cavs to have a sinus surgery. And of course, there was last season’s leadership debacle throughout the season and meltdown vs. Milwaukee.
Irving's and Marbury’s basketball personalities are similar too. Both possess a supreme confidence and an unwavering belief that they’re the best player every time they set foot on a basketball court. The main difference between Irving and Marbury is the timing of when they each crossed paths with a Hall of Fame teammate. Irving was fortunate enough to play with a prime LeBron James, who was nearly eight years his elder; Marbury played with a young Garnett, who was less than a year older. Prime LeBron could carry a team to the Finals on his own; Young Garnett could carry his team to the first round of the playoffs. Irving’s penchant for elevating his game when the lights were the brightest kept him humble enough to play second fiddle to LeBron for three seasons; Marbury’s issues with KG once Garnett signed a $126M contract extension made it impossible for him to sit tight.
Both Irving and Marbury were blessed with similar Hall of Fame abilities. Yet because Irving’s career had better timing, he won a ring and etched a permanent place in NBA lore. Marbury’s career, however, had worse timing, as he never won a ring and will eventually be lost to NBA history. BUT…Starbury’s story has a happy ending: He went on to win three Chinese Basketball Association titles in Beijing and has a statue and museum dedicated to him.
Top that, Kyrie!