In game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals, Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving hit a one-on-one three-pointer over Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry to give the Cavs a three-point lead over the Warriors.
Two minutes later, the Cavs were NBA Finals champions.
As soon as it happened, Irving’s shot was recognized as an instant classic, a moment to be revered in the chronicles of basketball glory for eternity. But looking back, the moment also appears as a crossroads between a player known to be the greatest point guard in the league and a divisive young guard with a flashy dribble and a whole lot to prove.
At the time of the 2016 Finals, Curry was unanimously recognized as the best guard in the league, and arguably the second best player. He was at the end of a record-breaking MVP season, and was poised to cap it off with another NBA Championship title. But Kyrie Irving spoiled Curry’s moment, showing a flash of what he was bound to become in future seasons.
Irving, then 23 years old, was in his fifth year in the NBA. He had spent the past two seasons struggling to adjust to being second fiddle to LeBron James. It was the first time in his career that he had to take a backseat.
The Australian-American grew up a basketball prodigy, and throughout high school, college and his first three seasons in the NBA, he was always the best on the team. The change of identity strained Irving, as his first two seasons playing with LeBron displayed significant drops in offensive efficiency, according to Basketball Reference. Up until the 2016 NBA Finals, the former No. 1 draft pick seemed like he would never reach his full potential.
Then, he hit the shot over Curry. He spent the summer of 2016 as an NBA Champion, and did not slow down in 2016-2017. Irving reached career highs in points averaged and field goal percentage, tied his career high for assists averaged and played the best defense of his career averaging 2.6 steals and holding opponent guards to a 42 percent shooting average, according to Basketball Reference.
After suffering a defeat in last year’s finals to the Warriors, Irving shockingly demanded a trade from the Cavaliers and was quickly moved to the Boston Celtics before the start of the season.
Now, finally the star of his own team, Irving has proven his potential. He’s proven he is the best guard in the league—and he’s only getting better.
For all his success, Irving is still a divisive player. Inarguably exciting, with a flashy dribble and a play style that makes his limbs appear elastic on the court, Irving is often faulted for being too exciting, choosing flash over substance. The slander is far from truth.
Compared to the statistical averages of Stephen Curry, who some still argue for as the league’s best guard, the margins are slimmer than expected. Irving is, on average, only .63 behind Curry in offensive statistics.
It is puzzling as to why Irving receives so much ill will from media and fans alike. Irving’s aloof personality may be the cause for the disdain he’s common victim of. Last year, Irving claimed the Earth to be flat. It’s still unclear whether Irving was serious, but the comment sparked many a meme and a lot of outrage that a superstar with his platform would speak utter nonsense as fact. When asked about his claim and the subsequent outrage, Irving responded with cryptic platitudes such as: “When you’re very much woke, there’s no such thing as distractions, especially all this.”
Regardless of the half-baked proverbs Irving spouts off, his play still merits recognition as the best PG in the league. And Irving is only 25 years old. When Curry was 25, he was battling ankle injuries and struggling to stay on the court. Irving at 25 has five All-Star appearances and one ring to his name. Irving’s stats and accolades at 25 outperform Curry’s in nearly every metric.
A common argument for Curry’s greatness is how well he performs when he goes “nuclear,” a term referencing the absolute pinnacle of his play when he cannot miss a shot. But Curry’s “nuclear” is dependent on the momentum of his three, and one miss can derail the whole streak.
Irving’s ‘nuclear’ is much more reliable and therefore, much deadlier. He can get to the rim on command, and with his unrivaled finishing ability, buckets are almost guaranteed.
Currently, both Irving’s Celtics and Curry’s Warriors are second in their respective conferences. With half the season to go before the playoffs, Irving still has plenty of time to prove his dominance in the league. Who knows, before the season is out, perhaps he will have convinced us that the Earth is flat.
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