If you didn’t catch Cleveland’s recent upset win over OKC, you missed out. Badly. That was the night Kyrie Irving officially announced himself as a superstar. Yes, we all knew he could play before then. He’s an All-Star, a plus-20-a-night scorer. But to take on perhaps the best team in the league and one of the best players at your position in Russell Westbrook, and turn them into mush on the way to 13 points in the final three minutes of a close game? That’s big time. That’s how you start a legacy.
Irving isn’t as accomplished as Westbrook – his team is complete garbage (and some of that has to fall on his shoulders as a point guard). But he’s captivating basketball fans around the world with his clutch play and his already legendary ballhandling. And while Uncle Drew came up with Chris Paul comparisons, he’s actually closer to Westbrook. The dude’s played a lot of two guard since he was a teenager, and feels perfectly at home taking 20 shots a night.
As for Westbrook, we know he has no problems putting ‘em up. Perhaps the most aggressive point guard in the league, not even the world’s best scorer can quell Westbrook’s insatiable scoring desire. That used to be a problem. But more and more folks are coming around to Westbrook’s side, realizing that hunger is what makes him so good. That hunger is what drives him. Westbrook will never be satisfied, a rare quality in an age of overabundance and monster contracts.
Both players can dish the rock, but both are at their best breaking people down and dropping buckets.
Yesterday, we came with James Harden versus Dwyane Wade, and the voting results were actually somewhat close. Today, it’s even more of a toss up between two All-Star point guards, two leaders who are more similar than you thought. Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving. Who’s better? We argue. You decide.
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Take a stroll around Twitter and it’ll become clear that Russell Westbrook is much hated and Kyrie Irving is much loved. And while Westbrook is often ridiculed for good reason (he has questionable shot selection, he occasionally hogs the ball and he wears fishing lure shirts), his effectiveness for the Thunder offense is too often ignored. Irving is a phenomenal player and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the best player in the league by 2018. But to say he’s better than Westbrook right now is premature.
Westbrook is in the midst of his most complete season as a pro. He ranks seventh in league in points at 22.6 per game, fifth in assists at 8.2 per game and fourth in steals at almost two per game. He’s finding teammates in much more creative ways than he normally has and he’s the leader of the league’s best offense for the second year in a row. He’s been around for five years and he knows what he’s doing.
The passing ability of Westbrook is above Irving’s at this point, but it’s honestly close. It’s hard to evaluate where Irving would be if he actually had NBA-level talent around him, just as it’s hard to evaluate what Westbrook’s scoring would be like if he wasn’t teammates with Kevin Durant.
The stats Westbrook critics cite most about him are his shooting percentages, as he currently shoots .421 from the field and .323 from behind the arc. This is bad, and to make it worse, he’s taking 19 shots a game at these percentages on a team with Durant, Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka. I bring it up because it’s a problem. But it’s also a new problem for Westbrook, who has shot above .440 in his previous two seasons. The difference this year is that Westbrook is lacking effectiveness in isolation, where he’s making only 32 percent of his shots, according to Synergy Sports. This is way below Irving’s absurd mark of 49 percent, but, again, it’s a new problem for Westbrook that I wouldn’t expect to continue.
Around the rim, Irving lacks Westbrook’s explosiveness and finishing ability. Irving is a rim grazer while Westbrook is a rim destroyer. It’s an ability that defenses cannot plan for and it’s another check in the Westbrook box.
The defensive end is where Westbrook clearly separates himself from Irving. And it’s not because Westbrook is especially good at it. It’s because Irving is especially poor. Since his rookie year, Irving has improved on a defensive ability that John Hollinger labeled as a “horrifying flying train wreck” before this season. It just hasn’t improved enough to make him better than Westbrook. Irving still struggles to stay in front of opposing point guards, he takes plays off and he’s often lost. If he wants to be rated above Westbrook, then he can’t be such a liability on the defensive end.
It’s possible to make a case for either of these players over the other, but I just can’t convince myself that Irving is better right now. When Westbrook’s shooting percentages come back to career norms, he’ll be nearly impossible to stop. Uncle Drew is great, but Westbrook should be appreciated for what he is: one of the most explosive, unpredictable and aggravating point guards in league history. Irving isn’t there yet.