The Washington Wizards are tied 1-1 with the Eastern Conference's number one seed, the Indiana Pacers.
They have accomplished this series tie, and a medium-length playoff run, because of the evolution of their star point guard John Wall.
The Wizards success, and by extension Wall's, is frustrating for Cavaliers fans. Why?
Because Cleveland's own prodigy point guard, the one super agent David Falk said trumped John Wall's feel for the game, had such a mediocre season. As the Wizards march through the playoffs, Cleveland fans were left at home with an imploding locker room, a re-tread coach, and a star player whose star might be going supernova.
Leaving us with the question: is Irving going to reach John Wall's level?
18.5 ppg / .469 FG %/ 5.4 ast / 3.7 reb / 1.1 steals / .399 3-P %
Most fans assumed that would be Irving's jumping off point, the baseline from which he would evolve into a 20 ppg and 8 ast point guard. He's a three-year vet now and he hasn't been able to hit those numbers.
However, in the following years, Irving would eclipse the 20 ppg mark. His sophomore campaign saw him average 22.5 ppg and last year he recorded 20.8 ppg.
But his shooting percentage has dipped significantly. Once he averaged nearly .470 from the field. Now? During his second-year, Irving felt a dip to .452. Not a fatal drop, and one that might have been attributable to the effect of playing in more games and tallying more minutes (aka the "sophomore slump").
Year number three did not see an improvement. Irving's percentage experienced another drop, again of about .020; tumbling to .430.His 3-point percentage also dropped with each consecutive year.
His assist numbers leave little to write home about. They've taken gradual steps forward each year, rising from 5.4 to 5.9 to 6.1.
For comparison's sake, here are the league's top-10 assist leaders for this past season, per ESPN:
- Chris Paul--10.7 apg
- Kendall Marshall/John Wall/Ty Lawson--8.8 apg
- Ricky Rubio--8.6 apg
- Stephen Curry--8.5 apg
- Brandon Jennings--7.6 apg
- Kyle Lowry--7.4 apg
- Jameer Nelson--7.0 apg
- Jeff Teague--6.7 apg
Irving's 6.1 apg puts him in a three-way tie for the 14th spot (shared with Brooklyn's Deron Williams, a hobbled shell of himself, and James Harden, a shooting guard, of Houston).
Meanwhile, we can see that John Wall has leapt into the discussion as, at worst, the fourth best dime dropper in the NBA. Wall's season put him ahead of flashy Spanish passer Rubio, the "savant" Curry, the flaunted for how underrated he is Lowry, and former Cavalier LeBron James.
Irving emerged from Duke, after playing in only a handful of games, and was also selected number one overall. The early scouting reports on Irving compared him, somewhat unfairly, to Chris Paul. His feel for the game was good, his jumper deadly. However, there was concern over his injury history.
By virtue of their status as number one overall picks, and the position they play, Wall has found himself linked to Irving. The relative success or failure of their respective teams have been placed firmly on their shoulders and those successes (or failures) have become baggage for both men to carry.
And while the early tale of Irving's career has been one of worrisome plateauing, Wall's has proceeded in the opposite direction. After years of being dragged through the proverbial mud, particularly with concerns that he was unable to manage a game, Wall has quietly become one of the most valuable players in the game.
Here are his numbers from this past year, per basketball-reference:
19.3 ppg / .433 FG % / 4.1 reb / 8.8 ast / 1.8 steals / 0.5 blocks
He also averaged a decent .351 from behind the arc. His advanced numbers show a pretty damn good year, as well. His win shares were the highest they've ever been (7.9), as was his offensive rating (106), and true shooting percentage (.524). His PER was a very respectable 19.5, down slightly from the previous season (20.8).
Irving's advanced numbers paint a more flattering portrait of his season: a PER of 20.1 (better than Wall's and the lowest of Irving's career), a true shooting percentage of .533, and a win share of 6.7.
Wall's turnover percentage (TOV %), this past year, was higher than Irving's. Wall turned in a TOV of 16.4, Irving a TOV of 12.1 (the lowest of his career to this point).
But the assist percentage difference between Wall and Irving was noticeable. Kyrie notched an assist percentage of 31.6, with arguably the most talent he's had to this point surrounding him. Wall notched a 40.5, the second highest of his career.
Where Irving pales in comparison to Wall, and has for some time, is defense. Irving fails both the advanced stats and the eye test. His defense is lazy, though not quite as bad as James Harden. Irving's defensive rating is 108 (Wall's is 104). Irving's defensive win shares is 2.1, Wall's 4.0. Traditional stats tell a similar story, though it makes the gap between the two seem tighter than the advanced stats: Irving averages 1.5 steals a game and 0.3 blocks. Wall averages 1.8 steals and 0.5 blocks.
Still, I can't imagine there are many people that would argue Wall has not been a better overall defender than Irving, at least for the past year.
That said, the rivalry between the two players (if it can even be called that) always seemed quiet. There was more beef between Irving and his own team (Mr. Waiters, please) than Irving and Wall. Which changed a little in February.
Following a game against the Cavaliers, a game that the Wizards won, Wall was asked about the differences between his game and Irving's. This was his response:
"It’s always tough [facing Kyrie],” Wall said following the game. “Everybody wants to know who is the best young point guard and who’s the best guy in the Eastern Conference. We both do things great for our team. He’s probably a better offensive guy, skill-wise, and can basically take over games with his skills. I’m more of a point guard that likes to get his teammates involved and am blessed with the talents and abilities to get hot and able to score the ball. Guys look at every time we play as a marquee matchup, so everybody is going to be tuned in for the next couple of years.”
Shots fired? I mean, it's not the most incendiary thing that's ever been said player-to-player (Hey Kobe, how does Shaq's ass taste?) but it might be the first signs of competitive angst. After all, isn't Wall essentially saying he's a better "point guard" than Irving? That Irving is at his best when he's assuming the role of volume scorer?
Luckily, despite the early indications that Wall might be the superior player, there are reasons for the oft-touted Cleveland hope machine to be in full force.
Wall's assist numbers are better but Irving's are improving. If the Duke product's shooting percentage can increase, his ppg will too. Now, those things are partly dependent on striking a workable balance with backcourt running mate Dion Waiters, and adding some additional talent to this roster.
The Wizards starting five looks like this:
2.) Bradley Beal
3.) Trevor Ariza
5.) Marcin Gortat
That's a solid starting five. That's a playoff-level starting five. Depending on how Beal develops and how that three-position gets filled (Ariza is in a contract year), the Wiz could eventually be dark-horse championship contenders.
Here are the Cavs starting five:
2.) Dion Waiters
3.) Luol Deng
4.) Tristan Thompson
5.) Anderson Varejao/Spencer Hawes (depending on injuries)
Wall currently has more talent around. With Andre Miller coming off the bench, and a few other key reserves, Washington is further along in its development process than Cleveland is.
If Waiters can catch up to the blossoming Beal (who has looked devastating at times in the playoffs), and the Cavs frontcourt (which features a number one overall pick---Anthony Bennett, and a number four overall pick---TT) can get to Nene/Gortat levels, the Cavaliers would win quite a few more games. They would likely challenge for a mid-tier playoff spot.
Would we see a corresponding spike in Irving's performance/numbers? I would guess so. By most accounts, Irving has to find a chemical balance that works with his teammates. When you have a young team, that's going to happen. Not everyone stumbles into an OKC situation, where you can somehow start a perennial-MVP candidate and one of the most freakishly athletic PGs, without much static over minutes and shot distribution (at least not internal static).
If the Cavaliers find that kind of success, and do so within the next two years, then the tone of the debate will shift. One of Irving's advantages over Wall is marketability. Irving is more likeable. He's charismatic and stars in Pepsi commercials dressed as an old man. He has weird nicknames (like Uncle Drew) and seems to be generally accepted by the public-at-large. Wall, for whatever reason, is not nearly so beloved. He's achieved a modicum of success and that has allowed him to gain leverage on his rivalry with Irving, should Irving gain even footing, the public would likely favor Irving once again. Would that make Irving the superior player?
But if he can re-track his career, his play on the court could do that for him. And players who win games are forgiven more than they're derided (see: Bryant, Kobe).
Give the rivalry time. Irving has a chance to re-take his pole position but, for now, John Wall is playing better defense and distributing the ball at a better clip. Hard to argue that doesn't make him a better point guard.