Though the last Basketball I.Q. post promised that today’s entry would compare Jeremy Lin with Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio, our Editorial Board had a last-minute change of heart and over-ruled our Managing Editor. Instead, the Board decreed, it was time to turn our attention to another up-and-comer who does not benefit from the bright lights of New York City: Kyrie Irving. Specifically, the Board wished to challenge the assertions of one of our own staff writers, who, prior to this year’s draft, ranked Irving as the number one prospect coming out of college, and boldly compared Irving to the NBA’s reigning MVP, Derrick Rose. As such, today’s post will compare Irving’s current rookie campaign to that of Rose, in his first year with Chicago in 2008-09. To make such an analysis more accessible, I will start with a glossary of statistical terms, which can be referred to by the reader:
SPR = [2PFGM + 1.5(3PFGM) + (FTM/2) + AST]/[FGA + (FTA/2) + AST + TOV]
TAPPS = PTS/[FGA + (FTA/2) + TOV]
TOT = TOV/[TOV + FGA + (FTA/2) + TRB + STL + AST]
SSI = FTA/FGA
SAR = [FGA + (FTA/2)]/AST
3PR = 3PFGA/FGA
3PS = 3PFGM/FGM
E = SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)
wCE = (MPG/48) x [SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
P/E = Salary/[SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
wP/E = Salary/(MPG/48) x [SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
EG = (Present Year’s E – Previous Year’s E)/(Previous Year’s E)
wEG = (Present Year’s wCE – Previous Year’s wCE)/(Previous Year’s wCE)
Let’s begin today’s comparative analysis with a disclaimer: a comparison between the current Kyrie Irving and the rookie Derrick Rose, though not exactly apples and oranges, is nevertheless comparing two apples of different species. Think McIntosh versus Golden Delicious, and you can decide who is who. Though Rose as a rookie was clearly a Primary Distributor (with a Shot-to-Assist Ratio, or SAR, of 2.60), the rookie version of Irving is more of a Combination Distributor. His SAR of 3.30 indicates that he is a willing passer, but nevertheless is looking for his shot a little bit more than the typical court facilitator. This is not a value judgment on either player’s game – it’s just an acknowledgment that Rose and Irving have distinct approaches to the way they play a team game, and Basketball I.Q. tends to shun comparisons of players from different statistical quintiles (see our archives).
But there is not a continental divide between the two players, and the passing and scoring tendencies in their respective rookie years may reflect the extreme differences in the supporting cast around them more than anything else. Let’s begin with a comparison of the alternative statistics, Successful Possession Rate (SPR), Turnover-Adjusted Points per Shot (TAPPS), Turnovers per Touch (TOT), and the Shot Selection Index (SSI), of the current Kyrie Irving and the rookie Derrick Rose:
SPR TAPPS TOT SSI
Irving (2011-12) .584 0.958 .110 .286
Rose (2008-09) .583 0.887 .083 .207
What stands out immediately is that the rookie Irving and the rookie Rose have virtually identical SPR’s, which means that each player could facilitate a successful team offensive possession with similar efficiency (the .001 difference could be considered a rounding error). The difference in the two players’ SAR quintiles, however, suggests that the advantage in this category actually goes to the rookie Irving: the lower one’s SAR, the higher you would expect that player’s SPR to be, since the relatively high assist totals of Primary Distributors tends to skew this statistic in their favor. As such, the rookie Irving has been able to post a virtually identical SPR to the rookie Rose, despite his higher SAR and lower assist total – this is a significant accomplishment.
Of course, the reasons why Irving has been able to make up for lower assist totals than Rose (at the same stage in their careers) is easy to discern from their traditional statistics: Irving scores more than the rookie Rose did, and he does so more accurately. Rookie Irving beats rookie Rose in points per game (18.6 vs. 16.8), field goal percentage (.487 vs. .475), and free throw percentage (.855 vs. .788). Three-point shooting weighs heavily in the favor of rookie Irving: he has shot over 40% from beyond the arc, while Rose barely got above 20% in his rookie year. These significant differences were diminished – evened out, as it were – by Rose’s superior assists per game stats (6.3 vs. 4.9) and lower turnover rate (discussed later).
The second alternative stat, TAPPS, which demonstrates how efficiently a player can facilitate a scoring opportunity for himself, also favors Irving, though by a significant margin. Again, much of the difference in this statistic, from player to player, can be explained by SAR quintile. All things being equal, you would expect the player with the higher SAR (Irving) to have the higher TAPPS. But the reason for this skew in the statistic is that, on average, higher SAR players have lower turnover rates, and thus a decreased adjustment in their points-per-shot value. But Irving actually has a significantly higher turnover rate than rookie Rose (again, discussed later), and he still manages a much higher TAPPS.
The explanation for this is shooting. Rookie Irving is a much better shooter than rookie Rose was. As mentioned above, Irving shoots field goals, free throws and three-pointers with more accuracy (the latter with an accuracy that is twice as good). Not only that, Irving takes many more three-pointers than Rose – Irving has a Three-Point Rate (3PR) of .203, while rookie Rose’s 3PR was less than one-third of that (.060). And, of course, Irving makes about 44% of his three’s, while rookie Rose made about 22%. Even after adjustment for SAR quintile, Irving is the clear victor in the comparison of TAPPS.
The third alternative statistic, TOT, lies in clear favor of Rose, who has a much lower turnover rate (.083 vs. .110). Rookie Rose’s TOT is very low for a Primary Distributor, and this has actually improved as his career has progressed (as has Rose’s shooting, which is why he is the reigning MVP). Irving’s TOT is quite average for a Primary Distributor – however, Irving is NOT a Primary Distributor. Irving is a Combination Distributor, and thus you would expect a lower TOT than he actually posts. Irving, like many new NBA players, has to learn to take care of the ball better. The advantage in this alternative statistic lies clearly with Rose and, because of the different quintiles inhabited by the two players, the gap between Rose and Irving in this category is actually quite large.
The last statistic discussed here, SSI, assesses the quality of a player’s shot selection by creating a ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts – the logic being that the higher percentage your shot selection, the more likely you are to be fouled. Rookie Irving, at .286, hovers right around the NBA average (though, for a backcourt player whose offensive game is relatively distant from the basket, this is pretty good). Rookie Rose, meanwhile, had a slightly below average SSI (.207), though it was right about the average for backcourt players. In subsequent years, Rose has improved his SSI significantly (perhaps the by-product of becoming a better shooter in general), and now posts an above-average SSI of .335).
In conclusion, it is fair to say that the rookie Kyrie Irving compares quite favorably to the rookie Derrick Rose. What makes Rose so special is that he never ceded his strengths (taking care of the ball, passing creatively), while he turned his relative weaknesses (shooting and shot selection) into formidable strengths themselves. If Irving can do the same – keep up the excellent shooting and shot selection, but turn the ball over less – we might be seeing the emergence of another dominant backcourt player in the NBA’s Midwest.
It appears that the Basketball I.Q. analysts who evaluated Irving as a college player were spot on. However, it should be noted that Irving and Rose, in their rookie years, project to be different kinds of players: Rose would have projected to be a Deron Williams-type player (and he has certainly achieved that), whereas Irving appears to be headed more toward a Dwyane Wade or Manu Ginobili style (which any GM would lock in in a heartbeat).