As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with Kyrie Irving, Wesley Matthews, and J.J. Redick.
Today, in a special extended capsule, I had the pleasure of going over one of my favorite players in the entire league. It took me a while to figure out how exactly one could best cover Irving's game -- he's an extremely unique player, and I've got the unique experience of having covered him thoroughly at Duke in my failed stabs at a Duke blog, met him a few times, and watched him at every step in his meteoric rise. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord", insofar as Kyrie Irving is a Lord of the Australian Empire. (This isn't true.) Still, it took a fair bit of thought to come up with a suitable frame for presenting my personal take on Irving's brilliance. Lots of sifting through Berfrois, etc. And then, a few days ago? A random discussion with friends Matt and Mike about the philosophy of mathematics set the wheels turning and made me figure out exactly what I needed to do. Today, I discussed Kyrie Irving, the meaning of mathematics, and the limits of public perception. I enjoyed writing this piece quite a lot. I quite hope you enjoy reading it.
On November 23rd, 2010, the Duke Blue Devils obliterated the Kansas State Wildcats by a score of 82-68. The game was hardly as close as the score makes it seem. It was a really impressive victory -- the Blue Devils (then ranked #1) were playing against a #4 ranked Kansas State team that featured player-of-the-year candidate Jacob Pullen, one of the most electric scorers in the college game and among the best shooters in the country. The Blue Devils were favored in the game, but only by the slimmest of margins and most thought it essentially a road game for Duke despite the neutral site locale. It was thought of as a given that Pullen would drop 20-30 on a permissive Duke perimeter defense, helmed by rookies and young players that hadn't quite grasped Krzyzewski's defensive system yet.
Not quite. Pullen shot 1-12 for 4 points, posting what may have been his worst game as a collegiate athlete. And Kyrie Irving? The 18-year-old jitterbug was phenomenal. Beyond phenomenal. A revolution, a revelation, a reincarnation of all that's holy. A vertical Rothko in three shades of blue, disrupting almost every single shot Pullen took and making everything he touched work better. He even had a poor shooting night, missing his two threes and numerous wide-open jump shots off his pet pick and roll sets. Nothing he did in that game was anything short of a wonder. He had four games of college experience. Four. He was facing one of the greatest scorers in the history of the college game, in his first true away game as a pro. He had jitters, as he later admitted, but it simply didn't matter -- sometimes you're just too good for jitters.
After the game, what was the topic of conversation? It wasn't really about Irving at all. Some highlights, some features, some general pats on the back for a game well-performed. But little focus on how dominant Irving was in the contest, because that simply isn't how Duke teams are traditionally understood -- instead, commentators sprung for the usual well-worn cliches, continuing to beat the drum on the idea that Duke was the most talented team in basketball and nobody was really anywhere close. Unbeknownst to most at the time, this wasn't true. At all. Without Irving, the 2011 Duke Blue Devils were a lacking bunch with scant cohesion, flawed chemistry, and a tenuous grasp of the defensive end of the court -- and even Nolan Smith's flukishly-good season didn't obscure that once Irving went down. By the time he came back at the end of the year, the 2011 Blue Devils had been exposed as something of a fraud, and Irving was relegated to being an everyday Duke player -- good, decent, and maybe a perennial all-star. Perhaps. With his dominance forgotten, his flaws overstated, and his game misunderstood, people continued to assert rank inferiority of a draft class that's ended up being (potentially) quite a bit better than the 2 or 3 that came before it. And Kyrie Irving sat, in wait, ready to be the transformative player that he knew full well he'd be.
Can you be a star when they don't know who you are?
Wesley Matthews is stuck in an odd sort of purgatory -- while he's one of about four currently NBA-caliber talents on the Portland Trail Blazers, he's clearly the weakest of the four and clearly the most tertiary piece. Which would stand to reason he'd be on the trading block in an effort to land the Blazers multiple fill-in pieces. The problem with that? He's not quite promising enough to net much on the trade market, and he's displayed a few issues that have sapped his game in the last little stretch. Of all these issues, perhaps the most pressing last year was the sudden and complete absence of Matthews' at-rim finishing game. Matthews shot just 50% at the rim last year, rating out as one of the league's absolute worst finishers -- as John Hollinger aptly noted in his player profiles, that number made him the worst finisher in the league who didn't play for the Charlotte Bobcats. This is partly a dig at how incredibly poor several Bobcats players were at the rim last season, but it's also partly a massive indictment on Matthews. He shouldn't be that bad. He can't really finish at the right side of the basket, but he still shouldn't be that bad -- it should NOT be this easy to force Matthews right. He's spent most of his career as a below-average converter from the rim (with the sole exception of his 2nd year), but nothing quite as harrowing as last year. Beyond that, he has a few other things that hurt his efficiency. He's rather poor at drawing free throws, which is awful in the long run because he's blessed with one of the most consistent free throw strokes in the league. Really wish he could do that more often.
His rebounds and assists were paltry, and while his three point percentage was decent, it's worth noting that he had a well-below-average usage rate for a shooting guard. Well-below average. When you cull the list of guards to players in Matthews' minutes range (IE, players with 30+ MPG), only three shooting guards used the ball less than Matthews did in 2012 -- Gordon Hayward, Ray Allen, and Courtney Lee. Which may really constitute Matthews' main problem. This all can be rather problematic when you're looking at a team that only features four definite NBA talents; it's important that Matthews takes more shots when he's on the court with the Portland bench, which rates among one of the worst in the league for a reason. I'm not a fan of cliches, but one fits here -- he's an NBA shooting guard. He doesn't really rebound and he doesn't really pass. Which means the man needs to shoot. Simply has to. Matthews isn't some fill-in off the Spurs bench that can stay off-ball all the time and focus on his defense (at which he's solid, but not remarkable) -- he's a shooter with scoring talent that needs to be featured when the Blazers put out a lineup where he's one of the best two guys on the court, a situation that happens for 10-15 minutes each night. They don't need Matthews to be "that guy" all game, with Aldridge and Batum and Lilliard there to take the load. They do need him to be "a guy", though, and oftentimes he floats off-ball to the point where he really isn't. He doesn't make himself a factor in the play. Part of this was Nate McMillan and Kaleb Canales, but it's not like Stotts has done THAT much better. He simply needs to find a way to get the ball more often. His efficiency can take a dive and he'll STILL be an infinitely better choice than a Sasha Pavlovic pull-up two point fadeaway. Come on, Stotts.
It's not all bad, though. Really. At 249 games through his NBA career, Matthews has yet to miss a game. He's been almost preternaturally healthy despite Portland's overall injury troubles, which is a testament to both his durability and his generally reliable presence. His three point percentage isn't quite as sizzling as his nearly 41% mark in 2011 would indicate, but it is decent -- around 38% on his career, despite getting assisted on a lower percentage of his threes than many NBA shooting guards. Matthews is a decent defender -- as I said, solid but not remarkable -- and while he can't shut down elite wings with anything remotely approaching regularity, he takes smart chances on steals (at which he owns one of the league's highest rates) and he takes charges like a champ (about one every 3 games last year). He virtually never turned the ball over, which is partly a result of him rarely having the ball but partly a result of him not trying to do too much when he's passing or dribbling, which is usually a good thing. He doesn't shoot as many midrange jumpers as most wings, which is good, because they're (as stated roughly two hundred seventy nine thousand times in these capsules) relatively inefficient shots. So good on him. And the problems with usage aren't necessarily his fault, per se. He's not great at moving without the ball, but he's never really been guided into a situation where it's made obvious to him that he needs to get great at it. And his defense really is solid -- no stopper, but the kind of solid defender who's going to be an asset on that end for virtually his whole career. He may never be much more than he is now, but that's OK. The Blazers don't really need him to be.
They just need him to, you know, shoot. Every now and then, please?
The career arc of J.J. Redick is a strange and wonderful one, an arc more akin to a bird swooping into the ocean to pick up a fish and shooting back up into the sky than the semi-normal parabolic arc. That's to say that Redick spent college looking like a dominant all-universe shooter, entered the league only to have his shot wrenched out from under him and his lack of any supplementary game disturbingly exposed, and then recouped through hard work to a level where he's at now. His current state has him at a point where he's completely remodeled his game to become a far more versatile version of the end-state most saw as his natural role when he entered the league in the first place. It's a beautiful little story, and for Magic fans, it's been somewhat fun to watch -- Redick has effectively transitioned all the way from reviled to ridiculed to redeemed in his 6-year career, and it's seriously hilarious to watch. Even as someone who's never much liked Redick, as he came before my time at Duke and seemed to reflect in many ways the parts of the university that made my time there so aggravating.
As for last season, Redick made a genuinely big mark on a Magic team that was rather lacking. He wasn't just the Magic's best three point shooter, he was one of the best in the league -- 42% from three point range is patently solid no matter which way you slice it, but it gets even more ridiculous when you realize Redick took 46% of his shots from three -- in essence, he always took threes, opposing teams knew this and guarded him like it, and Redick still made a phenomenal mark on them. Excellent work from the guy, although (just as with Matthews) someone needs to call out the fact that Redick needs to shoot more. He had more of an excuse than Matthews, since he was on a team with a few actual NBA players, but my lord. Low usage for amazing shooters bugs me sometimes. Somewhat ironically, he's not really a HUGE passing talent (above average but only just), which tends to be obscured by the fact that he always seems to develop a few exceedingly obvious pet two-man games that announcers love to point out in great detail. Last season, it was Redick to Ryan Anderson, as assists to Anderson baskets made up almost a third of Redick's total assists. In 2011 it was "whoever plays center", as Bass and Howard combined for almost 40% of his assists. You get the drift. The one nice thing about Redick's passing is that his handle is relatively pure -- a team can deal with Redick handling the ball without the team falling apart at the seams, as he's not one to make a ton of stupid turnovers in pursuit of a pass that isn't really there. Still, he's more of a pass-before-the-pass kind of guy, and not the most creative passer on the face of the planet. Alack.
One place where Redick may still be a bit underheralded is his defense, which has been a legitimate asset for almost 4 years now. He's much like Wesley Matthews on that end -- not quite good enough to be considered a wing stopper, but he plays a consistent and solid style that's not going to wear down anytime soon and provides a legitimate asset to a team's perimeter defense. One thing that always bugged me about the usual "Dwight Howard dragged a bunch of nobodies to defensive brilliance" meme was that it never quite accounted for this -- Redick is a legitimate asset defensively, and under Van Gundy, most of the perimeter pieces were excellent at rotating and cutting off space. Yes, I know -- you can construct the argument that they only had the levity to do that because they had the confidence Dwight would cordon off the rim. I get that. But look at the Lakers' attempts to do the same thing -- part of it is Dwight, but part of it is simply that the Magic perimeter defenders weren't as bad as people liked to gripe. Redick is a legitimate asset, Richardson wasn't easy to get around, Carter was on-and-off but tended to be fine, and the only real position of defensive weakness to the Magic's perimeter attack tended to be the point guard. Which, it should be noted, simply doesn't matter very much -- in the wreckage of the hand-check, NO point guard can guard point guards. Dissing the Magic's perimeter defense on the basis that the point guard can't defend is silly, because you can diss virtually every defense in the league by this metric. And watching as Los Angeles struggles to put together its own perimeter defense with Dwight behind them and a few solid pieces (Kobe, Artest) to boot has been a bit validating to what I've always thought has been a substantially unfair characterization of the Magic's efforts.
As for off-the-court, you can't knock the man's work ethic. In a somewhat underreported fact, over the last 3 years, Redick has been the single best-conditioned member of the Magic in virtually every internal team competition -- strength training, endurance, et cetera. When he came into the league, he was an absolute twig, but he didn't let that stop him from grinding it out and getting better at it. He rates highly in the "players who got my ex-girlfriend to swoon" category, being one of only 2 or 3 guys in that category at all (other members of this exclusive group: George Hill, Ricky Rubio). So, he's clearly pretty attractive, right? I don't really know how to gauge these things but I'm going to assume he is. Heck, even my friend Brian wants to (direct quote) "suck his anything", which sounds awfully crass but supportive of my girlfriend's general attraction, although I am 100% positive it isn't a sexual love, because Brian is married and OH hello there Brian's wife how are you doing today YEP I'M GOOD I hope you are OK please enjoy your stay at the capsules and no Ma'am Brian isn't propositioning J.J. Redick do not worry. Phew. Finally, let no man tear asunder this the bonds that tie Redick to this poem, a sample of J.J. Redick's attempts at poetry when he was a student at Duke University.
No bandage can cover my scars
It's hard living a life behind invisible bars
Searching for the face of God
I'm only inspired by the poems of Nas
Because the truth has carved my life's patterns
The reality of pain, and the joy of laughter
My hopes and dreams shattered
by the miscalculation of my own situation
Brings a tear to my eye. Laughter, maybe, but a tear all the same.
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At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Props to wul.f, Matt L, and @MillerNBA for their almost perfunctory 3/3 guesses. Gonna put me out of business, those guys.
- Player #328 looked like a likely candidate to be completely out of the league multiple times in the last few years, through no fault of his own. Injuries suck. But he's recouped, a bit, and playing a decent role for a surprising team. Good for him.
- Player #329 looked like a likely candidate to get a max contract as a rookie. Then he had disappointing year after disappointing year, to the point that he signed a one year deal last year in the contract year that he was supposed to deserve a max in, long ago. He might just be playing his way into that kind of a contract, tho.
- Player #330 is one of my favorites. Which makes his current fall from grace all the more jarring and sad to me. It wasn't supposed to be like this. It SHOULDN'T be like this. Not with his talent.
That's a wrap. Enjoy your weekend. Mine's chock full of exciting things to do. Hope yours is too. Adieu.
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