BOSTON (CBS) — Sometimes, with athletes, it’s not what you see. It’s what you don’t.
Exhibit A: Kyrie Irving.
Twelve games into Irving’s career with the Celtics, these are the obvious numbers that stick out: 22.0 points per game, 5.7 assists, a 10-2 record. And even then, they don’t do him justice. Irving is shooting just .321 from 3-point distance so far, significantly below his career average of .383 entering this season. (Last year, he shot .401 from long distance.) And, as always, the ripple effect is hard to quantify. Al Horford has been the most obvious Celtics player who is now better merely as the result of Irving’s presence. But the truth is that they all have been.
Nonetheless, you know what should also strike you about Irving here in the early part of this basketball season? What you don’t see.
Again, this can be a hard thing to quantify. But when the Celtics came back to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, the most obvious marquee matchup featured Irving and Russell Westbrook, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player. Earlier this week, a caller to our station here at 98.5 The Sports Hub suggested that Irving was the second-best point guard in the league behind only Westbrook, who can score, rebound and pass.
Know what else Westbrook does? He turns the ball over like a machine. Often because he is playing out of control. Last season, Westbrook’s 438 turnovers ranked second in the NBA to only James Harden (464). And before you suggest that those totals are purely the result of exposure – Westbrook and Harden handle the ball as much or more than anyone in the league – think again.
Know what really produces turnovers? Sloppy play. Recklessness. Stupidity. Both Westbrook and Harden have significant elements of that in their games, which brings us back to Irving’s ridiculous ball-handling skills and his underrated acumen for passing.
Last year, for sure, Irving might have handled the ball less because he played with LeBron James. But this year? He is the absolute focal point of the Celtics offense, particularly in the absence of Gordon Hayward. And while the easy thing is to look at turnover totals to prove that, the better metric is to assess turnovers per touch, particularly for someone who is on the floor for a significant chunk of the game.
Understand? It’s one thing to average 1 turnover per 100 touches when you play 6 minutes. It’s another when you’re out there for 30 minutes or more.
So for now, at least, here’s what we did: we ran a search for the NBA players who are currently averaging 30 minutes, 20 points and five assists per game. Just by definition, that’s going to be a short list. We then sorted that list based on turnovers, from fewest per game to most.
Here’s what we found (click for enlarged version):
Obviously, we’re at the (very) early stages of the Celtics season. There is a lot of basketball to be played. But as Irving moves further and further into his Celtics career, the highlight plays will be what we all remember, from the big shots to the best passes to the absurdly deft ball-handling. And that’s fine. But what we shouldn’t overlook is the simultaneous shortage of turnovers.
All things considered, the guy just doesn’t make many mistakes.