BOSTON -- As the ring leader for one of the best basketball shows in the entire NBA, all eyes will be on Kyrie Irving at the start of the season.
And as Boston makes its way through what many expect will be a trip to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010, much of that success will, in all likelihood, be attributed to Irving and his play.
But will it be good enough for him to be the league’s MVP, an award that has shown some serious love to guards recently?
All four of the most recent league MVPs were guards, with three of them being 6-foot-3 – the same height as Irving.
Just saying . . .
(Prior to the last four winners, seven of the previous eight stood at least 6-6.)
So, what does Irving have to do to become the latest guard to walk away with the league’s highest single-season individual honor?
SCORE MORE POINTS
The last few years have shown us the clearest path towards scoring a league MVP award, is to score points -- lots of points. Each of the last three league MVPs also took home the NBA’s scoring crown. Irving has never averaged more than 25.4 points per game in a single season. Only two players, Steph Curry in 2015 and Derrick Rose in 2011, won the league MVP award with a lower scoring average.
Racking up victories is another sure-fire way to at least get into the league-MVP conversation. We saw that last year with Irving as the Celtics reeled off 16 consecutive wins. As we’ve seen in recent years, there is a relatively high value placed on team’s success when it comes to individual accolades. Of the four most recent league MVPs, three of them were on teams that won at least 65 games. And the lone exception was Russell Westbrook in 2017, when he averaged a triple-double for a 47-win Oklahoma City squad.
This is an area where Kyrie Irving has not excelled during his NBA career. And when you think about it, the same can be said for most of the league’s recent MVPs. James Harden and Westbrook had defensive ratings of 104.7 and 104.6, respectively, during their league MVP seasons. And while this is not considered one of Irving’s strengths, he is coming off a season in which his defensive rating was a career-best 103.5. Lowering this number would only enhance his league MVP aspirations, similar to what Steph Curry did in winning back-to-back league MVP awards with defensive ratings of 97.2 and 98.3 in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
This is one area where Irving essentially has to do about the same as he did last season. Irving’s effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) was a career-best .568. That number was better than James Harden (.541) and Russell Westbrook (.476) when they won the award previously. With the return of Gordon Hayward, there’s a sense that Irving’s efficiency scoring the ball might be even better this season.
Nothing provides a jolt to a player’s MVP candidacy than making game-winning plays or carrying a team to victory in the fourth quarter. Looking at the last four league MVPs, all but last season’s winner James Harden ranked among the top 10 in fourth quarter points per game. Harden’s 6.3 fourth-quarter points per game ranked 12th. With the Celtics having so much balance, Irving will probably not play as many minutes in the fourth quarter as some of the game’s other top superstars. We saw that last season, evident by the Celtics’ leader in fourth quarter minutes being Irving’s backup, Terry Rozier (8.2). In fact, Irving’s 7.2 fourth-quarter minutes ranked fifth on the team. But Irving has shown himself capable of getting buckets down the stretch in the past. He finished no worst than eighth in the NBA in fourth quarter scoring in each of his first three NBA seasons. But as the caliber of talent around him improved, his fourth quarter punch on many nights was not needed which is reflected in the fact that only once in the last four seasons (2016) has he finished in the top-10 in fourth quarter points per game. He wasn’t in the chase for the league MVP award that year, but it did have a happy ending as the Cavs won the franchise’s first NBA title.