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The big picture: The aesthetics of Kyrie Irving’s game

We see the artist at work every time Kyrie Irving plays. He masters the tiniest details to control the basketball, because the details are what creates the bigger picture  

Sacramento Kings v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

High performing athletes have different styles of play and ways they attack the game. Luka Doncic is a competitor, who sees the game as a chess board and uses his high basketball IQ to manipulate the defense. While Kyrie Irving certainly is a competitor too, his way of attacking the game seems to arise more from the artist’s point of view.

In the artist’s eyes, everything is a canvas to be shaped. Nothing is too minor to work on and improve, and details are worth putting extra effort into, because it’s what shapes the bigger picture. To the artist, every small part of his game matters. It’s about creating perfection, not as a human being, but in the art pieces, which he shapes while working on his bag or toolbox, so he always has a way to respond in a game situation.

In Kyrie’s own words: “Just never know when you have to go to the toolbox to use something against a defender. So, that’s how I work on my game, just segment by segment, and when it works out, great, but when it doesn’t, just got to go back into the gym.”

These details, while maybe overlooked by the casual fan who nonetheless will be able to take in the greatness of Kyrie because of his ability to score, perpetually make basketball connoisseurs and fans out there oooh and aaah. He is one of only a few players who make basketball beautiful. Not entertaining, not exciting (well those too) - but beautiful.

We see the artist at work every time Kyrie plays. He masters the tiniest details to control the basketball and the trajectory of it, and he can manipulate the defense in the paint to get around much bigger players in a superior and seemingly effortless manner.

And as the painter, putting the last finishing touches on the canvas, or the playwright, working on the last scene where the protagonist rises again, Kyrie shapes his work to peak in the fourth quarter. Here, it’s redemption time, and it’s time to prove them all wrong as the hero rising after a fall.

And along the lines of the aesthetics, with which Kyrie attacks the game, it’s interesting to look at his rare tendency to avoid foul hunting. Foul hunting is a strategy to secure more points in an easier manner, it may also get you the win, but it does not enhance the viewing experience. And foul hunting does not live up to the aesthetics surrounding Kyrie. It’s an eyesore, an exaggerated stroke with a clumsy hand on a canvas, and it’s not in line with the personality of an artist.

Outside the court, Kyrie Irving is the center of so much attention and noise; his choices in life, narratives surrounding him and mistakes made. But it’s hard for people around an artist to understand him, because he doesn’t care what people think. That’s hard to relate to for most people. His art and purpose are what matter to him, and like many artists before him, he is often misunderstood.

Despite all this talk about Kyrie’s beautiful game, the results after he came to Dallas were not overwhelming. The Mavericks went 8-12 with what was clearly an injured Luka Doncic, who was struggling mentally as well as physically at the end of a stressful season. Kyrie Irving, however, averaged 27.0 points, 6.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds in 20 games for the Mavericks.

And the numbers don’t lie. As Mavs Moneyball’s own Josh Bowe has pointed out, Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving shared the floor together last season for exactly 900 possessions. In those 900 possessions, the team was plus-4.6 per 100 possessions, scoring 121.7 points per 100 possessions with a 60.2 effective field goal percentage. Extraordinary numbers.

Josh also notes that of all lineups that played at least 100 possessions last season, the Kyrie/Luka lineups were 80th percentile in net-rating, 94th percentile in points/100 possessions, 99th percentile in eFG%, and 91st percentile in turnover percentage. In other words, otherworldly numbers.

Numbers don’t lie, but aesthetics don’t either. It’s not just the beauty with which he gets to the rim, it’s the hanging in the air just long enough to watch how the defense responds - and then moving accordingly. It’s the english and the tight handle and the finishing touches, which I keep replaying in my mind like they’re in slow motion, though they’re not. It’s the artist at work.

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