Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups said he believes Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving is “the most skilled player” ever to play the point guard position. Naturally, the internet and everyone that follows basketball lost their god forsaken mind. But Billups isn’t necessarily wrong, the problem is how we interpret and understand language.
“Kyrie is just, he’s a wizard, man,” Billups said before the Blazers’ 114-108 win over the Nets on Monday night. “He’s must-see TV. I personally think, as somebody that played the position, I think Kyrie’s the most skilled player that’s ever played that position. Just straight skill. Nothing else. Just straight skill. I think he’s the best that I’ve ever seen at the position, skill-wise. So, obviously, he gives you a ton when he’s playing.”
Those were Billups’ full comments with all the context. He didn’t say Irving is the greatest or best point guard of all-time. Rather, he is the most skilled. Nothing else.
But as human beings we have a difficult time interpreting and understanding language. Particularly in a sports context. Think about when you do the inevitable who is a better player comparison. You argue for your pick; someone argues for theirs.
How often are you bringing up awards and accolades as part of your “proof” that player X is better? The question wasn’t who has the most MVPs or who is the most accomplished or who has won the most. It was who is a better player.
In sports, we equate best player with wins and winning. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Robert Horry is a seven-time NBA champion. He is not a better basketball player than Karl Malone. TNT’s “Inside The NBA” crew has a hierarchy of Shaq, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley based off championships. Smith was a good NBA player; he’s nowhere near the level of player of Barkley.
So when Billups says “most skilled” our brains collectively interpret that to mean “best” and then the pearl clutching and hand wringing begins. Look no further than FS1 talking head Nick Wright, who consistently brings up accolades and achievements in his argument as to why Irving is not the most skilled.
Was Chauncey Billups right when he said 'Kyrie's the most skilled PG that's ever played'?
"This is an insane conversation. Of course, Isiah & Steph are more skilled. Kyrie's skill is great. But if he's the most skilled PG ever then he's greatly underachieved." — @getnickwright pic.twitter.com/hLe2W2U6Ib
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) January 11, 2022
Adding up Irving’s number of all-nba first teams, playoffs appearances and finals trips don’t tell me about his skill. They tell me about what kinds of teams he’s been on, and what his roles were on those teams.
In basketball the skills that matter are shooting, dribbling, passing and footwork. Irving has career 47/39/88 shooting splits. Better than Isiah Thomas and Allen Iverson, who many argue are more skilled.
It’s undeniable that Irving has the best handles in the history of the league. Certainly among point guards that have played. Iverson’s cross may be more “iconic,” but Irving can use the escape, crab, sidestep, behind-the-back dribbles all effectively. Dribbling is used to create space; at 6’1, maybe 6’2 you need space to get your shot off among the giants.
Many will argue Irving is not a good passer. How do you measure passing? By assist totals? Russell Westbrook has led the NBA in assists three times and has averaged double-digit assists for five seasons. Nobody who understands the game would call Westbrook an elite passer or play maker. Having vision, passing a teammate open, understanding angles on the floor to make passes are how you identify passing skills.
The final skill is footwork. Much like dribbling, the ability to finish with either hand or go off either foot is critical. Scoring against size in the NBA is the most difficult thing to do, and Irving has the best layup and finish package in the league. For his career he shoots it at 51 percent from 0-10 feet from the basket. Also known as the area where all the large men are.
Are there point guards that are better shooters? Not a lot, but yes. Better dribblers? No. Better passers, yes. Better footwork? Not any we can think of.
When you add all those things together and look at it in totality, the argument can be made that he is the “most skilled” point guard ever.
Is he a reliable teammate? The best winner? The most impactful? Nobody is making that claim. The statement was “most skilled,” and as Billups said “just straight kill, nothing else”. Irving might just grade out at the top of that list.
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