This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Kyrie Irving is the latest All-Star on the market and Denver, armed with the rare combination of young, attractive assets, malleable veterans and draft picks, could be a fit for his services.
From Dwyane Wade last summer to Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kevin Love, Chris Paul and finally Paul Millsap, we’ve seen this song and dance before. The Nuggets could pursue another all-star level player that would vault Denver into the next tier of NBA relevance and prestige.
Cleveland’s priority is snagging a “blue-chip young player,” for Irving, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe and would also look for one or two veterans and picks. The Nuggets have all those pieces. If a trade scenario trade came about, Jamal Murray is the blue-chipper Denver should look to move, rather than Gary Harris, and Cleveland would likely be interested in versatile swingman Wilson Chandler — a potentially great fit alongside LeBron James. Both Murray and Harris in a trade package together should be off the table.
However, Irving comes with more risk and reward than any of the stars Denver’s pursued over the past two-plus years.
An offensive savant
It’s rare to find a player who, at just 25, scores as effortlessly as Irving.
Irving is true three-level scorer — an elite marksman from three who hit on 40 percent of his shots from distance last season and was the best shooter in the league (minimum 100 attempts) on catch-and-shoot threes (48 percent). He’s among the best finishers in the league, converting on 57.6 percent of his attempts from the restricted area and shot a healthy 47.6 percent from mid-range — 6.5 percentage points better than Jameer Nelson, who was Denver’s most efficient mid-range backcourt player (41.1 percent on 261 fewer attempts).
Irving’s a contortion artist around the rim, bending his body in unique angles just to get the sliver of daylight and right angle needed to convert.
But he’s a smooth customer from mid-range as well; always squared, steady with his form, and rarely off balance. In pick-and-roll situations, Irving is scoring on 43 percent of his possessions which placed him in the 83rd percentile league-wide last season.
Then from three, Irving is an accomplished shooter. Denver took the ninth-most catch-and-shoot threes as a team last year and it’s one of the point guard’s strong suits.
Any way you cut it, Irving is an individual offensive assassin. Someone who can come down on offense, lull you to sleep with one of the countless moves in his arsenal and hit from anywhere on the floor. Irving also has arguably the best handle in the league — a true wizard with the ball in his hands.
One category that the Nuggets led the league in last year? Shots off of dribble-hand-offs. Imagine Irving and Nikola Jokic hooking up on Denver’s favorite and most efficient action. Irving was borderline elite on those too, scoring above one point per 100 possessions in those types of sets. Michael Malone could even stagger Jokic and Irving keeping one premier offensive player on the court at all times to run the offense through.
Another Denver specialty last year was off-ball cutting. The Nuggets attempted the second-most shots in the league off of cuts last year, according to NBA.com and although Irving didn’t cut a ton last year (his role as a floor spacer and creator didn’t require him to) when Irving did, he was lethal. Irving scored 1.75 points per possession on cuts which placed him in the 96th percentile league-wide.
Irving’s one of the best pure scorers and offensive players in all of basketball. Need someone to get you a bucket with the game on the line? There are not many players you’d put above Irving. Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Stephen Curry are a solid top-3. Irving belongs in that first tier.
An experienced closer
Despite fielding the fifth-best offense in the league last season and the best after Dec. 15, Denver struggled all year to score at the end of close games.
The Nuggets shot a league-worst 36.7 percent in what NBA.com defines as the “clutch” — when the score is within five points with five minutes or less remaining. Even after their rebirth on Dec. 15 which coincided with Jokic taking his place as Denver’s starting center and Harris returning from injury, the Nuggets shot just 39.8 percent in the clutch.
Enter Irving, an experienced closer and tough shot maker that could help ease a lot of Denver’s pains at the end of games.
There’s an unmeasurable value to players that take and make big shots in the fourth quarters of big games. It’s one thing to be someone who’s called upon to hit those shots, but it’s another to know what it feels like to take and make game-deciding field goals in the playoffs and finals. It’s rare to have a guard and primary ball handler that can take the rock, call for a clear out, probe for a switch and strike. Irving is one of the few that can with consistency and confidence.
There’s a calmness to Irving in the clutch, a stoic demeanor of a closer and that value goes beyond a box score.
Denver now has a go-to guy in Paul Millsap who’s a suitable closer but he’s not a natural one like Irving. It’s also difficult to craft an end-of-game offense around a frontcourt player who has to use others to get open and a clean look. Guards can go get the ball and make a play for themselves. They’re typically taking more difficult shots than their frontcourt counterparts late in games but they give you the preferred look.
Irving wants the ball in those situations. He doesn’t hide from the moment. That’s valuable to a team like Denver.
The Nuggets’ offense developed into a modern blitzkrieg pass-happy attack with constant motion and improvisation relying on players to read and react, cut to open spaces and play off each other last season. But late in games, and especially in the playoffs when defenses dial in and lock down possession by possession, isolation basketball has a valued place.
As a basketball community, we’ve developed a negative connotation that comes with ISO ball. It’s not as enjoyable to watch, not as efficient as most NBA offenses and is an easy scape goat for players we love to hate.
But ISO ball is still valuable. It comes late in the fourth quarter when timeouts interrupt flow and coaches diagram consecutive and precise possessions on both ends of the floor. That’s where Irving would prove his worth with the Nuggets most.
Irving could vault the Nuggets to another tier in a stacked Western Conference, but he could also hinder their development and progress. His self-identified “mamba mentality” runs deep. Kobe Bryant is a mentor and he wants to be that alpha type player.
On the Nuggets, he can. Millsap and Jokic are two stars that don’t need to spotlight. Irving can bask in Denver’s glow and shoulder the responsibility for both wins and loses – something he’ll have to be okay with. But that shift towards an Irving-centric attack in Denver would mean change within how the Nuggets operate on offense. Jokic’s touches and importance would decrease from what it was over the second half of last season. He wouldn’t be counted on for the raw production output of last year. Jokic could adjust and, knowing his psyche, be fine taking a back seat to a player like Irving on that end of the floor. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision.
Denver doesn’t know what they have in Murray right now. The 20-year-old could develop into a better all-around player than Irving. He might never have Irving’s prowess as a scorer but he can get close and he’s shown he’ll at least give effort on the defensive end.
It’s a risk, a huge one, especially with how much success the Nuggets had on offense riding Jokic last year and Murray’s ability and year of experience playing with and cutting off their playmaking center. Do the Nuggets want to risk losing some of what they had last season with Jokic? Does Denver really want to pivot from centering their team around a 22-year-old Serbian Magic Johnson who’s loved in Denver and still under team control for a minimum of five more years?
Don’t forget Irving’s reported motivation to leave Cleveland. He wants his own team, wants to be the go-to guy and play his way which would be the opposite of the team-oriented, pass-happy approach that Denver embraced and thrived under last year. Sure James’ future and the Cavs’ front office turmoil are factors too. Anytime a player makes three-straight finals, is playing with a top-2 player of all-time and still wants out, that should make you cautious. This could easily be a decision he regrets down the line.
Irving is the same guy that took almost 100 more shots than James last year and had a higher usage rate than James in the regular season. Yet, Irving wants out from under James’ shadow.
Defensively, Irving is a clear minus. He’s a passable on-ball defender and has had some bright moments and memorable playoff performances on the defensive end the past couple of years, but he doesn’t bring it defensively during the regular season. He doesn’t have the awareness and defensive IQ off the ball to thrive.
But it’s rare for a 25-year-old with another leap to make in his game becomes available under a below-market contract for the next two years. Jimmy Butler might be the closest comp to the Irving predicament but he’s turning 28 in September. Irving also has more room to grow than Butler even though Butler is the better all-around player right now.
Irving’s an offensive sage wise beyond his years and an academic straight out of ‘Point Guard University’ who’s perfected NBA offense. He’s a talent, an All-Star with room to grow, but Denver’s also risking what they’ve already built with Jokic and their complementary pieces. With Jokic and Millsap, Denver would have their big three. They’d have arguably three top-20 players.
All that doesn’t even take into account Irving’s star power. He’d move Denver to near the top of NBA marketing relevance. He’d bring fans back to Pepsi Center more than either Millsap or Jokic can right now. He’s got an incredibly popular shoe line among millennials and teenagers. He’s more a prominent figure across the NBA landscape than Butler, Love, George or anyone on Denver’s roster.
Sometimes a franchise like the Nuggets has to take those chances.