Is Kyrie Irving a better rookie than Chris Paul or LeBron James?

He’s no Chris Paul

Over at TrueHoop today, Justin Havens asked the following question: Irving better than Paul, LeBron as rookie?

Justin answered his own question by comparing each player’s rookie PER. Among all rookies who played a minimum of 2000 minutes, Irving’s PER is the eighth-best mark in the three-point era. Chris Paul’s rookie PER ranks 6th and LeBron’s 26th; therefore, after 13 games, it looks like rookie Irving is better than rookie James, but not as good as rookie Chris Paul.

The problem with PER is that, while it captures the perception of productivity, it doesn’t actually explain productivity very well. PER is heavily driven by scoring totals and is good for predicting All-Star selections, All-NBA teams, and MVP votes — but not wins. In order to answer the question of who was the better player as a rookie, we should use Wins Produced instead.

Player Age MP PER WP48 Wins*
Chris Paul 20 2808 22.1 0.253 14.8
Kyrie Irving 19 368 21.8 0.123 5.9
LeBron James 19 3122 18.3 0.069 4.5

* Wins for Irving extrapolated for an 82 game season

As we can see, LeBron’s rookie season doesn’t compare to Paul’s and Irving’s, and that is true whether we use PER or Wins Produced. But Paul and Irving’s rookie seasons have very similar PERs and very different WP48s; according to PER, Paul and Irving had similar seasons; according to Wins Produced, Paul was roughly 2.5 times better than average, whereas Irving has only been about 1.2 times better than average. Wins Produced says that Paul’s rookie season was about twice as productive as Irving’s rookie season to date. Does that seem a little far-fetched? Well, let’s ignore Wins Produced for a moment and let the numbers speak for themselves:
Stat*  Chris Paul Kyrie Irving Average* PG
PTS 21.5 30.0 19.5
FGA 16.2 23.3 16.5
FTA 7.9 6.7 4.5
TS% 54.6 57.1 52.9
TRB 6.8 6.0 4.8
STL 3.0 1.4 2.0
TOV 3.1 5.9 3.7
Net Poss 6.7 1.6 3.1
AST 10.4 8.9 8.3
BLK 0.1 1.0 0.3
PF 3.7 4.4 3.3

* Stats are per 48 minutes where applicable; average PG numbers from the 2011-12 season

Irving is certainly scoring well — he’s taking almost seven more field goal attempts and more than two more free throw attempts than the average point guard. Not only that, he’s also making these shots at a very good rate. But another important part of basketball is retaining possession of the ball, and it’s something that Irving has struggled with so far this season. Irving’s net possessions (calculated by adding rebounds and steals and subtracting turnovers) are about half the mark of an average point guard. This is mostly driven by his large number of turnovers. Irving is also below average with respect to steals and fouls.

Chris Paul, on the other hand, was also a good scorer — although not as good as Irving has been so far this season. But Paul’s main strength was his ability to gain possessions; his net possessions were more than double that of an average player and more than four times better than Irving’s have been so far. By giving his team extra possessions, Paul gave his team additional opportunities to score points, and as it turns out, this is very valuable. Paul was also above average in every other statistical category other than blocks and fouls; in particular, he was very good at getting assists and drawing fouls.

That is not to say that Irving is a bad player. Irving looked very productive coming out of College, and as I said before, Irving has been about 1.2 times as productive as an average NBA point guard. Not many rookies perform better than average, so this is a pretty good achievement. As well, young NBA players can improve drastically across their first few years in the league, so Irving could still improve on his production in the near future. But let’s not get out of control and start comparing him to Chris Paul just yet.

- Devin

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