Sunday, January 23, 2022

Why Kyrie Irving, not Stephen Curry, is ‘most skilled’ point guard in history — as Chauncey Billups endorsed

In Kyrie Irving’s second game back, the Brooklyn Nets lost to the Portland Trail Blazers, 114-108, on Monday night. The Nets were without James Harden and a handful of rotation pieces, but Portland was down Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. and Norman Powell

Irving was pretty good, as he was in his debut, finishing with 22 points on 9-of-21 shooting, including 3 of 8 from 3, to go with eight rebounds and four assists. 

He looks like himself despite the missed time. He’s clearly in good condition and his ball skills haven’t skipped a beat. Speaking of that last point, prior to the game, Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups called Irving the “most skilled” point guard in NBA history. 

“Kyrie is just, he’s a wizard, man,” Billups said, via ESPN’s Nick Friedell. “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.”

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When Nets coach Steve Nash, who also knows a little something about point guard play, was told of Billups’ assessment, he more or less agreed. 

“Yeah it’s hard to argue,” Nash said. “There’s others in the conversation. Obviously, Steph [Curry] is incredibly skilled but just so deadly from long range in a variety of ways. But as far as the ball-handling, the movement, getting to his spots and shooting at all three levels, around the rim, [Kyrie’s] off the charts. Getting to the midrange he’s off the charts. And he’s excellent from deep as well.”

Nash — who served as a player development consultant with the Warriors prior to taking the Brooklyn job and has long marveled at Curry’s game, even lamenting that he didn’t play with a similar scoring mindset during his career — isn’t fully committing to Irving as his final answer here. But like he said, it’s hard to argue. 

Kyrie is just so special with the ball. People have long tried to put Curry’s ball-handling in the same breath as Irving’s, but for my money, Kyrie is a clear notch above. Steph is far looser with his handle and, as a higher dribbler, less reliable in traffic. Irving has bigger hands, and to think that doesn’t matter when you’re splitting hairs between two premier handlers is a mistake. 

This is not a knock on Curry, who’s a very good ball-handler. Just as it’s not a knock on Irving to say Curry’s a better shooter than him. Irving is a great shooter, but Curry is the greatest shooter. The same can be said for Irving’s handles. They’re in a class of their own. 

Where Curry’s handles are most special is transferring from the dribble into his shot, particularly from range, with such fluidity and speed. I’m not sure anyone has ever mastered that one particular element of handling like Curry. But Irving getting to that midrange jumper isn’t about the threat of his 3 opening up lanes; it’s about stone-cold cooking guys off the dribble and having a wide array of fadeaways combined with Kobe-like footwork that can only be described as sublime. 

Irving is also a better finisher around the rim. Curry — until this year at least — has been terrific himself with an array of circus layups and finishes, but again, Irving is just on another level, with both hands, around the rim. 

You’ll see Curry get his shot blocked a lot. He really has to separate. Irving, as a below-the-rim guy, almost never gets blocked around the rim. His sense of timing and acrobatic, ambidextrous instincts and skills are majestic. He’s a wizard, as Billups said. That’s the right word. 

In the end, we’re dead smack in the middle of the most skilled point guard era in history, and Irving and Curry reside atop all the others. But then Irving even goes up a notch from there. Curry is the greatest shooter ever. Irving is the most skilled point guard. Billups is right, in my opinion. 

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