Is Kyrie Irving off this Year or Finding Form?

When LeBron James is on the roster, he gets the most attention. So it goes in the NBA, where the biggest superstars matter most.

In Cleveland, especially, James stands out on the court for every reason. When he’s on his game, fans can breathe a sigh of relief, feeling that his prime years aren’t quite over. The championship window stays open, if only just a crack.

When he’s off, or the old explosiveness isn’t there on a given night, panic can set in.

As James goes the rest of this season, so, too, will go the Cavaliers. He’s the best player on the current Eastern Conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers, who had a 46-18 record going into Sunday afternoon’s game against the 42-22 Los Angeles Clippers.

But the success or failure of the Cavs isn’t all truly on him, as this season up to this point suggests. That’s a heavy burden for one guy. Cleveland’s ability to get back to the Finals and present a challenge to Golden State, San Antonio or any wild card that defies the odds in the Western Conference will also depend on point guard Kyrie Irving, who has superstar potential, but has struggled to reach the next level of his game in what has been an odd season for him.

Is Kyrie Irving off this Year or Finding Form?

With his scoring talent, Irving is the second-best player on the team and can turn the tide of a game with his combination of three-point shooting and touch around the rim. For example, his deep three at the end of the shot clock in the waning seconds of a close game at Dallas on January 12th allowed the Cavs to escape with a 110-107 win in overtime. In Wednesday’s 120-111 victory at Sacramento, he scored 17 of his 30 points in the second half, including eight in the final 1:06 of the third quarter to give his team an 89-84 lead. In the blink of an eye, he gave the Cavs momentum that they had struggled to find all evening.

Coming back from a broken kneecap suffered in game one of last year’s Finals, Irving has played in just 38 games this season, but his flashes of brilliance are still there. For the Cavs, so much will rely on his ability to turn those flashes of great play into something more consistent. He has struggled to do so up to this point.

Here’s where it gets weird: his shooting has improved each month since his return to the lineup in December (34 percent from the field in December, 44.4 in January, 50.2 in February and 51.7 this month), but his per game scoring average (19.8) is the lowest since his rookie year (18.5). When it comes to handling the ball, he’s averaging a career-low in turnovers at 2.1 per game, but he’s also at a career-low in assists per game at 4.6. By contrast, he averaged 5.4 assists per game as a rookie.

Advanced stats tell the same up-and-down story.

Irving’s true-shooting percentage (.559) is down from last year’s (.583), but his PER is at a career-high 21.6. He’s getting plenty of opportunities to affect the outcome of games with his offense, as his usage percentage (29.3) is the second-highest of his career (the highest being 30.2 in the 2012-13 season). More troubling, however, is that his offensive win shares (3.0) are the lowest of his career. Last season, he was at 8.4. Even in his rookie year, he had 3.4.

So, what’s to be expected from Irving down the stretch of this season? It’s hard to say, but, on the positive side, his shooting in all facets has progressively gotten better the more he has played. In addition to the monthly increases in his field goal percentage, he has also gotten better from beyond the arc. After shooting a dreadful 25 and 25.4 percent in December and January, respectively, he improved to 38.3 percent in February, and is at 38.9 percent from deep in March. This could suggest that he’s rounding into form.

While his teammate, James, will remain the floor general and steward of the Cavs’ playoff hopes, it will, in fact, be Irving who can create the most separation from the team’s competition in the East, and even make the biggest difference in a potential second straight Finals appearance. While others, such as Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, are strong scorers, Irving is James’ only teammate with true game-breaker potential. And he may be starting to find his groove.

The Clippers entered today’s nationally-televised match-up led by one of the best point guards of the modern era in Chris Paul, and they have playoff goals of their own. But this game could also be a showcase opportunity for Irving, who had 21 points and was a plus-15 (his team’s scoring margin while he was on the floor) in a 115-102 win at Quicken Loans Arena the last time the two teams met, on January 21st.

As James goes, so will the Cavs. But as Irving goes, the team could follow to a loftier place.