Making comparisons between two things is a pastime as old as human sapience. From comparing club size and how many spears it took to kill a wooly mammoth, to comparing the quality of vehicles, houses, or wives, the male half of our species is generally obsessed with one-upmanship.
Measuring two athletes against each other is a part of that obsession—one that the media, both local and national, indulge in extremely often. I have very defined opinions about who’s better than whom and I’m not shy about getting into online rock fights to denounce claims that are founded either on ignorance or fanboyism (Russell Westbrook better than Dwyane Wade? Stop. James Harden over Wade is actually more arguable). When the discussion turns toward two players of roughly equal skill and standing in the NBA’s history—say, Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James, Oscar Robertson vs. Jerry West, Stephen Curry vs. Isiah Thomas—that’s when things get really exciting.
We have one such comparison today. This has been rolling around in my brain for years, honestly, but ESPN’s Zach Lowe nudged open the proverbial can of worms in his column Friday—specifically, his bit about Kyrie Irving and how Damian Lillard’s leadership qualities and general play has been superior to his.
Lillard is certainly better this season than Irving; Dame is dropping 29-4-8 with 46-39-89 shooting splits, while Irving played in only 20 games before being shut down for the year with a shoulder injury. Lillard is also currently leading the league in minutes per game despite dealing with a groin injury himself. In fairness, Irving was scoring a career-high 27 PPG in his one year without Kevin Durant, but neither the Brooklyn Nets nor the Portland Trail Blazers have done much this season in the title race.
What about for their careers, though? How will both players be remembered? I worry that 30 years from now, some snot-nosed punk will be telling his friend that Kyrie Irving was much better than Damian Lillard, without realizing the difference between being more FAMOUS and being more TALENTED. In terms of raw talent, they are equivalent—both well behind Curry, both likely behind Westbrook (who is his own animal, for better and worse), both talented enough to be the second-best player on a title team but not good enough to be The Man on a championship squad.
So, how do we solve this Karl Malone-vs.-Charles Barkley-like question? By busting out a Bill Simmons classic: The Dr. Jack Breakdown!
(I may be infringing on a gimmick, but come on. Simmons is a Boston native, and not only was Dr. Jack a Philly guy, he was the coach for the Blazers’ 1977 title team. His name is in our rafters forevermore. I think I’ve got as much right to invoke the name of Jack Ramsay as some nasally voiced smartass who spends all his time taping podcasts from home and counting all that HBO cash instead of writing.)
Shooting: Looking at their traditional shooting stats, Irving has a slight edge in accuracy with slightly less volume than Lillard. Their True Shooting Percentage, however, which takes into account threes and free throws, are remarkably similar. Irving’s TS% for his career is .572, while Lillard’s is .578—virtually no difference.
So how do we split that difference? By looking at the big picture, grasshopper.
For a good chunk of his career, Irving had elite passers on his team—LeBron James in Cleveland, then Al Horford in Boston. He never exactly was allowed to roam free on the perimeter, but surrounded by willing passers who demanded attention, Kyrie was usually able to get off a great shot in catch-and shoot scenarios…when he suppressed the urge to dribble the air out of the ball. He shot a great catch-and-shoot percentage, but he usually just attacked the basket after catching it. Like any great guard, he likes to sidestep the panicked defender flying at him for a closeout, but unlike Curry or Lillard (who would square up for a 3), Irving would drive to the rack and challenge the rotating big man at the cup. He won more than he lost, but he got pretty beat up in the process.
Lillard, meanwhile, had honed the Curryian dark art of the DEEP three. When he started to get trapped 40 feet from the hoop, he just shot the ball from there. This season alone, he’s 43-102 from 30 feet and beyond—that’s 42%, bettering his career-high 3PT% by a comfortable three percentage points. He bombs away with abandon, and he’s never been better at it than he is this season.
In the end, I reflect back on a press scrum before the 1992 NBA Finals, when the basketball world was measuring Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler against each other (I wasn’t exaggerating when I called this stuff an obsession). Among the topics bandied about were who was the better three-point shooter. Now, both His Airness and the Glide were crappy marksman from beyond 20 feet (both of them were around 30% for their careers to that point), but that didn’t stop Jordan from speaking up. According to Jack McCallum’s book Dream Team (about the 1992 Men’s Basketball Olympic Team), when a reporter mentioned that Drexler had slightly better percentages from downtown than Jordan, MJ immediately quipped, “Clyde is a better three-point shooter than I choose to be.”
The rest is history, as Jordan nailed six threes in a half in the famous Shrug Game, starting the neutering process on poor Drexler, and avenging himself upon the franchise that took Sam Bowie over him.
The point I wish to make is this: Irving hasn’t chosen to be as good a shooter as Lillard or Curry. He hasn’t had to. But with Durant returning next year, hungry to re-establish himself atop the NBA food chain, and with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie also best with the rock in their hands, Kyrie will have to choose to be a great shooter. He’ll have to if he wants a ring without LeBron’s stink all over it.
Slight Edge: Lillard
Ballhandling: This is a no-contest. Of the elite guards in the NBA, Lillard is easily the worst dribbler. That doesn’t mean he’s not good—you don’t get to be a First Team All-NBA point guard without some serious skill. Irving just so happens to have the best handles since Allen Iverson—a skill that sometimes hurts him and his team, to be honest, but is electrifying to watch.
Big Edge: Irving
Passing: Both players are score-first points in nature, so I’m tempted to call this a push. Both can make the basic plays with some occasional flair, but neither of them are going to nutmeg you or whip a no-look, behind the back pass to an open shooter on the break. Their assist numbers are skewed in Lillard’s favor—he has 900 more total assists than Irving, and his career average per game is slightly higher—but Irving’s advanced assist stats are slightly more equal.
Irving is being punished here for being a secondary playmaker for most of his career, while Lillard has initiated the Blazers’ offense virtually since day one. Once Kyrie left for Boston, however, his numbers got back to his pre-LeBron levels. It didn’t do the Celtics much good since they had better team success without him initiating the offense. And the Cavs were the hottest of garbage before James saved them…before leaving. Again.
Slight Edge: Lillard
Pick-and-Roll Mastery: Portland coach Terry Stotts runs an offense designed to get players moving around before the PnR begins, and Lillard has got it down to a T. Indeed, that’s how he gets the bulk of his points and assists. Go over the pick, he bursts down the lane. Switch, and he waits for the roll man to either get to the rim or post up—or he just takes the big galoot guarding him out to the deep end. Going under a pick on Lillard is the basketball equivalent of rubbing yourself with ground beef then jumping into a lion’s den.
Irving prefers to either wave off the pick and go one-on-one or dribble back and forth between his screener and the men being screened. When he does get the switch onto the big, Irving is better than Lillard at dancing with the poor big man before getting a good pull-up shot, or just going around him; Dame is more of a straight-line driver, looking for contact (and not getting enough calls) while tossing up a junky layup that goes in more than it should.
While Lillard has the natural advantage here, I also feel like docking Irving some points for having better teammates through the last five years of their careers, yet acting like he’s a smaller version of James Harden the Iso-God. Harden has a nasty stepback jumper, Irving has yet to fully master it. Plus, Harden is a six-foot-four 2-guard with a barrel chest and orangutan arms; Kyrie is no bigger than Lillard, and if someone keeps pace with him on the stepback, he has nowhere to go.
Irving has a chance to run some PnRs with Durant; the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll was the atom bomb of the Association while the latter was in Golden State. His decision-making needs to improve, especially as the years and injuries pile up.
Isolation Game: Another clear win for Irving. The only saving grace for Dame is that he’s liable to launch a 35-footer out of nowhere, and make it. Other than that, the isolations for the Blazers are CJ McCollum’s jam.
If Lillard is the best non-Curry shooter among guards, Irving is the best non-Harden iso player among guards.
Durability: Lillard has three 82-game seasons, led the league in minutes as a rookie, currently has the lead in minutes per game this year, and has played 75 more regular-season games than Irving despite entering the league one year later. Even the playoff games don’t really help Kyrie—you’d expect a man that played on three Finals teams to have many more postseason games than a man who made the Conference Finals just once, but Irving’s injury-prone body has taken him out when his teams have needed him most. Irving has 61 career postseason games, Lillard has 51.
Lillard is the Tin Man while Irving is the Scarecrow—always falling to pieces.
Big Edge: Lillard
Defense: Both of these guys are small, not stupendously athletic, and have played with multiple teammates who are also liabilities on defense. This side of the ball has been difficult for both of them during their careers.
I will say this for Lillard, though: He tries his ass off on D. He’s not going to let his lack of size, his humongous offensive burden, or the constant pick-and-roll torture he’s put through stop him from fighting through that screen and being around the ball—a big improvement from the younger version of Dame that would stick to the screen like a bug on flypaper, watch his man drain a 15-footer, then apologize to Robin Lopez during the timeout.
Irving’s effort in the defensive half of the court is the laziest this side of John Wall; at least Harden started working harder after the constant memes shamed him into it. Irving has no shame, unfortunately. He’d take a half-hearted stab at the ball, or get out of the way of the rolling big man he was a bit late switching onto, then poke fingers at his teammates. He was hated in Boston for many reasons, some of which we’ll get into, but his lack of defensive effort (on a more talented team than Lillard’s) was a very big one.
Defining Moment: Both guys have some of the most famous shots in NBA history on their resumes. Irving hit a huge Game 7 shot in the 2016 Finals vs. the Warriors that helped bring a championship to long-suffering Cleveland, establish himself as an elite player in his own right, and salvage James’ G.O.A.T. case all in one stroke.
Lillard has two series-ending three-pointers to his name: one in Game 6 in 2014 against Houston that put him on the national map, and one in Game 5 against Oklahoma City last year that ended an era for the Thunder, silenced Russell Westbrook, and made Paul George (who was defending the shot) one really salty boi.
It was tough to give an edge to either man, honestly. But although Lillard has multiple series-enders, Irving’s shot won a championship. That matters more.
Clutchness: Both players are unafraid of the huge moments, and are totally willing to take the final shot at all times. Their reaction to failure might be different (Lillard conciliatory, Irving mopey), but their love of the clutch is shared.
Leadership: I’ll lead off by paraphrasing my man Mr. Lowe:
“He loves to dance with the ball. He leads the league in drawing “ooooohs” from the crowd with magical dribble moves, and then missing. We need a name for that. It is a very specific thing that elicits a specific crowd noise: higher-pitched anticipatory “ooooohs,” followed by a resigned collective groan. Maybe it was hard for the other Nets to snap into a rhythm when Irving hit the bench.”
Irving may have been putting up big numbers, but he did it at the expense of his team. What you just read is a sign that a player has entered IDGAF mode; you could argue Irving has been in that mode since his final Cleveland season. In Boston, he would say the most random stuff; at best, he’s spouting nonsense and sounds like a stoned-out hippie crossed with a college professor. At worst, he simply sounds like a presumptuous jackass. There were too many of those moments in Boston, and it wrecked the team’s chemistry. Once the summer came and the Anthony Davis pipe dream got flushed by David Griffin’s trade, Celtics honcho Danny Ainge decided to let Irving walk a couple hundred miles south and sign the infinitely less disruptive Kemba Walker.
In the same piece, Lowe compared Irving with our man Dame:
“Lillard gets zero flak for no-pass possessions. He is regarded as one of the best leaders in sports. He is one of the best leaders in sports. We never hear about locker-room dysfunction in Portland. Lillard also shoots way more 3s and free throws than Irving. Those marginal advantages add up to a lot over one full game.”
While Irving is wasting time trying to entertain himself—and being a jerk about it—Lillard is exploding for 40, 50, even 60 a night. In the Blazers’ 50-year history, no player ever scored 60 in a game for them—not Clyde Drexler, not Brandon Roy, not Kiki Vandeweghe, nobody. Dame has two such games this season. And it’s not because he’s hotdogging or trying to put on a show, or just killing time until the next top-20 all-time player he’s on a team with heals. He’s doing it because he’s trying to win.
Need more convincing? Check out what he told Chris Haynes the other day:
“It’s a team game. To me it’s not just about wins and losses all the time. It means something to me when Moses Brown gets into the game, when Jaylen Hoard gets into the game. When they get out there, they’re looking like they know who’s the star on the team: me and CJ and Carmelo (Anthony). They know that. But it’s important for me to make them feel like we’re teammates. ‘You belong out here. I’m going to give you an opportunity to show what you need to do.’ That’s so important to me that I was just like, ‘I’m going to be patient with everything: with the injuries, with us playing our young guys, us having two-way guys, everything.’
“At times it was a little bit frustrating because we were losing. Any time you’re losing, and we had been winning all this time, you’re going to have frustration. But it was more important to me to feel a part of a team and have everybody feel like they’re part of the team.
“I was just going with that and then once we got to the point where it was like, ‘Alright, I’ve got to start forcing my hand for the sake of us coming out on top a few more times.’ So I was like, “If I go for it and we come up short, then I know my intention was right. I was doing it to get us going in the right direction.”
He goes on to say that it was working—and it was, his team was winning—so he just, in his words, kept his foot on the gas.
Having your superstar kill himself trying to score 45 a night is not a sustainable path; Lillard’s groin injury is tangible proof of that. Still, Lillard dealt with his frustration about this season, and decided to take it out on his opponents. Irving would have made snippy comments to the media, made a few esoteric references, and taken out his frustrations on his TEAM. That’s why he failed in Boston, and it’s why he will fail in Brooklyn unless Durant (himself a very mercurial person) finds a way to rein him in.
Both players may be best as second bananas, but Lillard is the ideal teammate: beloved, trusted, and treated with the utmost respect—respect he gives back to everyone from the front office, to his coaches (a quick aside: Terry Stotts has survived longer than the average head coach because of Lillard. And he won’t forget it.), to the 12th man on the bench, to the ushers and housekeepers of the Moda Center.
Irving has proved so far that he is not those things. And if the Nets are not careful, his toxicity could undo them before they even get truly going.
Big Edge: Lillard
Winner: Damian Lillard—so far. These guys aren’t even in their 30s yet. However, it’s pretty clear that Dame has won their 20s. Feel free to disagree if you wish—just keep in mind that fame does not necessarily equate to talent.