The Great Debate: Kyrie Irving vs. Damian Lillard

Is Kyrie Irving a better player than Damian Lillard despite the former being ranked lower than the latter in SI's Top 100? The Open Floor crew debates.
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There has been quite a bit of discussion—and debate—over SI's Top 100 players for the 2018-19 season. On this episode of the Open Floor podcast, Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver are joined by Rob Mahoney to further discuss the list, this time focusing on 30-1 and where two elite guards fall in that frame.

(Listen to the latest Open Floor Podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Andrew Sharp: Speaking of a real All-Star, who a lot of people think is an MVP candidate. A lot of people were pissed off about where Kyrie Irving landed on the Top 100. James says, “Is it fair to accuse Ben of overthinking it with Kyrie? I can’t picture a world where the Warriors would rather face Kyrie than Rudy Gobert. Do you think the degree of difficulty for Kyrie’s shot making gets lost when analyzing him?”

Let me say two things: No. 1, I do think the shot making gets lost when you guys talk about him and the value that creates in a playoff setting. And No. 2, I would say, “who do the Warriors want to face?” is not the right way to analyze Rudy Gobert. Take me through your Kyrie process.

Ben Golliver: Hold on, why do you say that we have lost sight of his playmaking and shot-making abilities when we—even though he missed a ton of time last season—still have him ranked as a top-17 guy? Why are we overlooking that? I feel like we are giving him a lot of credit for that, aren’t we?

Sharp: Absolutely.

Golliver: If he’s a minus defender or average at best defensive player, at 17th in this list—and you’ve got tons of two-way talent guys above him—how are we losing sight of him? I think we’re giving him proper credit for it.

Sharp: Let me walk you through the spectrum of Kyrie valuation. You have the Kobe stan/psychotic way to look at Kyrie, which is that Kyrie is a top-five guy. He won a title. What more do you need to see? He’s not that and we can agree on that. You can also say Kyrie is a chucker, who’s overrated, who should be in the CJ McCollum/Kemba Walker category and he’s always been a fraud. But he’s not that either.

I think there are two ways to look at where he lands between there. You could say, No. 1 that he has all the same weaknesses as Damian Lillard, but more playoff upside, and that should break the tie between the two. Lillard is at 15 on this list and I would at least have Kyrie 15 and Lillard 17.

Golliver: Look, if Kyrie played 75 games …

Sharp: Yeah, so is it just a durability thing?

Golliver: I mean, durability is a huge factor here. The last three seasons, he has played 53, 72, 60 games. He had the other injury in the playoffs and it’s kind of become a consistent thing. I think with Lillard, if you gave him Boston’s setup and the talent level there, I think that Lillard would look significantly better than he has in Portland as he’s the No. 1 option. And I also think that Kyrie would run into a lot of the same problems that Lillard’s run into with playing in lineups that have three offensive holes, right? So it’s like, Kyrie is in a situation where both in Cleveland and in Boston, you can’t hard trap Kyrie or you’re gonna get burned.

Sharp: Exactly.

Golliver: So I think that those two guys are very very close. I think the tiebreaker is Lillard’s durability and also I think he probably has been a little overrated, Lillard has, in his leadership ability.

Sharp: I agree, and I like that you’re digging Kyrie to some degree because if you gave Kyrie Dame’s Blazers teams the last three or four years, I think there’s no way they’re as successful as they’ve been with Lillard. To me though, I do value the ability to raise the ceiling in a playoff setting more than that and that’s why I would have Lillard above him. I value it enough in the ability to create shots at the end of games, I think you could make a good case that he should be 11th on this list and flip him with like Paul George.

Golliver: How many playoff games did he play last year?

Sharp: Yes, OK well …

Golliver: That’s the counter.

Sharp: … so health is your calculation.

Golliver: It is a major factor.

Rob Mahoney: Not only is Kyrie injured a lot, but the Lillard comparison does him absolutely no favors. Lillard has missed 24 total games over six years so it’s just an especially brutal comparison for him, availability wise, which I’ve been told is the most important ability, I don’t know about that.

Golliver: It’s the greatest ability.

Sharp: That’ll be etched into my brain 50 years from now when we’ll still be talking about the top 100.