Kyrie Irving isn’t a “true point guard.” Sometimes when we talk about basketball—particularly with point guards—there's a very binary, stat-counting analysis. Did they pass or shoot? If they shot, did they make or miss? If they did pass, did the guy that caught the pass make or miss his shot? In a sport where players are making dozens of split-second decisions, we have a tendency to oversimplify a player's production by a few stats. For Kyrie, despite being one of the best scorers in the NBA, it might be assists.
Last season as the de facto secondary ball handler behind LeBron, Kyrie dished out 5.8 assists a game to James’s 8.7. By comparison, Isaiah Thomas had 5.9 APG in his MVP-caliber career year. Through three preseason games, Irving had 16 assists and only 3 turnovers, but the numbers are irrelevant. What’s important is that Irving has bought into Brad Stevens’s ball-movement system. Ex-CelticsBlogger and current Ringer staffer Kevin O’Connor put together all of KI’s assists so far and wrote:
...from a technical standpoint, Irving is making quick reads and delivering on-target passes with zip on the ball. He doesn’t look like a guy without vision, or a guard reluctant to pass.
Despite Irving’s overtures this summer about becoming a “true point guard” in Boston, Stevens won’t ask him to do that or expect that lead role from him. The Celtics run an egalitarian offense and, ultimately, team assists will matter more. Unless you’ve got Irving on your fantasy team, don’t obsess over his assist numbers. Because of all the attention he’ll draw, he should hover around that 5-8 APG range, but with two other playmakers in Hayward and Horford on the floor in a system predicated by ball movement, he’ll have a bigger variety of touches other than being a ball-dominant PG. And for what it’s worth, you could even argue that the more even the assist distribution is, the more unpredictable, dynamic, and deadly the Celtics’ offense is.
Here’s another theme that is sure to come up this season: “the Celtics still can’t rebound.” This will always be Boston’s bugaboo, but I’ve never understood why. Sure, opposing teams seem to always grab multiple offensive rebounds in a single possession whenever the game is in the balance. It’s deflating, and you can feel the air get sucked out of TD Garden. Guess who else gives up a bunch of ORs? Both NBA Finalists. The Warriors were last in the league at 11.7 per game, the Cavaliers were 27th at 11.0, and the Celtics finished 25th at 10.8. Offensive rebounds are frustrating, but for switching defenses, they’re a by-product that teams have to live with. The reality is, better defense leads to more missed shots, so naturally there are more chances for opposing teams to crash the offensive glass. However, that’s a trade-off that Brad Stevens is willing to make because defense will be one of the biggest barometers of team success this season.
Through trade attrition this summer, the Celtics lost Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder from a defense that finished 12th in defensive efficiency at 105.5 (7th after the All Star break at 104.0). In their place, Stevens has promoted Jaylen Brown and asked him to focus on being a “lock-down defender,” gained Crowder-comparable defenders in Hayward and Marcus Morris, and bulked up in the front court with Aron Baynes. Marcus Smart is slimmer and quicker after losing twenty-five pounds, and Terry Rozier seems ready for more responsibility in the second unit. These are just preseason numbers, but the Celtics have a stingy 90.9 DefRtg in four games and are in the top 10 in defensive rebounding rate. You can’t hang your hat on those numbers, but you have to like the trend lines.
And finally, “the Celtics are too young.” Well, this is true. They have one of the youngest rosters in the league with five rookies and three players still on their rookie contracts. Kyrie Irving is only 25, Gordon Hayward is entering his prime at 27, and Al Horford is the elder statesman at 31. We don’t know if this team will finish first again in the Eastern Conference, but their long-term outlook is better now than it was in April. They’ve become the NBA’s version of Benjamin Button, improving with youth.
However, this hasn’t been the typical rebuild. Instead of granting playing time based on draft position and upside, players won’t see the floor for Stevens unless they can make “winning plays.” For Boston’s youth movement, that’s meant taking complementary roles. Talents like Brown and Jayson Tatum would normally be thrown into the deep end and asked to swim. Think about the Lakers. Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, and Brandon Ingram all averaged 28+ MPG in their rookie seasons with the Lakers; Brown played sporadically last year and averaged 17 MPG. Not only are the minutes fewer, but so are the expectations. Unlike Brown, Smart played a lot right away, but his role was fairly defined as a spark plug off the bench and a perimeter defender. It was a manageable role for a kid who just turned 20.
This season, the Celtics will rely heavily on Smart, Brown, Rozier, and Tatum, but not in starring roles. There will be moments when Tatum might get a couple of touches in the post when he’s got a mismatch, but more times than not, he’ll be getting kick-outs from Irving and Hayward and finishing around the rim when Horford draws a double team. Some fans might be disappointed that they’re not reaching the ceiling of their potential, but for now, serving as a role player will be enough. We want to see Tatum be the second coming of Carmelo Anthony, but in year one, a slightly better version of Jonas Jerebko will do.