To state the obvious, Kyrie Irving is one of the most talented offensive players in the NBA. He has an innate feel for the game coupled with one the tightest handles the league has ever seen.
There are very few ways for defenders to go about stopping him, as he can set you up off the dribble and make nearly any shot from the three point line in, whether there is heavy defense or not. And in his short time with the Boston Celtics, Irving has done things that we haven’t really seen from him before.
Last season with the Cavaliers, Irving had the sixth-highest isolation frequency in the NBA at 21.4%. With the Celtics, that percentage is down to 15.2% in Brad Stevens’ offensive system predicated on ball movement. Boston has Irving cutting and coming off of handoffs way more than ever before, which has given him an added weapon to his offensive arsenal. This spells trouble for NBA defenses since Irving has shown that he is excellent at probing defenders even before he starts his moves.
In Cleveland, Irving spent over 50% of his offensive possessions as a ball handler either in isolation or in the pick and roll. He was excellent in both categories, ranking in the 95th percentile in ISOs and in the 83rd percentile in P&R. The way Irving attacks in P&R situations has changed slightly with how he probes defenders with the screen.
Almost all of Irving’s P&R scenarios last year involved dribbled into a single screen, and he used that space to pull up or attack the rim. In Boston, Stevens has his point guard moving without the ball more frequently. This allows Irving to attack off the catch using a screen, and he has shown an impressive ability to keep defenders guessing on which way he’ll go once he has it.
In the above clip, using his incredible instincts Irving catches the ball with his body pointed towards the screen and loses his defender easily when Markelle Fultz tries to cut him off. It’s hard enough to guess where Irving is going off the dribble, but with the added variable of a screen it gets that much tougher.
As mentioned above, Irving ranked in the 83rd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler with a 34% frequency. So far this season, his frequency is down to 30%, and ranks in the 95th percentile on those plays. Irving’s effective field goal percentage(eFG) on pick and rolls is up to 60% this season as opposed to 50% last season, which could explain the uptick in efficiency.
Probing defenders in the pick and roll isn’t the only setting in which Irving creatively utilizes a screen. Handoffs are a staple of the Celtics’ offense, while the same cannot be said for the Cavaliers last year. Irving had a total of 94 possessions in 72 games last year in which he received a handoff, and he ranked in the 73rd percentile on those plays.
Through 37 games this year, Irving has accumulated 102 handoff possessions, posting a 60% eFG and ranking in the 81st percentile. Not only has volume helped Irving in this statistic but his misdirection and probing skills come into play as well.
It helps to have such a great passing big like Al Horford as the guy to feed you on this type of play, but Irving does a great job here of making Kris Dunn think he’s using the screen until he breaks off to create separation.
Then there are scenarios like this where Irving jabs like he’s cutting to the basket. James Harden bites, and Irving takes the handoff, uses the screen, and bangs home the open triple.
Irving’s approach to these plays is a bit different than what Isaiah Thomas would do when he wore the Celtics uniform last season. Thomas would get the ball off of a handoff and head downhill as quickly as possible. Irving is more methodical in this sense, which is probably more sustainable in terms of wear and tear on his body in the long term.
Irving uses the same kind of shiftiness and quick reads to effectively toast his defenders. This specific skill set is not something we saw all that much in Cleveland. Irving had a total of 133 combined possessions on handoffs and cuts a year ago, and already this season he has a combined 140 of those possessions. It’s amazing how such methodical movement was so underutilized last season.
Look at this play below. Irving heads towards Aron Baynes to either get a handoff or just a simple pass, and he immediately senses the defender over committing, so he cuts it back for an easy lay-in.
As we approach the halfway point of the regular season, Irving continues to show how much untapped potential he had coming into Boston. We’ve seen flashes of good defense, excellent passing ability, and a level of leadership that can be best explained with the 26-point comeback he led over the Houston Rockets this past week.
With all of those improvements this season, one of the key developments for Irving has been his off-ball movement and the way he can probe and toast a defender without even taking a dribble.
It’s very difficult to defend someone who can create separation without the ball as well as he can with it, and it can help free up Irving’s teammates if the opposing defense’s main focus is off the ball. One of Stephen Curry’s more elite traits is his willingness to screen and move off the ball, and it’s good to see the Celtics’ franchise player embracing that aspect of the game.