“When he was at Duke.”
-Danny Ainge, CSNNE interview
That’s how long Danny Ainge has believed Kyrie Irving was a special. For the past six years he’s watched Irving take the league by storm with a streetball handle balanced with a silky smooth jumper, an impeccable ability to finish at the rim, and a bottomless pit of potential. For his first three years, Irving accumulated stats and highlights on a lottery team, developing into what many hoped would be the face of the franchise. But then LeBron James made his triumphant return to the Cavaliers, and Irving went from beginning the next phase of his development to becoming James’s little brother. Three years, three trips to Finals, one legendary shot, a couple broken relationships, and a few burned bridges later, and we’re here. Kyrie Irving is a Celtic.
Finally, Irving has a chance to become the face of the franchise like he was promised in Cleveland. But is that who he is? His past suggests not. But at 25 and just entering his prime in a new system, the Celtics are banking on that next leap putting Irving amongst the top superstars in the league. But understanding how Irving can make that leap requires an understanding of where he came from.
Kyrie Irving in The Cleveland Offense
The Cavaliers ran one of the most predictable offenses in the league, but because of the star power on the roster they still managed to be third in offensive efficiency. Having LeBron James is having a 6-foot-8 floor general. The offense marches to the beat of his drum, and surrounding pieces should all be complimentary to what he wants to do. If James isn’t taking a catch-and-shoot shot, he’s pounding the ball waiting for that perfect pass that he always seems to make happen. From a team perspective it’s fine—when surrounded with shooters, James can pick defenses apart, and his team racks up points at an impressive rate. But from a player perspective it can be marginalizing, especially for a player with the talents of Irving. But it’s not that simple. Irving was 10th in usage rate last season (right behind James), and he had a career high in attempts. Furthermore, when James came off the floor, Irving’s usage rate jumped to the 40s, and the Cavaliers were substantially worse. That doesn’t exactly lead one to believe that he’s a potential franchise player just waiting in the wings. But are those numbers really an indictment of him?
James is a dominating presence on the court and within a team’s front office. Whether it was in Cleveland or Miami, when a team obtains LeBron James, it obtains an entire offensive system and it needs to buy the complimentary spare parts if it wants the system to function at its best. In James’s case, that means veteran guys capable of defending and shooting. And with that the offense becomes pretty simple: give the ball to LeBron James, and let him create. And if James happened to pass the ball to Irving in a non-shooting situation, Irving was simply given the basketball and told to make something happen. It’s no secret that the Cavaliers ranked 1st in the league in isolation plays and were 26th when it came to passes made as a team. The offense is not predicated on ball movement, running tons of sets, and getting guys to move off of the ball. The Cavaliers were all about putting the ball in the hands of their stars and telling them to create. That’s not the fault of Ty Lue. The Cavaliers have been a top offense for a while and have been to three straight Finals. When you have the best player in the world, you don’t need to be creative because you’re simply just better. However, the issue for Irving is that this was not the best use of his ability. Being either a spacer or isolation player didn’t necessarily give him a fair opportunity really run his own offense. The “best” 5-man lineup for Irving that didn’t include James was Jefferson, Shumpert, Love, and Thompson. Love’s best chance of creating for himself would be in the post, which he couldn’t do with Thompson clogging the lane, and with minimal spacing, it was essentially Irving’s job to generate offense in a lineup not built to score. Maybe if you put LeBron in that same situation the offense is still manageable and running at a net positive. But does that mean Irving can’t carry a team, or does that mean Irving can’t carry a team built for LeBron?
Kyrie Irving In Boston
“I think Kyrie knows how to play, he can pass off pick-and-roll, he can score off pick-and-roll, he draws a lot of attention, a lot of blitzes, he draws a lot of attention at the rim, he’s a fabulous scorer, and I think he can really flourish in what we’re doing.”
-Brad Stevens, CSNNE interview
Whereas no one will ever confuse Irving for James, pundits have often talked about the similarities between Irving and Thomas. Both are score-first dynamite guards with the ability to shoot at all three levels, finish at the rim, and close games. In Cleveland, Irving’s role was limited to what LeBron needed. In Boston, it’ll be expanded to fit what the team needs.
A quick snapshot here of frequent types of plays for both players shows a fundamental difference between the systems run in Boston and Cleveland. Though both teams used their guards primarily out of the pick and roll, Boston diversified Thomas’s other looks while Irving was either asked to make something on his own in isolation or wait around for a spot-up opportunity. The same remained true in the playoffs, where Thomas upped his pick-and-roll game but also maintained a diverse attack, while Irving’s jumper came in isolation, and other type of shots were even less likely.
One reason for this difference in offensive systems is that the teams had different philosophies. The Celtics were 2nd in assists, 2nd in passes made, and have an offensive system that mirrors a less powerful version of the Warriors. Boston likes to run offense that gets all five guys involved and focuses less on the individual and more on creating the best shot for the team: Get to the hole, draw extra defenders, find open shooters, and don’t be afraid to let it fly.
There’s also the difference in the rosters. Thomas got to run the pick and roll with Al Horford, the best passing big man in the game. Unlike Thompson, who’s great at rolling hard to the hoop and nothing else, Horford has the full array of skills you could ask for in a big man. He can shoot, post up, or initiate offense for the team.
When Irving isn’t on the ball, he’ll be running through a multitude of staggered screens and DHOs in an effort to get him going downhill and forcing extra defenders to crash on him.
This style of play will allow Boston to create for Irving through team movement while simultaneously putting him in a stronger position to create a scoring opportunity for the offense.
There will be talk about whether Irving can actually fit in this offense or whether his isolation plays are just who he is. However, I don’t think the two styles are mutually exclusive. Irving is an exceptional isolation player whose one-on-one ability allows him to get by any defender in the league. And let’s be perfectly clear here—the ability to score in isolation is not an indictment on a player and is one of the hardest skills to find. Amongst all NBA players who have a frequency of 18% or more in isolation and average more than 3 possessions per game, Irving is first in ppp and efg%, and the only who ranks higher than the 90th percentile. Notable names on that list include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook. Irving gets his own bucket better than anyone. Coach Stevens won’t look to stop Irving from making those types of plays, but he’ll instead give him other avenues to create offense.
When a play mismatch happens:
Or when the team just needs someone to make a play:
Isolation isn’t an efficient offense to build your team around, but that does not mean that it can’t be an efficient part of the offense when used in particular situations.
But if you still don’t believe in the power of playing in a more empowering offense, look no further than Isaiah Thomas.
It seems like a long time ago, but when Thomas first came to Boston he was known as a spark plug off the bench who would be able to get the Celtics buckets. No one considered him a playmaker, let alone someone capable of leading a top-10 offense. At the time of the trade, Thomas was a year older than what Irving is now and was less accomplished. Thomas didn’t have the responsibilities that Irving dealt with during his first title run. Despite this, Irving turned the ball over less, assisted at a higher rate, hit threes at a higher rate, and had close to the double the VORP rate that Thomas had. Fast-forward two and a half years later, and absolutely no one is questioning Thomas’s ability to be a playmaker and leader of a potent offense.
Irving is transitioning from an offense built on putting the ball in the hands of the best players and giving them the burden to create to a team that only requires that a player use his talents to enhance the system. There will be a period of transition, but there’s no mistaking that Irving saw Boston as a situation where he can be a part of something rather than someone—it’s now up to him to take that opportunity to grow as a player.