As he said himself on First Take, Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers to “Be in an environment where I can be taught every single day, and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential.”
With the Boston Celtics he’ll have every opportunity to accomplish that goal. However, there is still work to do. Irving’s skills are undeniable as a four-time All Star and NBA champion, but the Cavs used him in primarily isolation settings(Sixth most in the NBA). He was elite in isolation, ranking in the 94th percentile on those plays, but it limited his growth as a basketball player due to the inefficiencies of running those plays.
Irving will still isolate a fair amount with the Celtics since he’s so good at it, but for him to accomplish his goal of maximizing his potential, he’ll need to become a complete point guard.
"I'm just looking forward to playing my position. I'm looking forward to becoming something that I've always envisioned myself being -- and that's being a complete point guard on a great team. I want to be able to come off pick-and-rolls and be able to dissect the defense... I'm not this one-on-one individual that wants to go one-on-one every single time down. That's not how I appreciate the game.”
The good news is that Irving is excited to learn how to become a complete point guard. It’s not an easy feat, but Irving has the skill-set and the right coaching scheme to reach a level that we haven’t seen from him yet. But which areas of his game does Irving have to improve to become “complete?”
Pick and Roll
Irving is deadly as a pick and roll ball handler, placing in the 83rd percentile and scoring 0.96 points per possession. He’s extremely patient maneuvering the screen, attacks switching bigs right away, and has the ball handling ability to split double teams with relative ease. All of that complimented by a ridiculous ability in finishing at the rim, Irving is a scoring machine off the pick and roll.
Irving needing to improve his pick and roll game in no way means he’s bad at it, but means that the Celtics will ask a bit more of him than the Cavaliers did. The Celtics have a very good team around Irving, but LeBron James isn’t there to keep him from getting swarmed on offense. Gordon Hayward and Al Horford will alleviate a lot of pressure, but Irving is going to face more help defenders in half court settings.
When Irving got a screen, he was given one mission from the Cavs, and that was to score. There were enough shooters and star power to give Irving a lot of one-on-one’s in these plays, which didn’t require much passing from that spot.
In this play, Irving gets Dennis Schroder alone heading to the basket. The defense fails to get over in time, and Irving gets an easy layup. As the focal point of the Celtics offense, Irving will face more extreme help defense when he drives to the basket. That’s when he’ll have to hit players in Kevin Love and Channing Frye’s position on the wing for open shots.
Irving’s quest to become a complete point guard probably starts with distributing to his teammates. There’s no question that Irving is unstoppable scoring in the pick and roll, but he’ll need to prove that he can keep defenses honest and make the kick out passes that discourage over-helping.
Brad Stevens said at Celtics Media Day that Irving is going to play with the ball a ton, so making the right plays every time down the floor is going to make or break whether Irving can become a pure point guard.
Irving was really good in Cleveland, but the Cavs really under-utilized him. More than half of Irving’s offense came from isolation plays or as the pick and roll ball handler. The way Cleveland’s offense was constructed around LeBron, there wasn’t a ton of movement off the ball by anyone besides the ball handler and maybe a screener. Here are James and Irving’s side-by-side play-type frequencies via NBA Math.
The top two players for the Cavs were primarily used in pick and roll situations and isolation. Not really the best way to maximize the breadth of their skills. Take a look at how low the frequencies are for Irving scoring off of cuts, handoffs, and off screens. According to NBA.com, Irving ranked in the 96th percentile in scoring off of cuts, 73rd percentile in handoffs, and the 85th percentile off of screens.
The Celtics’ offense is predicated on constant player and ball movement. Irving will have the ball in his hands a lot, but he’ll most likely have to play off the ball to open things up for the rest of the team in half-court settings.
In this play, Irving showcases his ability to finish through traffic, which will certainly be a weapon Brad Stevens will utilize this season. Irving took 33 shot attempts off of cuts last year, and made 27 of them. With more volume in the Celtics’ scheme and pinpoint passes from Horford and Hayward, Irving can certainly add cutting to his offensive repertoire.
As far as handoffs, Boston used that type of play more than anyone in the league last year, and Cleveland was second to last. Irving’s pick and roll opportunities will look a lot different than the simplified versions he ran in Cleveland due to the amount of handoffs Boston uses.
The Celtics also had the eighth highest frequency in running off-screen plays. Irving scored 1.14 points per possession off screens even though only 4.1% of his offense came from it. He’ll have plenty of chances to score off of screens, and will need to commit to running off screens and cutting to the basket to unlock the he and the Celtics’ offensive potential. A complete point guard doesn’t just set up the offense with the ball, but moves off the ball to open things up for himself and teammates by throwing different looks at a defense.
Probably the main criticism of Irving’s game is his suspect defense. He placed 70th among point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and posted a defensive rating(112) that was the same as former Celtic Isaiah Thomas. Standing at 6’3” with good foot speed and defensive instincts, Irving has the tools to at least be a decent defender.
Here Irving moves his feet well on a switch and uses quick hands to get the strip on Barnes. When he’s locked in, Irving can get stops and disrupt the opposing player. However, the effort isn’t always there.
Irving doesn’t stay close enough to Curry on this play, and he closes out pretty lazily as the best shooter in the NBA gets off an open look. His offensive workload probably had something to do with his lack of consistent effort on defense, but Irving will have to improve on that end of the floor in Boston.
Better defensive players will surround Irving on the Celtics in Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and Marcus Morris, so it’s far more likely that he won’t be left on an island against some of the NBA’s elite perimeter threats. That with the coaching philosophy that Stevens has implemented, and Irving won’t have a ton of excuses to not improve defensively. But again, if Irving wants to become a pure point guard and lead the Celtics to a championship, committing to a two-way style of basketball is a necessary criteria.
Kyrie Irving is a fantastic point guard that was definitely under-utilized by the Cavaliers during the LeBron James era. I believe that he has the skills and mindset necessary to become one of the top floor generals in the NBA, but he’ll have to commit to areas that he simply wasn’t asked to commit to with the Cavs. Fortunately for him and for Celtics fans, Irving is in a terrific situation to grow as a player and become the pure point guard he says he does.