Kyrie Irving is an offensive savant. He’s a whirling dervish of impossible dribble moves, deadly pull-up jumpers, and unbelievable finishes near the rim. Such is his nature. Irving has been one of the NBA’s most unstoppable one-on-one scorers since he entered the league back in 2011.
He’s not a perfect player. Irving has long been critiqued for his defensive effort, and rightfully so. He’s not quite a good enough facilitator to function as the kind of self-contained elite offense unto himself that the likes of LeBron James and James Harden pull off. Hardly anyone is, however, and Irving is just about as close to that tier of offensive talent as you can get without cracking it.
Now in his eighth year as a pro, it was hard to imagine Boston’s enigmatic All-Star discovering many new avenues to increase his value to his team’s offense. He’s established enough to be set in his ways, particularly considering how effective his skill set has proven to be. Irving’s team have been substantially better scoring the ball with him on the court in all but one season of his career, in most cases to an elite degree. You could excuse him if he felt he’d found his most sustainable path to success on that end of the court.
But this year Irving is proving you can teach an old (relatively speaking) dog new tricks. The master ball handler and silky smooth shooter has found an unexpected means of boosting his utility - offensive rebounding. Irving has nabbed 3.8% of Boston’s total misses with him on the court this year. That may seem a modest number, but it’s more than double his rate from a season prior, and ranks in the 94th percentile as compared to his fellow guards league-wide, per Cleaning the Glass.
Irving’s offensive boards come in all shapes and sizes, but he’s been most prolific as a tip-in artist. He’s generated 12 points on 9 possessions on such efforts, per an independent film review conducted by CelticsBlog. That’s not the same kind of effectiveness that some of the league’s most dominant offensive rebounders demonstrate, but it’s still good for a 1.33 point per possession average.
Irving has an innate ability to read angles, slither through cracks, and finish difficult looks by the basket with feathery touch. Typically he applies those skills to attacking off the dribble, but they can be equally effective hunting down easy putback opportunities.
Not all of Irving’s offensive rebounds come quite so cleanly as his tip-in attempts. Often time his boards are the result of scramble situations. The Celtics have enough talent to leverage the chaos of such scenarios for their benefit.
There is a real risk associated with plays like the above. Fail to secure the ball and you may find yourself lacking in transition defenders. Irving tends to place his bets intelligently in that regard. Most of his rebounds are of the opportunistic variety, though not all.
Occasionally Irving will snatch a traditional, bully-ball style board. It’s almost jarring to see given the stoicism with which he typically plies his craft, and nearly always results in a kickout.
Offensive rebounds lose a bit of their appeal when they result in resetting against a set defense, but they still represent a free possession, and often yield additional points, even if at a lower rate than tip-in and scramble situations.
And that’s the crux of the value that Irving’s increased offensive rebound rate provides - more chances to put points on the board. Boston has taken advantage of it. The Celtics are averaging 116.7 points per 100 possessions when Irving secures an offensive rebound. That those opportunities come few and far between as compared to the number generated by elite offensive rebounders at the big and wing position is worth noting.
Irving’s commitment to hitting the glass for second chances isn’t the kind of avalanche of impact that having someone like Steven Adams on your team provides. Boston rarely gets more than one or two offensive rebounds per game out of Irving, and in that sense his impact is somewhat trivial.
But consider this. The Celtics are outscoring opponents by 6.3 points per game. That means in contests where just one of Irving’s offensive rebounds resulted in only two points, his efforts made up nearly a third of the team’s average margin of victory. There’s a real on-court benefit to Irving’s uptick on the offensive glass, albeit somewhat subtle, and it points to the potential for something even more meaningful.
Irving is in his basketball prime, the point at which he is meant to be his most fully-realized self on the court, and yet he’s continuing to find little ways to add to his game. In a league filled with absurd levels of talent, building around the edges matters. There are other components of Irving’s game that could still be unlocked to make him an even more devastating force, namely his defense and play making.
He’s made considerable progress on the former this year, and is attempting to figure out the latter in the context of a new roster (and has been trying to do so for most of his career). Irving’s sudden improvements hitting the offensive glass suggest that there may be hope for substantial, unexpected jumps in development with regard to both.
Growth is no guarantee, but the fact Irving has demonstrated a capacity for it in any domain at this stage in his career should come as an encouraging sign for the Celtics.