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Setting the stage for Kyrie Irving’s best season ever

Kyrie Irving might just be heading for the best season of his career in 2017-18.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Kyrie Irving has been — and will continue to be — the most prominent subject of discussion in Boston this summer. The Celtics’ improbable playoff run and the emergence of Terry Rozier have made Irving a popular subject for trade rumors, especially in light of his non-committal statements about re-signing in Boston once his current contract is up. Everyone seems eager to ship him out of town, and there’s certainly a case to be made for such a move (though some reasons might be better than others).

I’m not interested in shipping Irving away in hypothetical trades, however. It feels as though the roller coaster finish to the Celtics’ season and the subsequent off season tumult have distracted Celtics fans from one fact: Kyrie Irving is the best player on the Boston Celtics roster, and just had perhaps the best season of his NBA career. Rather than sending him off to San Antonio as the centerpiece of a Kawhi Leonard trade, we’re looking at where Irving is right now — in Boston, where he might be primed to get even better in 2018-19.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The circumstances behind Irving’s sparkling debut season in Boston make his accomplishments that much more incredible. Irving struggled with knee soreness throughout the year, caused by remnants of the surgical reconstruction of his knee after his injury in the 2015 Finals, which would ultimately be the issue that shut him down for the season. Despite this, while he was on the court, he posted the most efficient offensive season of his career (61% true shooting percentage) on the highest usage of his career — a 30.7% rate that just barely edges out his final season in Cleveland.

This is even more impressive when you consider the way the Celtics’ offense ebbed and flowed around Irving all year long. Irving posted one of the ten heaviest usage rates in the NBA on a Celtics roster sorely lacking secondary shot-creators after Gordon Hayward’s injury, which led to an inordinate amount of defensive attention. With Hayward out of the picture, the Celtics were always going to run hot and cold, forced to rely heavily on developing players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and high variance bench contributors like Marcus Morris, and Irving was counted on to provide a semblance of offensive consistency. His highlights always seemed to feature multiple defenders in his zip code — look how happily the Bucks ignore Daniel Theis here:

Suffice it to say, Irving made it work — he flirted with a 50-40-90 season this season despite his knee troubles and the inconsistency of his supporting cast. His 54.1% shooting from two-point range set a new career-high, noticeably surpassing his previous best (50.6% in his last season with Cleveland). The driving force behind this was a career season finishing at the rim, where, despite his penchant for highlight-worthy layups, Irving has statistically never quite stood out. After converting better than 60% of the time for a season only once in Cleveland, as a rookie, that mark ballooned to 64.9% during his debut season in green — an impressive feat considering he was often the only player on the court capable of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the basket.

Coming into this next season, Irving is expected to be healthy in a way he hasn’t been since the 2015 Finals. According to the information we have, his knee is structurally sound and he’ll enter training camp fully recovered and pain-free. While Irving certainly has an earned reputation as an injury-prone player, it’s significant that we can seemingly rule the knee out as a concern at this point in time. If Irving had arguably his best season in these circumstances, it stands to reason that his ceiling might be even higher with each of those concerns addressed.

Luckily, the rest of the Hospital Celtics have started to get discharged, too. Gordon Hayward just had the plate and screws removed from his leg and is expected to be cleared before training camp. Ditto Daniel Theis, on the mend from his meniscus tear, and Marcus Smart will have two fully functional hands once more as well — at least, until he gets the opportunity to dive for more loose balls. The return of Boston’s injured contributors combined with further growth from its expansive youth movement are likely going to add up to the deepest team Irving has ever played on. Irving won’t be leaned on quite so heavily to carry the offense, and there will be a whole new world of tactical possibilities for Brad Stevens on that end of the floor.

The most crucial change will be the return of Hayward, who provides the secondary ball-handling and shot creation the Celtics sorely lacked last season. Hayward is perhaps the ideal complement to a high-usage, isolation-focused player like Irving — he can operate both off the ball as a secondary option and as an initiator in the half-court offense as needed, a level of versatility the Celtics frankly haven’t had at a high level since Paul Pierce was shipped to Brooklyn. Brown and Tatum each intermittently struggled to create their own shots, coming across a lot of their buckets as spot-up shooters, cutters, and in transition, while the freelancing of Morris, Smart, and Rozier could often be as much a hindrance as a help. Thus, when their ball movement fell apart and the offense stagnated, the only real plan was to let Irving go to work, hoping he could create something out of nothing.

Having a second player on the court who can score at a high level with the ball in his hands mitigates this issue substantially. Hayward’s ability to put the ball on the floor, run the pick-and-roll, and comfortably pull up for jumpers provides another option for scoring late in the shot clock, after plays break down.

While Hayward has the skills to score as a primary initiator, it’s not a requirement for him to be effective offensively. He’s also an elite off-ball threat who understands space and positioning as well as any wing in the league, and will consistently put himself in position to support Irving’s ball-dominant game. Last year’s preseason offered a brief, tantalizing glimpse of what the Irving-Hayward two-man game might look like.

In that play, the threat of Hayward’s drive leaves Kemba Walker half a step slow in closing out on Irving. When Irving turns the corner on Walker, the threat of his own drive freezes rookie Dwayne Bacon, allowing Hayward to float back behind the arc for an open triple.

That’s an action simply not feasible for the 2017-18 Celtics sans Hayward, because they didn’t have wing players that could really take up his end of the exchange. Jayson Tatum did not always command that kind of respect off the dribble, especially early in the season, and often struggled to make quick decisions or pass the ball with decisiveness. Jaylen Brown lacked the subtlety and experience for little details like Hayward’s quick initial screen or his backpedal to the three-point line once Irving has the ball — actions that helped nudge the defense out of position. Marcus Morris, meanwhile, would likely have just pulled up for a long two, and Semi Ojeleye or Abdel Nader would have been completely unguarded to begin with.

Here, again, Irving’s gravity on the drive creates an open look for Hayward, this time as a trailing three-point shooter:

Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky, and Walker all over-commit to the threat of Irving driving or throwing the lob to Horford, which leaves miles of open space for Hayward behind the arc. There’s an added dimension to this one, however — 43% three-point shooter Jayson Tatum, alone, with the closest defender’s back turned to him:

Of course, Tatum was just a rookie with no regular season NBA experience and a questionable jumper at the time, which changes the way a defense might account for him. Still, surrounding the Irving-Hayward game with shooters of his skill will create a plethora of these unsolvable situations for defenses. Even if Walker identifies and picks up Hayward (seven inches taller than him) before he gets to his open look, Hayward has an easy kick-out to an even-more-wide-open Tatum. Kaminsky is the only player in Tatum’s zip code in transition (Dwight Howard is so far behind the play that he becomes borderline irrelevant), but if he sticks with Tatum, that pulls a seven-footer away from the rim and leaves only Williams to cover both Irving and Horford. If Bacon collapses into the paint to help, Jaylen Brown is left unguarded in the corner — his favorite spot behind the arc. Poor decisions by Charlotte’s defenders didn’t help matters, but the Hornets were virtually doomed in this situation no matter what.

These are just a few examples of how the healthy Celtics’ offense will diversify around Irving. While his counting stats aren’t likely to improve — he’s not going to be scoring 27 points per game with so many other scorers on the floor — the reduced defensive pressure he’ll face on most of his touches could do a world of good for his efficiency. We could be looking at the most efficient season of Irving’s career on a per-possession basis — if his improvements within the arc and at the rim prove sustainable, joining the fabled 50-40-90 club could absolutely be in play.

The offseason is a time for fans to dream on the future of their franchises, and by and large, everyone wants to see their favorite team get bigger and better. It’s more exciting to contemplate new things than to stick with what you have, and with superstars like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard potentially in play, hypothetical blockbuster trades were inevitable.

These are the kinds of deals the Celtics should avoid, though. The combination of a healthier roster and young talent with another year of experience means that the Celtics already have the sort of upside this upcoming season that a deal like that would be meant to create, with ridiculous long-term flexibility to boot. It might not be exciting or splashy, but the Celtics have a lot of reasons to stand pat — and perhaps no one has more to gain than Kyrie Irving.

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