With about 8:55 left in the first quarter, the Celtics were playing the Orlando Magic in a mostly meaningless regular-season game. Johnathan Simmons came charging down on a fast break with only Kyrie Irving standing between him and the rim. Irving could have gone for the fake hustle swipe trademarked by John Wall, Russell Westbrook, or (frankly) himself. Instead, Irving put his body on the line and took the charge.
For fans that watch the hysterics of Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes sacrificing themselves for the sake of positioning, this isn’t exactly Hall-of-Fame-worthy stuff. But the story of Kyrie Irving has always been about what he does with the ball in his hands. For Boston, his commitment to what he does when the ball isn’t in his hands will be the key to keeping this core together.
After the initial shock of the trade, the question about Kyrie Irving was about motive. Why did he want to leave LeBron James? Could Irving buy into Brad Stevens’ coaching? Was this a lateral move for Boston?
These aren’t the normal questions when you acquire a 25-year-old superstar, but the path Irving took was one that called for it. In his first three years he spent his time racking up personal accolades and legendary highlights on a losing team. When the team was finally in position to start trying to win, they sold him on the idea of a team built around him. Then, LeBron James returned, and Irving went from the face of a new era to the sidekick of an old one. Team-wise, the Cavaliers were dominant. Three straight Finals, one epic title run, and they looked poised for more. But Irving never quite bought in. The team success was great, but he never got to push himself to his personal limits. He rarely got to play his position, and with that came the inability to dictate the game on his terms. It’s not what he was promised when he signed his extension in Cleveland, and he understandably wanted more.
”It is a high price tag,” Danny Ainge said. “But acquiring a 25-year-old perennial All-Star, a player that fits a timeline for us and is a fantastic offensive player, one of the best offensive players in the league, you have to pay a heavy price.”
Irving’s trade request came at the perfect time. The Celtics had a chance to insert the superstar into a team that was ready to support him, while the Cavaliers had a chance to get win-now assets with a lottery pick that could potentially be the centerpiece in the next era if James left. In theory, a win-win for both teams.
But there were questions. Specifically: What were Irving’s motives?
On the eve of the Celtics’ 16-game winning streak being snapped, a reporter asked Kyrie Irving about why he thinks his approach to the game has changed. His answer was enlightening:
Irving’s comments reflect a player who feels vindicated in his individual ability but understands the meaning of legacies. Similar to his old partner LeBron James, Irving understood that in order to be considered one of the greatest he had to put himself in a situation where people could see his ability to lead a team that was an actual contender. Irving had already earned his stripes as one of the most dynamic scorers in the league. He’s a global superstar with one of most legendary handles in the game and the scoring prowess to keep a defense guessing at all times. You don’t have to take my word for it, ask the Golden State Warriors:
In Cleveland, any championship won alongside LeBron James will always be perceived as a title won by LeBron James. Irving knew that, and he also knew that he had the ability to play his position as well as anyone. But he still needed to prove that #UNTUCKEDKYRIE could fit into the construct of a winning team.
The process of the results
A quick look at Kyrie Irving’s counting stats this would make you chuckle at the idea of him being a “different player” in Boston:
2016-17: 25.2ppg, 5.8apg, 3.2rpg 47.3/40.1/90.5 (35.1 mpg)
2017-18: 24.4ppg, 5.1apg, 3.8rpg 49.1/40.8/88.9 (32.2mpg)
I mean, even his usage is basically the same (30.8 to 31).
However, what Irving has done is transform how he played to fit within a team concept. The biggest difference can be seen in his off-ball scoring opportunities. This year, 24.6% of Irving’s scoring possessions came off of hand-off, cuts, or off-screen action. Last season, that number was only 12.4%.
Irving was also able to decrease the amount of possessions that he shot after dribbling 7 times or more (5.4 to 6.8) while becoming a better finisher at the rim (64.4% to 59.9%). The team’s offensive rating was also the highest when he was on the court (108.7).
In terms of making his teammates better, it’s a little tricky. Playmaking is a three-part test: the looks you tangibly create for your teammates, the looks you create by your presence, and your own ability to score.
Irving’s assist averages are very similar to his last year in Cleveland (5.8 to 5.1) and his AST% was only a blimp higher than last year (27.72% to 28.2%). That suggests that there was no drastic leap in the amount of times Irving passed the ball to his teammates that directly led to a score. But that doesn’t end the inquiry of his playmaking ability. Assists are tricky because they don’t credit the process.
They have value because it can highlight the good process, but only if the results cooperate, no matter the circumstances of the look. Potential assists are supposed to try and control for that (Irving is 29thin the league with 10.2), but even that requires an assumption on what would have been assist. Other times, a player can make the right pass that leads to the assist. The league tries to control this by using secondary assists, which show that Irving is tied for 3rd in the league in secondary assists (1.0). Irving has never been known as a big-time assist player, and that mostly held true in his first year in Boston.
The other part of the playmaking inquiry is looking at whether a player raises the quality of shots another player takes. This is what I call the looks created by your presence. This is also really hard to quantify because you’re essentially trying to find out whether a player being on the court helps his teammates, even if he isn’t the one necessarily making the play for them. This has been mostly highlighted by Steph Curry and his “gravitational pull”. He’s not the first or only player that has it, but it has become a useful tool in evaluating how shooters can still create plays for others just by simply being really effective scorers that force the defense to go out of their way to defend them. Guys like JJ Redick, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, and Kyle Korver are some of the other notable names that have this effect. The list is longer, and I think Irving is one of those guys that defenses sell out for in a similar way. The problem is that outside of posting a bunch of videos like this:
Watch Jeff Teague just completely abandon Jaylen Brown in the corner (39.2 3P% for the year), in order to give extra attention to Kyrie.
There’s really no statistic that inconclusively tells you of a player’s gravitational pull. One potential indicator that I’ve begun to look at is how other players shoot when on the floor with the gravitational player. Here’s how the Celtics starters have fared when on the court with Irving.
Some interesting trends emerge. Horford and Brown are actually more efficient scores without Irving while Tatum and Baynes are worse. Here’s what it looks like when you extend it to some of the reserve players.
Overall, the trends suggest that outside of Brown and Horford, Irving being on the court either increases the efficiency of players or keeps them relatively the same.
The fact that the offense is at its best when Irving is on the court suggests that the team as a whole is better at scoring with him. In terms of playmaking, Irving has an unequal balance of everything. He can rack up assists or make the pass that leads to his teammates scoring, but his supernatural ability to score and the omnipresence of his scoring ability are what make him an elite playmaker.
On the defensive end, Irving didn’t suddenly transform into a first-team defender, but he never had to. Irving showed a consistent effort on the defensive end in a way that many thought he couldn’t. So much of what makes a defender good or bad just isn’t properly quantified with publicly available data. The reason for that is because so much of defense is deterrence, the absence of something happening. Cutting off baseline and forcing a player to pass is a fantastic defensive play, but if the possession still ends in a score of no fault of the defender, there’s nothing really to show for the effort.
Irving’s hustle stats are actually all down from his last year in Cleveland, so any of the differences in his defensive game won’t be shown in the normal defensive highlight videos you’ll see on YouTube. Where he did make some headway this year was consistently putting effort. He fought over screens, made the right “team” play rather than going for gambles, and generally stuck to the old defensive philosophy of “ball, you, man.” It’s not flashy, but good defense rarely is.
Here’s Kyrie “not trying” on defense anymore. pic.twitter.com/TnihJQvbsy— A.K ⚖️ (@Kungu_NBA) December 24, 2017
He wasn’t the team’s best defender by a long shot, but unlike Isaiah Thomas, he didn’t hold back the defense from being elite. Boston was able to manage a 103.4 defensive rating when Irving was on the court which translates to 5th in the league. That doesn’t mean Irving was an elite or even above-average defender. What it does mean is that he was passable enough that he didn’t hinder the unit collectively from being elite.
During a one-on-one interview after the season, Danny Ainge made mention of the stretch after the All-Star break where the Celtics were playing their best basketball of the year.
Before Irving went down on March 11th, he was leading a Celtics team hitting their stride at the right time. Boston had a 119.7 offensive rating with a 60.6 TS% and AST% along with a 10.2 net rating when Irving was on the court via NBA Stats. Individually, Irving averaged 24.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 6.3 apg on 54.5/49/89.5 shooting in just 29.7 mpg. He still led the team in USG (29.5%), but the team moved the ball extremely well when he was on the court and averaged 28.4 apg which would have been good for 2nd in the entire league. The gaudy shooting numbers are unsustainable, but it did give a glimpse of what Irving can look like at his best for the Celtics.
Next year will be all about replicating that perfect blend of scoring within the offense. During this playoff run, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown showed that they were capable of being legitimate scoring options and creating for themselves. Moreover, with Gordon Hayward set to return, Irving will now have yet another ball-handler that can allow him to get even more looks off-ball. Irving has nothing to prove individually, but he’s still the best offensive player on this team and in tight situations they’ll be plenty of times where him going one-on-one is the best offense for the team.
The trick, as Irving is figuring out, is selectively picking that time to flex his superpower while spending the other time leveraging his ability to help his teammates get higher quality looks and staying disciplined within the defensive scheme. The first year of the Kyrie experience for the Celtics was a success if you consider his willingness to buy into the team concept Stevens was preaching, but the test next year will be about proving he can steer a ship that is already built to take him to The Finals. The window to shift the narrative and begin a new chapter in the NBA is now, and it’s up to Irving to write out his legacy.