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The Celtics are not better without Kyrie Irving

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While it’s a fashionable hot take, it’s simply outlandish to suggest the Celtics are better without their superstar point guard.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

You ever come across something so outlandish, so divorced from what you know reality to be, and just find yourself paralyzed? Your mouth’s agape and you’re stunned, and it’s not that you don’t know what to do or say—you physically can’t?

This happens to me every time someone suggests the Celtics are better without Kyrie Irving. I truly cannot respond. On Twitter, I’ve resorted to auto-blocking anyone peddling such takes. In real life, I just sit there stupefied, mentally clicking unfriend on the offender.

They’ll cite the Celtics’ record (9-2) without the superstar guard, ignoring that seven of those wins came at home against New Orleans, Minnesota, Dallas, Cleveland, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Detroit, the other two on the road at Cleveland and Tuesday’s massive win in Philadelphia.

They’ll point to superior ball movement without the offensive dynamo, which, of course, cannot be supported statistically and relies upon the assumption that there’s actually intrinsic value in ball movement.

Given time to collect myself, remove my jaw from the floor, recover from my paralysis, this is how I’d respond:

Kyrie Irving is a special offensive engine. You get that from his traditional stat line of 23.6 points and 6.9 assists per game on 60.3 percent true shooting, season-long thresholds matched only by LeBron James, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Michael Jordan.

Impact stats paint, perhaps, an even more favorable picture. Boston’s offense is 8.9 points per 100 possessions better with Irving on-court than off, ranking in the 93rd percentile among all players. In Offensive Real Plus-Minus, Irving sits tied for sixth among all players this season. He finds himself sixth in Player Impact Plus-Minus as well.

What the numbers are picking up on is a borderline-perfect lead guard in the NBA in 2019:

Kyrie is a magical pick-and-roll operator. His all-time level handle and creativity give him license to get wherever he wants whenever he wants. And he leverages that positioning perfectly, bending the defense to his will, then capitalizing by diming up shooters.

Including scoring and passing out of the pick-and-roll, Irving’s producing 1.112 points per possession, which ranks in the 94th percentile among all players, per Synergy. Restrict that to high-volume pick-and-roll operators, and Irving’s singular brilliance becomes even clearer.

Thirty-two players this season have used 500+ possessions including passes in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy. Among those players, the difference between Irving’s league-best point per possession mark and the second-best (Paul George at 1.068) equals the difference between second- and seventh-best (Luka Doncic at 1.02).

The NBA 2K pick-and-roll maestro badge was invented for Irving:

Watch how he sees LaMarcus Aldridge ready to meet him on the other side of the screen, how he pulls back out to take the screen in the opposite direction, how he snakes the pick-and-roll, pulling Aldridge miles away from Al Horford. Splash!

How could you not see the difference between that brilliance and a guy who doesn’t hit the roll man or the shooter on the wing and launches a contested 20-footer with 15 seconds on the shot clock?

And pick-and-roll perfection doesn’t even capture Irving’s most irreplaceable, unparalleled skill set.

I’m not sure there’s a better way to describe Kyrie’s late-game performance than obnoxious. In what the NBA defines as clutch settings (games within five points in the last five minutes), Irving’s per-36 averages are 45.6 points, 9.4 assists, 4 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and 1.1 blocks on 65.6 percent true shooting. He’s turned the ball over five times in 99 clutch minutes.

The Celtics absolutely stomp teams with Kyrie at the helm in clutch time, posting a +34.7 net rating, because he does stuff like this:

And this:

And this:

Isolating on Jimmy Butler with 20 seconds left in a two-point game, getting blanketed, and scoring anyway is not normal. When normal players try to isolate on Jimmy Butler, this happens:

Not normal. That’s what Irving is. He’s insanely, stupidly special. He’s genuinely a one-of-a-kind offensive player, an unprecedented and unrivaled shot-maker at his size. He’s grown into a brilliant and selfless decision-maker, a legitimate positive on defense, too.

Yet, some people need him to be something else. To many, he’s still the selfish, shoot-first-ask-questions-later psuedo-superstar who demanded out of playing with one of the greatest basketball players in history.

They need the Celtics to be better without Irving, because they insist he’s still the same talented, entrancing, yet problematic player he was last year and every year before in Cleveland. To them, I still don’t have much of a response. It’s all there. The stats, the film: they aren’t kept under lock and key.

There’s no response to the idea that the Celtics are better without Kyrie Irving, because it’s not real. It’s not controversial or edgy or even remotely founded in reality. It’s just patently wrong. Just ask Brad Stevens.