BOSTON — Are the Boston Celtics better without Kyrie Irving? The question is both fair, and yet absurd.
The Celtics improved to 9-2 without Irving this season after Wednesday’s 118-110 triumph over the Detroit Pistons at TD Garden. It’d be easy for a casual fan to look at Boston’s record sans Kyrie this year, combined with the postseason run it made without him last season, and deduce that maybe there’s something to the notion that Boston plays better without Irving.
A deeper dive reveals a team that struggles mightily, offensively, without its All-Star point guard and, while players have routinely stepped up in his absence, much of the success this season has come against underwhelming competition.
That won’t stop the TV panel discussions and sports radio chatter from suggesting that Irving is somehow holding back his teammates when he’s on the court. While there’s certainly something to the notion that Boston is still quite obviously trying to figure out how to maximize all its talent when Irving is on the floor, the numbers paint a picture of a team that would ultimately struggle to maintain its success without him.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked about the notion after Wednesday’s win and bottom-lined it.
"We need Kyrie to be the best version of ourselves,” said Stevens, hammering home the notion that Boston needs Irving’s talents if this team is to be competitive in a beefed-up Eastern Conference.
"And we all need to be — we all need to consistently play better as a group,” said Stevens. "We’ve done that at times, and we’ve rode Kyrie in a lot of cases, and he’s carried us in a lot of games. And we need everybody at their fullest and there’s no question about it, that he’s going to be a guy that is going to make a ton of plays for us moving forward. We just need him to get healthy.”
☘️ CELTICS 118, PISTONS 110
Let’s start with a glimpse at Boston’s game log without Irving this season:
Date | Opp | Result | Opp current record
Nov. 9, 2018 @ UTH L, 123-115 32-25
Dec. 10, 2018 vs. NOP W, 113-100 25-33
Jan. 2, 2019 vs. MIN W, 115-102 27-30
Jan. 4, 2019 vs. DAL W, 114-93 26-31
Jan. 14, 2019 @ BKN L, 109-102 30-29
Jan. 23, 2019 vs. CLE W, 123-103 12-46
Jan. 28, 2019 vs. BKN W, 112-104 30-29
Jan. 30, 2019 vs. CHA W, 126-94 27-29
Feb. 5, 2019 @ CLE W, 103-96 12-46
Feb. 12, 2019 @ PHI W, 112-109 37-21
Feb. 13, 2019 vs. DET W, 118-110 26-30
The two Kyrie-less losses came against two current playoff teams with a combined winning percentage of .534. The 10 wins came against nine teams — three of which are currently playoff bound — with a combined winning percentage of .457. Put another way, more than half of the wins have come against lottery teams.
The more telling stat here is Boston’s overall on/off splits this season. With Irving on the court, Boston’s offensive rating is a team-best 113.8 and the team owns a net rating of plus-8.9 overall in his 1,526 minutes of floor time. Boston’s offensive rating plummets to 105 — a mark that would rank them 27th behind the Cleveland Cavaliers if maintained for the season — with a team-worst off-court net rating of plus-1.8 during the 1,278 minutes with Irving off the floor.
Those net ratings suggest that, when Irving is on the court, the Celtics play at a level somewhere between conference leaders Milwaukee and Golden State, and, when he’s on the bench, they are a seventh or eighth seed at best.
This is not to suggest that everything is sunshine and puppy dogs when Irving is on the court. Boston’s assist percentage dips when Irving is on the court, confirming the notion that he either can be a ball-dominant guard or that teammates can get caught sitting and watching for him to make plays.
Boston is almost forced to move the ball more without Irving and that can lead to nights like Tuesday where six players land in double figures, including the entire starting 5.
But you need only look at last week’s eyesore loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the one in which the Celtics fumbled away a 28-point lead in a game Irving suffered a knee injury in the first half. In crunch time, with Los Angeles playing with confidence, the Celtics didn’t have a player they could lean on to score much-needed crunch-time hoops.
For all of Boston’s talents, Irving is still one of the most clutch players in the NBA. He’s the sort of individual talent that a team needs in the postseason when defenses clamp down and those late-game buckets are harder to generate. Boston’s younger players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have certainly proven themselves capable of elevating on a big stage but Game 7 against the Cavaliers last year showed the value of having proven winners on the court in big-game moments.
Whenever Irving returns, and it seems likely he’ll be ready to go when Boston visits Milwaukee coming out of the break next Thursday night, the team absolutely has to keep working to find ways for all its players to thrive even when everyone is healthy. Boston has benefited from players filling voids but they need to get impactful contributions even when minutes may not be as plentiful across the board.
It’s a nice luxury that Boston can not only survive but play some inspired basketball when Irving is out. But it’s simply not sustainable, particularly if this team was routinely matching up with playoff-caliber talent, the sort if will see often in the East playoffs this year.
The Celtics are not better without Kyrie Irving. They’re different and they have played well, but the solution to their consistency woes this year runs deeper than simply one player and whether he’s on or off the court.
Boston needs Irving to reach their ultimate goals. They also need the rest of the roster to play to their maximum potential, too. We haven’t seen that enough this season and it might just be the key to Boston’s overall success this season.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.