Are the Boston Celtics better without Kyrie Irving?
The topic was vigorously debated in these parts amid all of Boston’s struggles last season. The Celtics’ successes whenever Irving was off the court — from their run to the fringe of the 2018 NBA Finals, to a 12-3 record without Irving last season — seemingly served as evidence that Irving was somehow holding others on the team back.
This writer railed against that suggestion, especially because Boston’s on/off numbers suggested that the Celtics were a more flawed team without Irving. What’s more, Boston’s win-loss record without Irving last season was inflated by weak competition.
Now, as the Brooklyn Nets prepare for a Kyrie-less visit to TD Garden on Wednesday night, the question resurfaces on a more macro level as Celtics fans wonder if all of last year’s woes — and much of this year’s good vibes — can be traced to Irving’s departure.
Here’s what we’ve landed on: The Celtics are still not better without Irving, but the lessons learned from last season — and the strides individual players made in the fallout — have left Boston in a better place overall.
The Celtics do not have quite the same ceiling as they did the past two seasons, they do not possess a proven championship-winning veteran, and yet this debate undoubtedly cannot be settled by simply looking at numbers.
From the very moment that Kemba Walker and No. 11-stealing Enes Kanter sat at the podium at the Auerbach Center in July, there’s been a new vibe around the Celtics. Out went Irving’s brooding and moodiness, in came the happy-go-lucky Walker, who yearned for a taste of winning. The dark cloud that hovered over Boston like Eeyore’s rain cloud has given way to the permagrins of Walker and Kanter.
To pin all of last year’s woes on Irving is unfair. Boston’s blame pie had a whole bunch of slices. Danny Ainge has slowly admitted that Boston’s potential left him slow to pull the trigger on the sort of moves that could have decluttered the roster and taken some of the burden off coach Brad Stevens. But Irving’s sulking is not to blame for Jayson Tatum’s poor shot profile or Gordon Hayward’s consistency woes or Terry Rozier’s inability to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.
It’s fair to wonder if Irving had been a more ready leader, one that better embraced and empowered, then some of what weighed on Boston could have eventually lifted. Maybe winning could have solved some of what ailed this team. Instead, Irving seemingly moved on mentally to the next chapter before the season’s end. Yes, the Celtics would have brought Irving back if he desired to hold true to his preseason pledge to re-sign here but they eventually embraced the notion that a change of scenery could help many involved.
The Celtics learned a lot from last season. They got a firm reminder of just how much culture, chemistry, and leadership matter. But the biggest thing is that it forced players on this team to look themselves in the mirror and figure out how they could be better. It forced players to evaluate how they handle adversity and how they power through it.
Those lessons are a big reason for Boston’s 12-4 start. Are the Celtics better without Irving? They miss the top-end talent and the offensive wizardry but, in the end, it might not have been worth all the baggage that came with it.
Sometimes things just don’t work. There is a desire to pin it on one overarching problem. In the Celtics’ case, it was a bit more complex. Simply removing Irving from this team didn’t solve what ailed them, but the changes born out of his departure left this team in a better place overall.
Let’s sift through a couple more Kyrie-themed queries to start this week’s mailbag:
How much better are Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward without Kyrie? — @StrikeFlips
The one thing we’ve heard repeatedly this season is the notion that the ball moves better without Irving and how players like Tatum, Brown, and Hayward are able to let their natural talents take over more now that they don’t have a point guard dribbling the air out of the ball.
This isn’t necessarily wrong but it’s also bit exaggerated. Consider this: The Celtics are averaging 11.4 passes LESS per game this season. Their assists and secondary assists are both DOWN from last year and Boston is generating five LESS points off assists overall.
What’s more, the NBA’s touch-time and dribble data suggests that the ball is actually sticking a bit more early in the season. Boston’s field goal attempts off a touch time of 6 seconds or more is up 2 percent to 13.2 this season, according to the NBA’s tracking data. Their number of shots with less than 2 seconds of touch time has fallen from 53.5 to 49.3.
Boston attempted 9.1 percent of all its shots last year after a player dribbled the ball seven or more times. That number is up to 11.4 percent this year.
Some of that could be a small sample size and a new-look team figuring itself out. Some of that change could also be traced to an increase in drives by players like Tatum, Brown, and Hayward, which hasn’t been a bad thing.
But so much of those players’ improvements go beyond Irving’s departure. Hayward has the confidence and sustained explosion he lacked last season, Tatum is taking better shots, and Brown is even more aggressive going at the basket with improved handle and vision. Not having to worry about sharing touches with Irving is certainly part of the equation, just not as much as some want it to be.
Isn't [Irving avoiding Boston] a good thing for the Celtics? Or would the fans rather boo? — @AdsTheo
I suspect Celtics fans are quite eager to boo Irving and his absence won’t prevent them from releasing some of those frustrations. We’ll probably hear some chants that both accentuate Irving’s absence and maybe support newcomer Walker (who could suit up again after missing just one game after a scary collision in Denver). It’s too bad we are deprived the theatre of, say, Marcus Smart or Brown defending Irving in a crunch-time situation.
OK, let us not dwell on the past, let’s put the focus on the Celtics and their future:
I think the Celtics are Finals contenders with a healthy lineup. Do you share the same opinion? If not, why? — @theredhood137
I’m certainly eager to get a longer glimpse of this roster at full health. That a lot of the question marks about this team coming into the year have already tipped in a positive direction suggests their overall ceiling is probably higher than we envisioned. Combine that with Philadelphia’s struggles and we won’t exactly attempt to dampen your optimism. All that said, there’s a long road to June and a lot will change around the league. Let’s see how all the East’s top dogs take shape.
What did you think of Tremont Waters last night? I'm impressed with this kid. — @KBrancaleone
What did you think of Waters' first NBA game? Were you surprised he played so many minutes in a tight game? — @ChefdDds89
Someone asked in a recent ‘bag who I though the Celtics should start if Walker and Smart were unable to suit up. I threw out Waters as a wild card, in part because of his poise. Waters’ vision and the way he calmly probes in the pick-and-roll is wildly beyond his years. He’s got plenty of room for overall growth, but it’s a crazy luxury for Stevens to have a floor general he can confidently throw into games in a pinch and not watch the offense grind to a halt. If Walker is back on Wednesday, the Celtics can stash some of Waters’ days for later in the year but we’re eager to see more, here or in Maine.
I still think the Celtics need an upgrade at the center position to go deep in the postseason. Is there anyone you think could be available on the buyout market or trade that wouldn’t require large salaries being traded back? — @HansDancin
I just don’t see the rush here. I’d rather the Celtics use these early season games to figure out: 1) What they’ve got in Robert Williams, 2) whether Daniel Theis can hold up against true bigs for longer stretches, and 3) Just how much they can lean on Kanter. I’m not sold they need a trade, particularly given what they’d have to give up in talent to just make money match. The buyout market might be enough for this team further down the road. But while we’re on the topic …
Does Robert Williams' development lessen any interest the Celtics might have in acquiring a center? — @tom_steely
Crunch-TimeLord has been a wild ride filled with peaks and valleys the past couple games. He’s had stellar moments, like blocking Nikola Jokic late in Denver and helping cover Sacramento’s final shot on Monday night. He’s also had some maddening defensive lapses that remind us why Stevens has reeled him back in at times. But the potential is undeniable and we’d like to see Williams play through his mistakes to better gauge what this team has in him.
Smart is shooting way more 3's, and got all the way up to 40% for a bit, but then quickly regressed to the mean. Where do you think he nets out this season? How important is it for the C's to have that production from him? — @Marcus_Andrews
I chose this question instead of the 472 that phrased it like, “YOUR ARTICLE ABOUT SMART’S SHOOTING JINXED HIM FOREVER, JERK!” (And that was from my mom). Smart is going to ride the wave, but I just think he’s going to get too many open looks not to finish at or above his career-best 36.4 percent from last year.
Do you think Smart can make the All-Star Game this season? — @JoyousPanther
If Walker had missed extended time with his neck injury, I wondered if a path might open for Smart to sneak in. I just don’t think his offensive numbers will be good enough overall to earn him a nod over some of the others in the East, and especially if Walker, Tatum, Hayward, and Brown are competing with him on ballots.
Is Smart a serious contender for Defensive Player of the Year? — @RebornDeadeye
Yes, this doesn’t feel like early season hyperbole. Smart is routinely defending the opposition’s top threats and his work against quality 4s and 5s shouldn’t be overlooked by voters who tend to lock in on block-heavy big men. But given this stretch of questions on Smart, we figured the next one was going to be “Is Smart going to the Hall of Fame?”
Asking for a friend: Is it inappropriate to scream "THUNDER THIGHS!" at the top of one's lungs every time Carsen Edwards touches the ball? — @Runreid22
Allowed AND encouraged.
What’s going on with Edwards? I thought he’d contribute more. Just cuz he’s a rookie? — @nebs33
That outburst in Cleveland might have ultimately set expectations a little too high for the second-round pick — and we’re certainly guilty of the hype, too. Edwards can still provide a nice jolt off the bench, especially when he embraces being a pest on defense. But expecting 3-point barrages and big scoring numbers consistently is probably too much this early. Rookies are going to be up and down as we’ve seen from Boston’s batch.
Is Langford the 2.0 version of James Young? All the potential but can’t put it together? — @AzzSam
Are you worried about Romeo Langford’s development so far? Or is this a long-term project? — @_AustinCole
Deep breaths, Celtics fans. We’ll keep making the Avery Bradley comparison. Bradley came in as a mid-first-round pick who slipped a bit because of injury. He endured a lot of first-year struggles but got to develop in the shadows of the G-League for a long stretch, then returned to Boston and started his march toward usurping Ray Allen as starting 2 guard. That’s not to suggest that will be Langford’s path, but he needs an extended stretch of good health just to see what he’s got. The potential is there but we’ll give him the early benefit of the doubt given Langford’s snakebitten start.
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