This summer was already crazy enough in the NBA. Kyrie Irving requesting a trade only added more fuel to that fire. That fire went from a blaze to an explosion when news broke that he was heading to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and next year’s Brooklyn No. 1 draft pick (and now also a 2020 second-round pick), perhaps the most unlikely of the rumored trades we’d heard about because of the nature of the rivalry with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It leaves the Celtics with a touch more promise for next season, though. Unless you’re on the side that argues Thomas is better than Irving. (I’m against that, rating Irving ahead for his extra size, ability to at least play passable defense on rare occasions if he really wants to, and his practically unguardable isolation ability.) And when combined with the free-agent signing of new max man Gordon Hayward, the Celtics’ improvements for clutch situations are quite something.
Last season, Thomas’ fourth quarter heroics were incredible; 9.8 of his 28.9 points per game came in the final period. It earned him the name “King in the Fourth,” making it clear that his scoring is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The way he creates and finishes past players towering above him is amazing, and his scoring output with a 62.5 true shooting percentage gave him one of most efficient high volume seasons ever.
Irving gives the Celtics a new edge, though, especially when partnered with Hayward. The issue for the Celtics last season was that Thomas was their only elite creator, the only guy they could routinely dump the ball to when they needed a bucket. That was a constant hinderance, as the team scored a ghastly 14.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench.
Now, coach Brad Stevens has the option to stagger Irving and Hayward when he wants, switching between the two when need be so the offense can run through either of them at any given moment. Even though he had the best year of his career as a first-time All-Star in 2016-17, Hayward wasn’t unleashed as much as possible with the Utah Jazz; he was held to a moderate 15.8 shots per game. When on the floor as a go-get-me-a-bucket star, he can score at a greater level than what the casual fan might expect from glancing at his 21.9 points-per-game average.
What he did in the playoffs last season was a perfect example. The Jazz simply wouldn’t have made it out of the first round without him. A 40-point Game 3, and his average of 28.3 points on 48.2 percent shooting over the final three contests after he returned from illness in Game 4 was brilliant, before he did his best against a Golden State Warriors team that completely outmatched his Jazz. Nevertheless, a 33-point outing in Game 2 of that series showed what he can do, from post-ups to getting to the free-throw line, even with so much defensive pressure on him as the go-to guy:
The Celtics won’t have to worry about that so much, though. Having two options to create when the game slows down is always better than one, and Irving should shine in that regard when Boston lets him do so. The Celtics also will be less predictable now that Thomas isn’t around as the guy who has to create everything. Irving and Hayward helping one another with the defensive attention they’ll draw and their ability to cut and spot up off the ball makes matters even better.
Irving may not have the 7-foot frame and mismatch-creating nature of Kevin Durant, but his isolation scoring was practically unmatched last season, at least among guards and in terms of efficiency. In the Cavs’ isolation-heavy offense, Irving could do what he does best with more than twice as many iso possessions as Thomas, 367 to 178. Irving ranked in the 95th percentile for isolation plays, scoring 5.7 points on such possessions per game, which placed him third in the league behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Seeing as Irving scored 1.12 points per possession to Westbrook’s 0.94 and Harden’s 0.97, it’s clear just how deadly he is, albeit in comparison to their super high usage roles. Furthermore, out of the six years Irving and Thomas have been in the league, Irving has been the only player to record an effective field goal percentage of 50 or more when the score is within three points during the final minute of a game (on at least 65 shots in the regular season and playoffs). That only reinforces Irving’s clutch nature.
The fact that he’s three years younger than Thomas, has a bigger frame to help him around the rim, and no hip issue to cause concerns about his speed and shiftiness are all factors in Irving’s favor going forward.
There are plenty of intriguing lineups at the Celtics’ disposal now. A lineup of Irving, Jaylen Brown, Hayward, Marcus Morris and Al Horford could be the best bet to go all out with offense, having 3-point shooting at every position with a ton of size and the ability to switch at the same time (Brown is the weakness here, at least as a shooter, but without Jae Crowder, Brad Stevens is going to need to elevate Brown’s role). A backcourt of Irving and Marcus Smart with the other three would still be dangerous, too, obviously adding more defense (more than enough around Irving, but, again, he isn’t attacked quite like Thomas) and playmaking.
Alternatively, the Celtics can place a ton of focus on defense in the closing minutes of games to ensure they don’t have any liabilities that can be attacked, something they could never avoid before because they always had to keep Thomas around to score. They can go for stops now and still keep Hayward’s creation. While he may not have the best defensive reputation among general NBA fans (dare I say it’s because he’s a white dude with great hair?), he’s a genuinely good defender. He has more muscle now to cover big forwards, plenty of agility to cover some smaller guards, and obvious awareness and reliability to be in the right spots. Playing for Quin Snyder has helped him come into his own.
The lineup becomes seriously imposing when Irving is swapped for Marcus Smart’s elite bullying defense and versatility. A five-man group that has plus defenders at every spot (Brown should keep getting better to use his physical talents) who can all switch across multiple positions is what all teams want at their disposal. Similarly, the Celtics could get even bigger and go with a Smart, Brown, Hayward, Horford, Aron Baynes lineup to provide some extra physicality inside and rebounding with Baynes.
Of course, Irving won’t want to keep sitting on the bench late in close games, but there’s still room for experimentation. Maybe it’ll even encourage him to try a little harder on defense. Cleveland wasn’t exactly a hub of defensive personnel or coaching.
Stevens having these kinds of options at his disposable should thrill Celtics fans. The team making an upgrade at point guard for even better isolation ability, and adding a new All-Star forward is good enough by itself. When you add the diversity they have with two great scorers at the same time or a ton of size and versatility, they can adjust to their opponents and shift the dynamic of their team in ways that most can’t. That’s a huge advantage, and one that could shine when it comes to clutch moments.
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