A Definitive Breakdown of Kyrie Irving’s Fit with the Boston Celtics

Polarizing All-Stars like Kyrie Irving aren’t supposed to be moved to a conference rival. Heck, they’re technically not supposed to be dealt at all. And yet, here we are, mere days later, still taking in the news from The Vertical’s Shams Charania that he was dealt from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics:

This entire situation is surreal. And unforgettable. You’ll forever remember where you were and what you were doing when it went down. Above all else, though, this move is proof the Celtics are done waiting for the perfect blockbuster to fall into their lap. They finally played their hand.

But was this the right use of their cards?

Irving wanted to be “more of a focal point,” per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, instead of LeBron’s underling. The Celtics, and head coach Brad Stevens, give him an opportunity to do just that. His new star teammates, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, are two of the least selfish dignitaries in the NBA. And, on paper, their skills mesh well with his, giving him every opportunity to succeed in Boston.

Horford has always been a behind-the-scenes guy, and his on-court skills reflect as much. He excels at the little things: passing, screening, taking care of the ball and so much more. Last season, he had the fifth-highest assist percentage (24.4) among big men to play more than 100 minutes and the 50th-best mark in the whole league. This number is a stark contrast to Kyrie’s old center, Tristan Thompson, who notched an assist percentage of 4.6, good for 439th overall.

Those two players have different strengths, certainly, but Horford’s fortes are more beneficial to Irving. Per NBA Math’s Play-Type Profiles, Irving placed in the 88th percentile of spot-up situations, which is where Horford can aid him the most. The Celtics system helped Big Al to set a career high in assists per 36 minutes, and Irving will now be a recipient of those passes—just as Avery Bradley was below, when Horford blew by a closeout and found him spotting up below the break for a three:

Having a big man who can draw in the defense and find shooters, like Horford does here, will ensure Irving gets a ton of open looks from everywhere on the court.

Horford is also an effective screener. He isn’t the best roll man, but he doesn’t need to be—he pops out more than he rolls in. Incidentally, that may be more effective for Irving. If Horford spaces out the court, it gives Irving plenty of opportunities to reach the rim, like Isaiah Thomas does here:

Horford sets the high screen, and the threat of him ducking out for a three keeps Hassan Whiteside just far enough from the basket to give Thomas the room he needs to score.

Irving will feast in those situations. He is already in the 83rd percentile of all players as the ball-handler on screen plays, per our aforementioned player play-type profiles. Now, with more space to work in, this number could grow for the already deadly scorer.

Beyond this trade, the Celtics also signed Gordon Hayward. He plays the game as a perfectionist, championing a level of attention to detail not often seen in wing players. Last season, he was one of five perimeter players in the NBA with a usage rate above 27.5 percent and a turnover rate below 9.5 percent. In sum: He makes it a point to take care of the ball.

Hayward will have a similar but far less extreme version of the role LeBron James plays in Cleveland: The wing player with all the ball-handling duties when Irving doesn’t have it; the team’s best shot creator on the perimeter; and a secondary facilitator. LeBron is LeBron, but Hayward’s attention to nuance, combined with ability to see the floor, lets him to do some of the things the King does on offense.

Here, he drives and draws in three (!) defenders before leveraging his patience and vision to find a cutting Alec Burks:

Hayward can’t be happy that Burks blew the bucket by going for the extravagant finish, but his playmaking ability and comfort finding cutters made that look possible in the first place.

Oh, and it just so happens Irving is an elite cutter.

He finished in the 93rd percentile on cuts last season, his best individual play type. He has a knack for finding holes in the defense when he’s off the ball, which renders him almost as deadly as he is with the rock in his hands. The Cavaliers ran this below play multiple times per game last year, and he was able to get the defender on his back on many of them, which allowed him to reach the rim for an easy two:

Did you see that assist from James? Hayward can make those kind of passes, too. Again: He is not LeBron, but he’s pretty damn good. Irving’s off-action cutting should continue to shine in his latest partnership.

Aside from the other stars in Boston, Irving will also see his wildest dreams come to fruition with his new team. He wanted to be “the guy” wherever he got traded, and the Celtics will give him ample opportunity to be that player. None of the Celtics’ other rotation guys (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Aron Baynes and Terry Rozier) recorded a usage rate over 20.5 last year. Irving, by contrast, tallied one over 30 and is known to be skilled with the ball in his hands. He will get to be “the guy” in bench-heavy units, during which time he’ll have plenty of chances to show off his one-on-one scoring ability.

From a holistic view, isolation plays tend to be ineffective, as NBA Math’s Brian Sampson wrote here. But Kyrie is an exception. We have all seen his shot, out of isolation, to sink the Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals. He converts opportunities like that all the time. Whether it’s a pull-up three or drive to the tin, he’s terrific in these situations. Just look at how the Cavs cleared out a whole side of the court to let him work:

You can’t buy this kind of trust. And Irving does that a lot. He was in the 90th percentile of isolation scoring, and that’s without a total dependence on getting to the rim. Like his historic shot in the Finals, he can pull up right in the faces of defenders. Like you’ll see below, he gets the ball, takes a few dribbles and torches twine right in Russell Westbrook’s grill:

Irving’s isolation sets and pull-up jumpers are more efficient shots than wide-open looks from many other players. When he plays within bench units, running him one-on-one may be the highest-quality set Boston can muster. And if he gets to be “the guy” when running with these reserve units, Irving will thrive.

Finally, Irving can also help Boston on defense. Yes, you read that correctly. He is not a very good defender; he only adds value in our defensive Play-Type Profiles when guarding players off screens.

Still, he is a huge improvement over Thomas. Irving cost the Cavaliers a little under 117 points on the less glamorous end last season, according to NBA Math’s defensive points saved. That is bad. But Thomas posted a DPS of minus-176.15—the absolute worst mark in the entire NBA.

Irving is 6’3″. Thomas is 5’9″. A six-inch difference is the same discrepancy in heights between Yao Ming and Kevin Durant; it has a huge impact. Irving will have his hand in guys’ faces when he actually tries on defense. He doesn’t have many instincts on that end of the floor, but he is quick and has been able to average over one steal a game for his career. While he’s still a far below-average defender, he shouldn’t compromise the Celtics’ stands as much as Thomas—and that alone qualifies as an upgrade.

So it happened. Irving wanted a trade, and he got it. Now he has to prove he can be an effective player when playing without LeBron. He has the skills, the coaches, and the teammates to make it happen. But will he ultimately gel in Boston?

That question will be important. Giving up a second-team All-NBA guard, a wing player who rated positively in both offensive points added and defensive points saved, as well as a (likely) top-10 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, is a lot for anyone. So much of the value for this trade is tied to the Celtics re-signing Irving in 2019. If he stays and ends up reaching his potential as a top-five offensive player in the league, they’ll be the winners of this deal. If he doesn’t, Danny Ainge may regret this move. Like it or not, he and the Celtics are gambling on Irving, and nobody knows yet if that dice roll will pay off.

As always, only time will tell.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.