When Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers last month, he reportedly gave the franchise a list of teams he was interested in joining. Three of the four teams he mentioned — the Spurs, Heat and Timberwolves — have a number of things in common, most notably a strong head coach already in place, other proven players on their rosters and the potential to compete in the playoffs next season and beyond.
The Celtics can also offer Irving all of those things.
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While they weren’t one of the four teams included on Irving’s list, the Cavaliers traded Irving to the Celtics on Tuesday night in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick that is expected to be in the lottery of the upcoming draft. Not only will Irving now play for one of the best young head coaches in the league, he’ll also be the focal point of a team that has the firepower to build on last season’s success and return to the Eastern Conference finals. Even when compared to the Spurs, Heat and Timberwolves, the Celtics might be the best situation for Irving from both a personal and team standpoint.
First and foremost, Irving and Thomas are incredibly similar players when it comes to the way they generate their points, which bodes well for Irving’s fit in Boston. According to NBA.com, Irving relies far more on isolation possessions than Thomas does — 21.4 percent of Irving’s offense last season came in 1-on-1 situations compared to only 9.1 percent for Thomas — but they’re volume shooters who score the bulk of their points as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls.
Their efficiency in those areas are almost identical as well. They’re both as good as it gets in the pick-and-roll, and their spot-up numbers put them on the same page as some of the best shooters in the league such as Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, Khris Middleton and Klay Thompson. In fact, the only point guard to make more 3-pointers than Thomas last season was Stephen Curry. Irving made 68 less 3-pointers than Thomas but was one of only nine point guards who converted at least 40.0 percent of their 3-point attempts. Thomas ranked 16th.
Thomas is coming off a dominant season with the Celtics, one in which he was an MVP candidate and a member of the All-NBA Second Team with an average 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game. Irving will almost certainly have the same opportunities as Thomas did, meaning he’ll continue to be a high usage pick-and-roll scorer who will space the floor for the likes of Gordon Hayward and Al Horford when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.
The difference for Irving on a personal level is he’s going from being 1B in Cleveland to 1A in Boston. The addition of Hayward means Irving won’t have to carry the Celtics all by himself on offense — Hayward is an excellent secondary playmaker who generates about half of his shots by himself — but Irving will undoubtedly be the focal point of their attack, which is what he wanted when he first requested a trade. Horford is also one of the best passing big men in the league, so Irving won’t have to create for others more than he’s used to.
It will be interesting to see how Brad Stevens deals with Irving’s dependence on 1-on-1 possessions, though, considering only the Hornets (292 points), Magic (393) and Spurs (421) scored less points in isolation than the Celtics (423) last season. It made up only 5.5 percent of their scoring in total compared to 11.9 percent for a Cavaliers team that led the league with 1,040 isolation points. Seeing as Irving (412 points) nearly outscored the Celtics by himself on isolation possessions, either Stevens will have to adjust his system to better suit Irving, or Irving will have to change his game to better suit the system.
Because Irving is one of the best isolation scorers in the league, it’s more likely that the former ends up being the case rather than the latter. Only James Harden and Russell Westbrook scored more points per game than Irving in isolation last season, and Irving was far more efficient than both of them with an average of 1.12 points per possession. The fact that the Celtics didn’t have a strong isolation scorer hurt them in the playoffs. They now have someone who can easily manufacture his own shot against the best defenses in the league.
If they don’t maximize Irving’s ability to score in isolation during the regular season, it will come in handy the further they progress in the postseason.
If the Celtics do embrace Irving’s isolation game, it will come at a cost elsewhere. Whereas they were near the bottom of the league in isolation scoring last season, they were at the top of the league in scoring frequency off handoffs. Thomas led the way in that regard, making the most of his speed and soft touch to average 3.0 points per game in those situations. Only Zach LaVine (3.4) scored more points than Thomas off handoffs before an injury limited him to 47 games.
The difference is notable because of what they represent schematically. Isolation possessions tend to slow the game down and handoffs are usually a byproduct of a system built on ball movement and player movement. (As Matt Moore of CBS Sports noted, the Cavaliers were 25th in passes made last season. The Celtics were second in the league.)
That’s not to say Irving can’t thrive running off screens as much as Thomas did last season. Having Horford hand Irving the ball and pop to the 3-point line will give him the sort of room he never had playing alongside Tristan Thompson. And we know Irving thrives in those scenarios because he made 35.1 percent of his perimeter pull-ups, 46.1 percent of his midrange pull-ups and 53.5 percent of his shot attempts within 10 feet of the basket last season. It’s just not as ingrained in Irving’s game as it is with Thomas’.
Another major factor at play is Irving’s contract. He’ll make under $40 million over the next two seasons — less than Horford ($56.6 million) and Hayward ($60.9 million) — and the Celtics are confident they’ll be able to re-sign him if he turns down his player option to become a free agent in the summer of 2019.
Irving will likely get a max contract when that day comes, but he’s three years younger than Thomas, and Thomas will look to a sign a similar contract in the summer of 2018. Although they have similar problems defensively, Irving is basically a taller and more proven version of Thomas with greater upside. Giving Irving a max contract in two years compared to giving Thomas a max contract next season should be a safer bet.
The bigger question is whether turning Thomas into Irving is worth including Crowder, Zizic and a potential lottery pick in a deal. There are certainly questions about his ability to be the No. 1 option after the Cavaliers were outscored by an average of 8.0 points per 100 possessions last season with Irving on the court and James on the bench. That’s not necessarily a new trend, either. Irving has suffered a number of injuries throughout his career as well that limited him to less than 60 games in three of his six seasons with the Cavaliers. If Irving’s injuries continue to be an issue and his isolation-heavy style of play makes him an awkward fit in Stevens’ system, the trade could come back to haunt them.
Even so, the Celtics feel like they’re getting a superstar in Irving. He’s proven to be a big-time scorer, and he’s the best player involved in the trade, both in terms of his production to this point in his career and the potential he still offers down the road. It’s also less of a gamble with two established All-Stars already on the roster in Hayward and Horford. For that reason, you can’t blame the Celtics for believing Irving could be their missing piece with the support system they have in place.
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