How does Kyrie Irving fit into Celtics’ game plan?
So now that the deal is done and Kyrie Irving is officially a Boston Celtic, Brad Stevens can now lose sleep figuring out how to incorporate 10 new players — two of them All-Stars — into a reconfigured offense when the season begins in six weeks.
As Isaiah Thomas emerged into a superstar and prolific scorer, Stevens allowed the point guard to control the offense. When defenses squeezed Thomas with a bigger defender to get the ball out of his hands or force him to pass over taller players, he moved Thomas to shooting guard to maximize his scoring opportunities.
The system worked well. Thomas averaged nearly 29 points per game, second most in Celtics history, and the club reached the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s unlikely Stevens would use the same system with Irving because 1) Irving does not reach the free throw line nearly as often as Thomas does; and 2) the Celtics now have another volume scorer in Gordon Hayward.
Privately, Irving felt as if he was being underutilized in Cleveland’s offense, and perhaps Stevens will move Irving to shooting guard in some lineups because of his ability to penetrate with his brilliant ballhandling skill and shoot the 3-pointer. Stevens has also flirted with the idea of using the 6-foot-8-inch Hayward as the point guard to help initiate the offense.
Despite Thomas being gone, the Celtics remain deep at point guard with Shane Larkin and Terry Rozier and also swingman Marcus Smart. Don’t be surprised if Stevens uses one of those three at point guard and moves Irving to shooting guard in an extra small lineup.
Stevens believes in position-less basketball and he’ll have no issue going extra small for a better offensive lineup. So the lineup of Rozier, Irving, Hayward, Marcus Morris, and Al Horford looms as one possibility to turn Irving into a featured scorer.
The turnover in the Celtics lineup is so drastic, the learning curve is likely to spill into the regular season. There are so many possibilities at each position the Celtics could be one of the more versatile teams in the league. With Irving now the new starting point guard, the Celtics will have a 40 percent 3-point shooter and one of the league’s best finishers around the rim.
Irving made 60.3 percent of his shots between zero and 3 feet last season and the Celtics will be able to capitalize on his ability to take defenders off the dribble. One aspect that makes Irving almost unguardable when he’s hot is his shooting ability from long range. He has no hesitation in pulling up for a 27-footer. When they go down, defenses are forced to come out even further, allowing Irving more room to drive to the basket.
One concern for Irving is health. He has never played more than 72 games in a season and has seasons of 59 and 53 games played. He missed a chunk of the 2015-16 season after suffering a knee surgery during the NBA Finals. But he reported no health issues during his Celtics physical and was healthy through the Cavaliers’ entire run in the Finals last season.
What will help Stevens integrate Irving into the system is his similarity to Thomas.
Both are high scoring point guards capable of dominating the ball. Both are above average 3-point shooters who have the ability to score in bunches and control games.
The Celtics will have Irving and Hayward as their primary scorers with Horford, Morris, Jaylen Brown, and, perhaps, even No. 1 pick Jayson Tatum as offensive compliments. The chemistry Hayward and Irving build is going to be important. Hayward has never played with an offensive-minded point guard such as Irving.
Irving played three years with LeBron James. He often deferred to the four-time MVP, but Irving will get a chance to become the focal point of an offense, which is what he has clamored for the past few seasons.
Hayward’s offensive responsibility in Utah increased each season, but he attempted just 15.4 shots per game last season compared with 19.7 for Irving.
What’s going to be interesting is how Irving sets up his teammates. The highest assist average of his career is 6.1, set the year before James returned from Miami. Last season, he averaged 5.8, nearly the identical number for Thomas.
The Celtics’ offense depends on ball movement and perimeter shooting. Expect Stevens to spread the floor with Hayward, Irving, Horford, and, perhaps, Brown and Morris. Celtics fans saw firsthand how effective Irving was in Cleveland’s ball-moving offense with Kevin Love and J.R. Smith spreading the floor.
The adjustment to Boston should go smoothly for Irving. He’ll be eager for the opportunity to escape James’s shadow.
Given his similarity to Thomas, Irving should blend into Stevens’s system and, with more offensive responsibility, showcase his dazzling skills more often.