Kyrie Irving has a tough act to follow. His predecessor on the parquet, Isaiah Thomas, was beloved here. He immersed himself in Boston’s feverish sports culture and endeared himself to Celtics fans with his confidence, clutch play, and humanity. Thomas and Celtics fans enjoyed a mutual admiration society and an emotional connection.
They were a perfect match, which Thomas confirmed in the billet-doux to Boston he wrote in The Players’ Tribune last week, sharing his heartache over his separation from the Green. The Celtics loved and admired Thomas, too. They cherish his contribution to the organization and the city. But they believe that Irving is The One, the transformative player who can lead them to Banner No. 18. Thomas won the hearts and minds of Celtics fans. The Celtics think Irving can win a championship.
The Celtics aren’t just betting on who Irving is as a player right now — a four-time All-Star, an NBA All-Star Game MVP, an NBA champion, and one of the game’s most resourceful scorers. They’re betting on who he can become in Boston. You’re talking about a 25-year-old who is entering the prime of his career and is now untrammeled from the considerable ego and shadow of LeBron James. The glass ceiling for Irving’s growth has been removed. The Celtics believe, as Irving does, that he is capable of more, more than being a championship sidekick, more than Thomas.
“He is a very smart, cerebral person. He is very mature, even for 25, he is very mature,” said Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, following Irving’s introductory news conference Sept. 1. “He really wants to maximize his abilities. He is a hard worker in basketball. He is a hard worker in life. I would say he is kind of a renaissance man. It’s going to be very exciting to have him around here.”
The Celtics traded for Irving and sacrificed the face of their franchise in Thomas, a valuable 3-and-D role player in Jae Crowder, their most prized asset in the 2018 unprotected Brooklyn first-round pick, big man Ante Zizic, and — after some brinksmanship — a 2020 second-round pick because they believe Irving is a transcendent player in training. Right now, acquiring Irving is not the same as getting Steph Curry or Kevin Durant. However, the team doesn’t feel that class is unattainable for Irving.
“Really, there are very few players that can shoot like he can, that can handle the ball like he can, that have the speed that he has, that are ambidextrous, and can finish with both hands,” said Pagliuca. “There are not many transcendent players. He is right in that list.”
That faith in Irving’s upside is why the Celtics traded for him. He helps them compete for a championship now, and he extends their championship window.
There is little room for sentimentality in sports. This attitude is applauded when it’s applied by the folks in Foxborough. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and the team’s ownership, led by managing partner Wyc Grousbeck, took the same cold, clear-eyed view in deciding to take a wrecking ball to a team that reached the Eastern Conference finals and had bonded with the fan base and each other.
They determined they had to raze the roster to raise Banner 18. Thomas’s pending free agent status and the uncertainty surrounding his health after suffering a torn labrum in his hip last season made a challenging choice easier.
“When we got the franchise 15 years ago the No. 1 objective was to win championships,” said Pagliuca. “Some people are happy to go to the Eastern Conference finals and be a competitive team. That’s not really acceptable in Boston, so I think Wyc and the whole ownership group pride themselves on the directive is to win a championship.
“When Danny said to get to the next level we’re competing with world-class teams like Cleveland and Golden State, and we have to have a core group that can withstand the charges of those guys . . . this was the best thing to do. This is probably one of the most talented teams that we’ve had on paper. It has got to come together. It’s going to be a work in progress, but on paper to have All-Stars like we have in Kyrie, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward, that’s a great core.”
Thomas wrote in his piece that the Celtics were the first organization that let him be great. Celtics coach Brad Stevens put IT in a position to showcase his talents and shatter any limitations the league had projected on him. The plan is for Stevens to do for the very first pick of the 2011 NBA Draft (Irving) what he did for the last pick (Thomas).
In the Celtics’ system, Thomas led the league in points per possession on pick-and-roll plays as a ballhandler for players who were utilized in that role on 500 possessions or more. Thomas averaged 1.04 points per possession on 671 such possessions. Irving averaged 0.96 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ballhander on 583 possessions in Cleveland.
Irving is regarded as one of the best ballhandlers in the league and one of the NBA’s best finishers at the rim. Put him in the Boston system and allow him to play the pick-and-roll with Horford, and he should be lethal. The Celtics’ brain trust remarked often last season about how Horford’s feel for the game opened the floor for Thomas.
Irving was put in a situation where he operated off a screen on only 71 possessions last season, averaging 1.14 points per possession in those scenarios. Thomas was put in those situations 169 times by the Celtics and averaged 1.15 points per possession. Irving’s effective field goal percentage, which takes into account that a 3-point shot is worth more than a traditional basket, was 58.5 percent off a screen. Thomas’s was 56.9 percent.
Thomas saluted Stevens for believing in him and getting the most out of his ability. Irving is looking forward to the same.
“The appreciation I have for his knowledge of the game, I just can’t wait to steal some stuff, and, honestly, learn and grow from a guy like that,” Irving said.
The Celtics gambled when they turned the keys to their team over to a 5-foot-9-inch point guard most saw as a sixth man. It paid off.
Now, the Celtics are pinning their hopes to the potential of another point guard.