Boston’s Season Hinges On Kyrie Irving’s Passing

— October 17th 2017

By Danny Emerman

Kyrie Irving is in for a basketball X’s and O’s culture shock.

After playing the last three seasons of “your turn, my turn” basketball with the best player on the planet, Irving is now in Brad Stevens’ motion-oriented system predicated on dribble handoffs, drive-and-kicks, and pick and rolls.

Last year, the Celtics averaged about 25 assists per game and made 325 passes per game, both second most in the league. Irving’s Cleveland Cavaliers, however, dished 22.7 assists (13th in the NBA) and made just 280 passes (25th) per game as a team.

Irving has never been known as a particularly willing passer. As a point guard, he has never averaged over 6.1 assists per game, even before The King returned to Cleveland. Since he’s been in the league, he has played five games in which he did not record a single assist. For context, Chris Paul has never done that in his 12 seasons. Neither has John Wall.

If Irving dominates the ball, Gordon Hayward’s touches will diminish, Jaylen Brown and Jayson’s Tatum’s development will retard, Al Horford will suffer, and the Celtics will be a worse team.

This offense is potentially devastating. A high screen-and-roll with Irving and Horford, then a swing to Hayward who can attack a closeout and kick to Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown spotting up, or a cutting Marcus Smart is an especially vivid image that gets the blood flowing. Case in point, as Kevin O’Connor wrote, “When the ball is in Irving’s hands, the floor will be spaced like never before.”

Irving is a strong pick-and-roll player. If he becomes a more aggressive, creative passer under the tutelage of Brad Stevens, he can develop into an elite “PnR” playmaker. The Celtics have the weapons around him, and Irving has the responsibility to empower them by delivering them the basketball in opportunistic situations.

Although he will need to make his teammates better—and Steven’s offense naturally yields ball movement—the Celtics will certainly need Irving to make plays on his own. Irving is the best below-the-rim bucket-getter in the league. He scored 5.7 points per game in isolations last year, putting him in the 95th percentile. The numbers agree with the eye-test; when he sizes up a defender one-on-one, he either scores or gets to the line roughly 60 percent of the time.

In the preseason, Irving has already flashed improved playmaking, recording 16 assists and 3 turnovers


Even though he is a phenomenal finisher, one way he can enact Boston’s motion offense is by making better decisions with his drives. Sometimes kicking it out to a shooter or slasher is a better option than forcing a contested layup. Forcing the defense to rotate is the key to Boston’s offensive identity, and drive-and-kicks are their favorite instrument.

Irving could have passed out to a shooter on this isolation drive. This will likely be one of the tools Stevens focuses on early in the season.

On opening night, Irving will come face-to-face with his former team, his former brothers and teammates. The guys he competed against every day at practice for years. The people he reportedly did not communicate with for days during the playoffs.   Yes, there is bad blood. Irving has a chip on his shoulder with the whole league now. Why would he leave LeBron? He cares more about scoring than winning. He’s just a selfish player. The target on his back grows bigger every time he opens his mouth.

“[Boston is] a really major city,” Irving told reporters, as published in the Boston Globe. “Coming from Cleveland, the Midwest, where the culture is different. And then you move to the East Coast — into Boston — and it’s so real [and] alive. An ongoing, thriving city. Consistently. No matter what hour throughout the night.”

The bad blood is boiling. With Irving in green, and the beloved Isaiah Thomas in red and gold, the dynamics of this matchup are more deep and fascinating than anything in the NBA today. But, until Boston can dethrone The King, this is not a rivalry. Irving, one of the most polarizing figures in the league, is at the center of the clash.

On opening night Tuesday, which Irving will show up: the ball-dominating shooting guard in a point guard’s body gunning for 50, or an evolved, Brad Stevens-molded, more team-oriented point guard who can score in bursts?

Some think he’s no more than a gunner, others believe his playmaking skills haven’t been unlocked yet. At age 25, he has untapped potential. Whether Stevens can unleash that potential is the question. Judging by his track record of squeezing the most out of his players, I’d say this team is in good hands.

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