The Boston Celtics in a sense won the offseason more than anyone else, as they became the undisputed giant of the Eastern Conference, now with LeBron James departing for the Lakers.
But their improved position isn’t just from the King moving to greener pastures (for the record, far greener), that accounts for maybe 15 percent of it. The remaining 85 percent is the mixture of Boston’s quality, their health entering the new season and a year where it is more than likely they can build on the success they have already created, thanks to General Manager Danny Ainge and Coach Brad Stevens.
Kyrie Irving gave us a sense of why his departure from the Cavaliers was a master stroke, as the Celtics, without Gordon Hayward, were playing terrific team basketball fuelled by tough defence. Granted they were not the most dazzling offensive team, but the plays and formations that Coach Stevens has implemented since he assumed the job in 2013, allowed for them to show strength on that side of the ball.
The idea that Irving should be traded, or let go in free agency next year to make way for someone like Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis, and allowing Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier to assume the point guard role is utterly idiotic. The skill of Irving is unrivalled in the league, and what needs to be noted is the Celtics during the playoffs, with Smart and Rozier starting, took down a team effectively without a coach who had a gameplan of ‘get the Ball to Giannis’, and then another team whose coach failed to make adjustments when they faced a strong defence – far from worthy opponents.
The common trend for the Celtics over the past two to three years has been their steady improvement along with the rise of role players, taking many of us off guard. Now with the quality to take the next step, they have the chance to create an exciting and successful dynasty during somewhat of a transition period out East.
What looked to be the beginning of that dynasty, and a promising first year was cut short due to knee issues for Irving. Doctors said it was best to remove screws from a previous operation to have him 100 percent ready and healthy for the next season. What this suggested was he was never 100 percent to begin with, which still saw the Celtics on track for the majority of the season to get 60 wins and the top spot in the East anyway.
If Kyrie at 75-80 percent is worth 56-60 wins, imagine what he’s worth at 100 percent.
Numbers and visuals
Irving’s impact was evident through arguably the most basic offensive statistic. The Celtics averaged 108.7 points per 100 possessions when he played, which dropped to 101.9 after his injury. His personal numbers are pleasing, with 24.8 points per game, as well as a 49.2 shooting percentage which is a career high, off the second highest field goals per game average of his career as well.
Irving’s shots and points may not have been a career best, but his involvement on the offensive side had clearly stepped up. His skill level is unmatched, with his ball handling, skill moves, silky weaves through defences and importantly, his shot creation for himself and his teammates all comes together into a unique and all-time offensive powerhouse. It is simply too much to handle for opposing defences.
Irving added these skills to Stevens’ offence, which particularly improved their pick and roll play. In the season prior, Isaiah Thomas’s lack of size and speed simply didn’t have the same.
Surrounding their dominant playmaker last season with reliable shooters, as well as a versatile big man in Al Horford, who had arguably his best season yet, culminated into a truly impressive offensive unit. Rookie Jayson Tatum and sophomore Jaylen Brown both had strong seasons, impressing on both ends while playing across three positions.
What also became evident was his leadership on the team, something that was unknown under LeBron James in Cleveland. Irving was never the leader of the Cavaliers so long as King James was shooting buckets in a wine and gold uniform, and that was never changing until James or Irving left. The latter became a reality (at least first). The injury to Hayward was also a factor that forced him to step up, and that heavy weight of responsibility didn’t faze Irving however, as he powered the Celtics to a 16-2 start while looking like the early frontrunner for the MVP award.
On the other side, defence proved to be the team’s strongest attribute. They may very well have traded away two of their best defensive players in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, but that was more helpful than harmful. Having versatile wings who can switch positions, like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as well as Marcus Smart who at times found himself in the forwards slots, makes them unpredictable on that side of the ball. They improved from a 105.5 defensive rating in 2016-17 to 101.5 last season, jumping from 12th to first. Granted this statistic was far more flattering early in the season where it sat at 95.8 in November, which for the record was during Irving’s personal-best part of the season.
Irving has been criticised for his lack of skill and impact on the defensive side of the ball, and opposing guards have managed to put up strong numbers against him. Nevertheless, if it means anything, played his best defensive season yet with a 96.4 rating which was good enough for 1st in the league amongst all players.
In games where Irving started and played at least 16 minutes, the Celtics won went 41-19, a 0.683 win percentage, which is roughly 56 wins across 82 games. Such a feat is of course without the services of Gordon Hayward.
The point that ties this all together, is why mess up something that’s so good? The full potential of the Celtics hasn’t been witnessed, and what seemed at least 70 percent of that potential for the most part of last season, what they can produce is truly magical. Their depth is leaps and bounds beyond anyone else in the league, including Golden State, and with Hayward returning the level of versatility on both ends is massive (if it can even be measured at this stage).
The landscape of the league
Below the Celtics are the 76ers and Raptors who for different reasons have the quality to disrupt Boston’s run to the NBA finals. Vegas win odds have the Celtics sitting around 59, a four game increase while the Raptors have 55.5 and the 76ers sit at 54.5. Philly is the second threat, contrary to what many may think, and they are a threat that has grown tremendously over the past season. With another year to develop their rising stars, they can only go up from here.
The Sixers were expected to contend for a playoff spot last season, yet even without Markelle Fultz adding what they expected in his rookie year; they still managed to go 52-30 with a third seed in the East. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid both performed brilliantly all year long, with Simmons particularly excelling at his game at the back end of the year. However they exposed somewhat in the playoffs with a lack of experience for Coach Brett Brown showing with his coaching decisions. Nevertheless as the franchise continues to trend up, all cogs within that machine will do the same. The notable addition of Wilson Chandler can be a great weapon off the bench, and a dark horse for sixth man of the year.
The Raptors in contrast, found themselves needing a revitalisation in their roster. Luckily Kawhi Leonard became available, and a lack of loyalty and decency saw DeMar DeRozan shipped to San Antonio. The move gives Toronto tremendous versatility now, and a defensive anchor who can be a great influencer. Whether they manage to keep Leonard when he enters free agency next year or not, this coming season sees the Raptors with the potential to topple the league’s best.
But potential is the key word there, and its validity fails to rival that of the Celtics. The same goes for the 76ers, the Pacers, the Bucks, even my Lakers, none are on the same level of promise as the Celtics right now. Danny Ainge needs to maintain that, he needs to develop what he’s built, and that means keeping Kyrie Irving at the helm of the dynasty that will develop, whether now or in a year or so.