Kyrie Irving’s relationship with the Celtics ended poorly last season for reasons that go far deeper than what happened on the court. But if one had to pin down a basketball-specific gripe, it was that the Celtics didn’t hand the offense over to his individual shot-making brilliance.
Instead of crafting Irving’s supporting cast around role players designed to service him shooting a lot off the dribble, the Celtics entered the year with a collection of young perimeter players who wanted those same opportunities. Once initial attempts to placate everyone failed, Irving slowly shot more and more, and the your-turn, my-turn energy ruined the team.
Irving now has what he wants in Brooklyn. As old friend Kristian Winfield noted, Irving is taking more than 26 shots per game in the early going, a career-high. He’s averaging 13 pull-up shots per game this year, and more than seven of those are threes. Both are more than anyone not named James Harden took last year. Brooklyn’s offense almost exclusively depends on Irving creating offense for himself off the dribble and making pull-up jumpers in pick-and-roll situations.
And yet, so does the Celtics’. It’s early, but so far, the Celtics’ offensive system in their first year After Irving is built entirely on the very skill that most defines him.
This is how a typical Celtics possession has ended this year.
And this is how it’s ended when the shot goes in.
The goal of each is to get Kemba Walker an open jumper off the pick-and-roll with the opposing big man dropping into the paint. Both were executed to perfection. The only difference is one went in and the other didn’t.
Tiny-sample-size caveats are appropriate, yet Boston’s shot output this season has been a sharp contrast to last year and not at all like the ideals you’d associate with a non-Irving centric approach. Through one week of the season, Boston ranks in the top three in the league in most pull-up shot attempts per game, most three-point pull-ups per game, and points per possession in plays finished by the pick-and-roll ball-handler. They have the seventh-highest percentage of unassisted field goals while ranking tops in the league in the percentage of threes that are unassisted. Meanwhile, they rank dead last in catch-and-shoot points per game and 26th in assisted points created.
Shooting off the dribble is this team’s specialty. Scoring directly off the pass very much isn’t.
It’s not hard to see why after looking at the roster. Boston replaced Irving with Walker, who’s as close to an on-court Irving doppleganger as anyone in the league. (Only two players attempted more than 10 pull-up shots per game last year. James Harden was one. Walker was the other. Irving, by the way, wasn’t in the top 15). The Celtics also lost Al Horford, and his shots have mostly transferred to three of the perimeter players who yearned for the looks Irving wanted himself: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. All four of those players — Walker, Tatum, Brown, and Hayward — are better scorers than passers off the dribble. Hayward has the best vision of the four, but since his horrific leg injury, he tends to gives the ball up too early to fully take advantage of his passing skill.
The Celtics pursued Walker, re-signed Brown, and haven’t traded Hayward yet, so this is clearly the roster they want. That leads to a more interesting question: is an offensive strategy built around four players who play like Irving is more effective than one built around just Irving?
It’ll take a lot longer than a few games to know the answer, but results are mixed so far. On the one hand, having all these dudes who can create their own shot on the perimeter is an amazing threat that Brad Stevens can leverage. When the Celtics are humming, they swing from one pick-and-roll action to the next before the defense can re-set. That makes them much more unpredictable than a roster built this way should be.
Celtics fans should be overjoyed when they see sequences like this one in crunch time against Toronto. All four of the perimeter shot creators move in sync with each other. A middle screen for Hayward turned into a double ball screen for Tatum, who curled into the lane and found Hayward sliding up the three-point line for a critical open three. Walker started the play and cut through, while Brown kept the defense distracted on the opposite side with his own basket cut.
Walker’s off-ball speed can open up the Celtics’ playbook in ways Irving’s style couldn’t. Though Walker is a pick-and-roll-heavy player, he can also give the ball up and then get it back on the move to attack. That allows others to touch the ball and acts as a different way to tilt the defense to create openings. This corner three by Tatum didn’t go in, but it’s the exact kind of sequence the Celtics should be replicating.
On the other hand, all that movement ultimately happens in service of the same kind of shot too often. Walker got his max contract because of his ability to score off the dribble, not because of his passing. Tatum showed promise as a driver in the preseason, but he’s an awkward finisher when he gets there and still settles for shots like this far too often.
Brown has displayed some playmaking chops at times, but he’s still prone to locking in on pass/shoot decisions instead of reading the game first.
None of the Celtics’ players are inherently selfish, so they sometimes do create the endless drive-and-kicks that exhaust a defense. But they are all players whose best skill is shooting off the dribble, rather than using a pick-and-roll to probe a defense and fire passes opponents cannot anticipate. In practice, Boston often takes the first open shot possible before any real ball movement can kick in.
When that happens, Boston is at the mercy of those off-the-dribble shots going in. Sometimes, they do, and that in and of itself can cause the defense to cheat up too far and opens up the kind of ball movement Boston really wants. But the Celtics need that to happen first, and only then can the full power of their mutli-playmaker style overwhelms teams. If the shots don’t go in, Boston has no other way to scramble defenses.
And when the shots aren’t going in, the Celtics get a lot of this.
Ultimately, it’s Stevens’ job to create a diverse ecosystem using a series of overlapping skill-sets. His past suggests he’s capable of doing so, and this Celtics’ core should be much more coachable than last year’s.
But there’s only so much Stevens can do when he has four players who are at their best shooting off the dribble. No matter what tweaks Stevens engineers, the Celtics will still look unstoppable when the pull-up jumpers fall and horrific when they don’t, with little in-between.
In other words: they’ll look a lot like the team version of Irving. How ironic.
PRESEASON QUESTIONS, ANSWERED
Before the season, I listed the 100 most interesting basketball-specific questions of the season. Each week, we’ll see if we have enough information to answer one of them.
QUESTION 63: Is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander actually good, or just a nice prospect?
Tilt this one squarely into “actually good” category. A year after acting more like a caretaker point guard alongside other ball-handlers, Gilgeous-Alexander has already commandeered the Thunder offense and looks just as smooth while doing so. This is poetry.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s craft didn’t worry me, but his slender frame often did last year. I wasn’t sure if he was strong enough to actually score often and effectively through defenders rather than just around and above them.
He’s allayed those fears and then some this year. He’s actually getting all the way to the cup in half-court situations, finishing around opponents waiting for him, and drawing more fouls while also committing fewer turnovers. This is the kind of finish we didn’t see much last year.
Eric Gordon is a difficult player to hold off when driving, and I suspect he would have bumped Gilgeous-Alexander off his path last season. But this time, Gilgeous-Alexander was able to keep Gordon on his hip and then shed him easily when he tried to jump back in front. Instead of being forced to finish over Gordon, Gilgeous-Alexander was able to power through him. That’s an important sign of growth.
CLOSEOUT OF THE WEEK
Three-point shooting is essential, yet there’s no good stat that credits defenders for the essential act of preventing a three-pointer from being taken. We must reward these efforts.
I’m cheating this week, because this play actually occurred in the preseason. But I’m still in awe of Giannis Antetokounmpo sprinting from the restricted area all the way to the wing to stop Kristaps Porzingis, a 7’3 dude with one of the quickest releases in basketball, from taking an open three. Not once, by the way, but twice!
This isn’t the most fundamentally sound closeout, because mere mortals wouldn’t be able to sprint like Antetokounmpo and still maintain the balance necessary to recover and stop Porzingis’ stepback attempt. But, holy crap, how does one person cover that much ground and still stay on balance?
REBOUND JOUST OF THE WEEK
Last year, I wrote about the rising trend of teammates fighting each other for defensive rebounds. These moments usually end harmlessly, but occasionally, they can cost a team. Here’s to over-aggression!
Meyers Leonard, who is 7’ tall, has blocked a total of nine shots in the past two years. This should count as No. 10.