So… Does Kyrie Irving Make The Boston Celtics Better?

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 6: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics and Terry Rozier #12 celebrate during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at TD Garden on December 6, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Mavericks 97-90. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 6: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics and Terry Rozier #12 celebrate during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at TD Garden on December 6, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Mavericks 97-90. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

How big of an impact does Kyrie Irving have on the Boston Celtics?

Okay, let’s do this.

Kyrie Irving played his last 2018-2019 game for the Boston Celtics on March 11th. After that loss to the Indiana Pacers, the Celtics finished 9-6 without Irving. They then made an improbable run through the first two rounds of the playoffs and came within one win of the NBA Finals, all without their star point guard.

Pundits around the league started to raise the obvious (if seemingly absurd) question: are the Boston Celtics better off without Kyrie Irving?

I sat down to write this article trying to have a completely open mind. I scoured statistics and read every article addressing this question I could find. I honestly thought I would be writing a piece about why the question is absurd (in a way, it is).

But alas, it’s never that easy.

There’s more complexity than I expected, but let’s start with the easy part: spoiler alert, Kyrie Irving is really good, and does make the Boston Celtics better. Quelle surprise.

Kyrie Irving makes the Boston Celtics better.

Honestly, you could start with net ratings and end the story there. The Celtics allowed 103.5 points per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor, and 99.7 with him off, per the NBA’s stats website. So they were 3.8 points per 100 possessions worse on defense with Irving on the floor, which isn’t all that surprising. Irving has never been a plus defender. That’s just not his game. His effort was better this year, but it’s still mediocre, and his physical tools aren’t special enough to compensate.

Truthfully, though, that’s the case with most high-usage scoring guards. You’ll live with that with guys like Irving, Damian Lillard, and Russell Westbrook, so long as their offensive contributions make up for it.

Irving’s offense definitely makes up for the defense, at least judging by the most basic statistical analysis. The Celtics score 108.7 points per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor and 101.9 without him; a massive 6.8 point difference. That’s the difference between being right behind the Denver Nuggets at 7th in the league and being the Atlanta Hawks at 27th.

There’s no sample size issue here, either. With all the injuries, the Celtics actually played more minutes with Irving off the floor than on it. For the same reason, you also can’t dismiss this by saying ‘well, Irving played most of his minutes with the starters so of course they scored more points with him on.’

This isn’t a LeBron James team that plays brief stints without their star and can’t figure out how to put the round thing in the other round thing without him making it easy for them. The Celtics played plenty of minutes without Irving, but never figured out how to be a competent offensive team without him.

And beyond any stats, just watch Irving play and it’s obvious. His shooting, finishing, and ball handling are all incredible. He’s one of the best offensive players in the league and can go off for 40 any night. He’s electric.

So the consensus is clear enough: the Boston Celtics are worse on defense when Kyrie Irving plays, but they’re so much better on offense with him playing that he is clearly a positive impact player for Boston.


The article could end right there. But there’s more to unpack here.

The Caveats

Okay, so the Celtics were clearly better with Irving on the floor than off in 2017-2018. There’s no debating that. But there’s more to the story than simple net ratings.

Using this tool and this tool, I dug into Boston’s most used lineups in 2017-2018 and how they fared with Irving, and with Boston’s other point guards inserted instead of him. There’s a little bit less to work with than with other teams just because Brad Stevens plays so many different lineups (and, thusly, there are fewer lineups with meaningful sample sizes). But here is what I did find.

Brown, Tatum, Horford, Baynes, IRVING354111.698.313.496.42
Brown, Tatum, Horford, Baynes, SMART43114.29915.292.83
Brown, Tatum, Horford, Baynes, ROZIER115108.492.216.296.41
Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford, IRVING151112.1109.62.2102.1
Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford, ROZIER25103.469.334.1105.51
Brown, Tatum, Morris, Horford, IRVING148104.4114-9.799.89
Brown, Tatum, Morris, Horford, ROZIER20100.681.419.2104.28

(I’m not analyzing all of that in this article, but I decided to leave it all there so you can have it to ponder.)

That top lineup – with Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Aron Baynes – was Boston’s most used lineup this year. It was very, very good; that 13.4 net rating is better than the net rating for the starting five employed by the Golden State Warriors.

However…if you take that same lineup and swap out Irving? It was better with either Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier in it in his place.

This is by no means a definitive indictment of Irving, and barebones stats obviously lack context. The Smart sample is too small to take much stock in (although if you have time, this piece by Matt Moore went in-depth about why the Boston offense was performing so well with Smart on the floor, including performing better than it did with Irving on the floor).

There’s something there, though, with that Rozier-Brown-Tatum-Horford-Baynes lineup. That lineup saw significant floor time, and while it was worse on offense with Rozier than it was with Irving (which you would expect), it was killer on defense.

This passes the eye test. When Irving went down, Boston started relying even more on its already fantastic defense. Rozier is not an excellent defender, but his 6’8 wingspan (Irving is listed at 6’4) allows him to be more disruptive than Irving and, more importantly, allows him to switch onto bigger players without becoming a complete liability. That’s incredibly crucial in the modern NBA. With Rozier on the floor instead of Irving, there really isn’t a weak link to hunt.

Another point tangent to this lineup analysis: the team-offense ideal.

Offense by committee

Ever since the San Antonio Spurs invented the Beautiful Game, NBA teams have overwhelmingly tried to emulate it. The ideal NBA offense was thought to be one in which nobody held the ball for too long, the bodies constantly moved, and everybody got in on the action.

When Irving was healthy, he sported a 30.7 percent usage rate, good for 10th in the league. While they were certainly no Beautiful Game-Spurs team without him in the playoffs, everyone certainly had a bigger piece of the pie. Seven Celtics players had a usage rate over 20 percent in the playoffs; before the All-Star Break, only two players not named Kyrie Irving did. Four Boston Celtics players averaged 15 or more points per game in the playoffs; before the All-Star Break, only Irving did.

Saying Boston lost its best player and everyone else had to do more as a result is not exactly newsworthy or interesting. There is something to be said, though, about Irving’s style conflicting with how Brad Stevens might want the team to play. He’s a modern coach, and there’s generally a lot of movement in his offensive sets. Irving, on the other hand, likes to hold the ball a lot and go hunting for individual offense. There’s real tension between styles there.

That’s not to say offense-by-committee is inherently better. The Houston Rockets played almost exclusively through their two brilliant stars, James Harden and Chris Paul. Those two pounded the rock like it owed them money, and ran more iso than anybody in the league, and had a historically great offense to show for it.

The Celtics were better on offense with their iso-loving, high-usage point guard playing. They were better in terms of offensive rating, and better when you zoom in on the lineups, and better in simple eye test.

Irving is really good at scoring the ball, and while he is not a great distributor, his scoring ability draws attention and opens things up for other guys. Losing him would truly be losing one of the best offensive talents in the league. If you’re arguing that the Celtics should rely on Irving less on offense, you’re making an argument based on future potential, team happiness, or aesthetics, not on current results.


Look, we have to talk about the contract. Irving is up for a new one in the 2019 offseason, and if the Celtics want to keep him, they’re probably going to have to offer something massive. Irving could be making in the ballpark of $40 million in his mid-thirties.

Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics /

This brings to mind Carmelo Anthony. Anthony is a ball-dominant scorer with limited interest in distribution, like Irving. In his prime, he was so good at scoring that the passing and defense didn’t matter. As he got older, he became something much less appealing: a thirty-something who holds the ball a lot, scores with debatable efficiency, and contributes nothing else to winning.

What if Irving’s scoring ability falls back down to (flat) earth? It’s so incredible now that the other holes in his game can be forgiven. If it drops off with age or because of his knees, will he still be worth the massive contract that he is in line to get?

It’s a good time to mention that Terry Rozier is going into a contract year, too, and is probably going to net less than half of what Irving would cost the Celtics. The 2015 16th overall pick is still a frightfully inefficient scorer and a limited passer, but he made significant leaps this year with his three-point shooting, defense, floor general-capability, and general swagger, and he’s young enough to grow with Boston’s other puppies.

You can be forgiven for being skeptical of the lineup analysis done above; it doesn’t take into account context, and the sample size, while meaningful, is a tad small.

But you can’t ignore the fact that Boston’s most used lineup was better if you took Irving out of it and put Rozier into it. That lineup with Rozier in it was Boston’s best lineup that played over 80 minutes. That’s not because Rozier is a better player than Irving; suggesting that would be silly. But those numbers are real. Attribute it to Irving’s injury, or to Rozier having been on the team for more years, or to flat-out luck, but something is going on there.

Sometimes analysts can get a little too cute with lines of thought like this. It’s possible all of this is just over thinking things – Irving is, after all, still a truly elite talent. The Celtics were significantly better with him on the floor than off it. The numbers back up that he is an incredibly impactful offensive player, and heck, throw the numbers out the window. We saw him winning games for Boston with those dagger shots.

Irving is an NBA champion and a star. He is elite, and that’s not smoke and mirrors. And the Boston Celtics don’t even necessarily have to think about four years down the line; in a wide-open Eastern Conference, they’re Finals contenders now. Doing something to mess with a team that’s working might be incredibly foolish.

And to answer the question posed in the article’s title: yes, Kyrie Irving makes the Celtics better. Though they played well without him, they were, and are, better with him.

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But if you’re Danny Ainge, there’s enough chum in the water to make you pause. This Celtics team is poised to be excellent for years to come, but the situation is more delicate than the casual observer might appreciate. Ainge is going to have to make a decision on Irving one way or the other. That individual decision being right or wrong, after all the correct ones Ainge has made putting Boston in this position, could be the singular one that decides whether or not we’re entering the next great era of Boston Celtics basketball.

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