Once again, the Boston Celtics won without Kyrie Irving. Once again, the whispers of whether the C’s are a better team without their star guard get louder.
Those questions were absurd last year during Boston’s playoff run and they are even more absurd on Feb. 14, 2019.
Put plain and simple, the Celtics are not a better team without Irving. With him, they’re a team talented enough to threaten the Golden State Warriors in a potential NBA Finals matchup. A team that can go toe-to-toe with the NBA’s best and come out on top. With Irving, the Celtics are among the NBA’s elite.
Without their 26-year-old star, the Celtics’ ceiling might be where they topped out a season ago — an Eastern Conference finals berth without the star power needed to lead them past an opponent with the best player in the series.
“It’s completely illogical,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich” about the idea Boston is better without Irving. “It makes no sense. If you just look at the data over the last two years, our team is so much (more efficient with Kyrie). No, I think it’s ridiculous.”
There’s no doubt in the 11 games without Irving this season, the Celtics are 9-2 and their offense has looked crisper, with guys like Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown stepping up to fill the scoring void. But, if you take a closer look at that 9-2 record, it shows Boston has picked on lesser foes, with only three of the nine teams they’ve beaten currently owning playoff spots. Both losses without Irving, however, came against the Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz, two teams that are firmly in the playoff picture.
Despite Irving’s quirky personality and the Celtics’ glitzy record without him in the lineup, the stats show Ainge is right: Boston is markedly better with Uncle Drew on the floor.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics are 8.9 points per 100 possessions better and have a plus-8.9 efficiency differential (points per 100 possession minus points allowed per 100) with him on the floor. Likewise, Boston’s offensive rating with Irving is 113.8 when Irving is on the court and it drops precipitously to 105 when he is not playing.
There’s no doubt on the offensive end the ball sometimes tends to stick when Irving is in the game. Guys get caught standing and watching as Irving dominates the ball, but such is the trade-off with a player of his caliber. Without him, the Celtics offensively would rank near the bottom of the NBA, while they rank among the most efficient offensive teams with him on the court.
The Celtics without Irving are a good team. A collection of young, talented players who have yet to enter their prime and veterans Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Hayward, who can lift the team to wins on occasion but can’t put a team on their back for an entire postseason run.
Irving can. The All-Star guard gives the Celtics the one thing you absolutely need to win a title: a star capable of winning a game on his own. A guy who can go get the team a bucket to stop the bleeding in a high-tension moment. A player who has been to NBA Finals and shined on the brightest stage.
Last season, Tatum, Rozier, Brown and Horford took the Celtics to within a game of the NBA Finals. But under the brightest lights, when LeBron James got the Cleveland Cavaliers going during the second half of Game 7, the Celtics missed a player who could stem the tide and settle them down. They missed Irving.
Ainge built this Celtics team to win a title. Despite all the Anthony Davis talk and Boston’s desire to acquire him, Ainge and Brad Stevens believe this team can contend for an NBA title.
They can only do that with Kyrie Irving.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images