Are the Boston Celtics Really That Much Better?
Through 58 games the Boston Celtics are currently first in the Eastern Conference with a record of 40-18. Kyrie Irving has been fantastic as expected, but without Gordon Hayward are they really that much better than last season? So much has happened in a calendar year that it's easy to forget the Celtics were number one in the East at the same time last year and led by a dynamic 5'8 point guard. It's easy to forget that the point guard, Isaiah Thomas, finished 5th in MVP voting and made the All-NBA Second Team, ahead of guys like DeMar DeRozan, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson.
Fast forward to February 2018 and Thomas has been traded to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson (after being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the offseason) and ranks as the league’s second worst point guard per ESPN's RPM, ahead of only New York’s Emmanuel Mudiay. But don't get fooled by revisionist history; the Celtics were an offensive juggernaut with Thomas.
For comparison, check out the 2016-2017 stat lines for Player A and Player B:
Player A: 29.7 ppg 6.3 apg .8 stl 46.5% fg 38.5% 3pt 91.1% ft 113.2 orating 109.7 drafting 62.7% ts 33.9% usage 16.4 PIE
Player B: 24.6 ppg 5 apg 1.1 stl 48.6% fg 39.1% 3pt 88.6% ft 107.3 orating 102.5 drafting 60.0% ts 30.8% usage 16.2 PIE
Players A and B are Thomas and Irving respectively through 58 games in 2017. Thomas was asked to carry more of the offensive load and you can easily make the argument that he was the better player. Obviously, Boston was much worse on the defensive end of the floor in 2017 but blaming it solely on Thomas isn't fair either.
Boston coach Brad Stevens had to tailor a defense that hid Thomas in the corner and the other four guys on the floor had to always be ready to help. Irving started this season well on defense but has regressed into the same defensive liability he has always been, ranking 67th out of 97 point guards per ESPNs RPM (66/76 in 2017; 57/61 in 2016).
Comparing the two most used lineups from the past two seasons, there is not much of a difference either. The minutes are similar, the difference is that Boston's starters have played better this season. However, when you substitute Smart for Bradley last season, it was the best lineup of the past two years.
Crowder and Bradley were excellent as Celtics in 2017, better than Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been this season but Brown and Tatum are looking like two long term keepers. The front court of Horford and Baynes is an upgrade over 2017 Horford and Amir Johnson, and I would consider Thomas and Irving a wash at point guard. However, the bench of Smart, Rozier, Morris, and Monroe is an upgrade over the 2017 bench of Smart, Rozier, Olynyk, and Jerekbo.
Boston was much better offensively and much worse defensively in 2017. Thru 58 games last season, Boston has an offensive rating of 109.5 and a defensive rating of 106.3. This season they sit at 104.2 and 100.5, which is a plus 3.8 only .6 better than in 2017. It is also worth noting that thru 58 game Bradley missed 22, Horford 12, and Crowder 10.
Part of their offensive struggles this season can be attributed to shot selection. In 2017, Boston ranked 7th in left corner threes attempted, 4th in right corner, 2nd in above the break threes, and 28th in midrange. This season their shot profile has worsened, ranking 4th in left corner, 10th in right corner, 8th in above the break, and 16th in midrange. Irving continues to drive me crazy with his shot profile, as he has already taken 50 more midrange shots than Thomas with 24 more games to go.
This first image was a play where Kyrie ran a curl off a Horford screen, and got the ball from Baynes. Baynes passed a little early, or Kyrie changed his angle and it led to a contested shot from the elbow. Rather than forcing it, Kyrie should have taken it to the top of the key and reset, especially with a lot of time still on the shot clock.
The second image, Kyrie got a screen from Horford and got an isolation opportunity one on one against Morris. Rather than drive or pull up for three, Kyrie took it to the top of the key and Morris actually did a very good job of contesting the shot. Given his shot profile it’s easy to see that these aren’t aberrations, but rather something that Kyrie loves.
These aren’t always terrible shots, especially with Kyrie’s ability to make them. However, Boston does not have a great offense and should look to add points wherever they can. The maddening part is that Kyrie is one of the best three point shooters in the game seen in his shot chart below.
It’s pretty evident that Kyrie Irving can make shots at a high percentage from anywhere on the floor, but he does have to continue to evolve his game to help improve the Celtics offense. He is no longer on an offensive juggernaut and needs to maximize his possessions and shot selection to make Boston’s offense better.
Bottom line is that with Gordon Hayward, I do believe that the Celtics would be the team to beat in the East. Without him, I would rank them third behind Cleveland and Toronto. Swapping out Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving was pretty much a neutral move in my opinion for Boston (2017 Isaiah Thomas, not the 2018 one leg version), but was a huge downgrade for Cleveland. Is Boston better? Yes. Much better? Probably not.