Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving may call comparison “a thief of joy,” but when a superstar leaves a team for its conference rival in an epic blockbuster trade, identifying differences (and similarities) between his play before and after the move seems only natural — no matter what Irving or Theodore Roosevelt think.
Asked if he could have made the same passes he’s making now with the Celtics in previous seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Irving said, “It’s kind of hard to compare it because I feel like my role was probably a little different last year.”
Although he didn’t elaborate on the specifics, Irving alluded to the obvious: Things have changed. After six seasons in Cleveland, the four-time All-Star is playing with a much younger team in Boston. The average age of the Celtics is 24.6 years, while that of last year’s Cavaliers was 30.2 years. The only players in Boston with more experience than Irving are forwards Gordon Hayward and Al Horford — a stark contrast to his seniority on Cleveland’s roster last season.
The stage is primed for Irving to step into a leadership role (and playing without LeBron James certainly helps). Much of his abilities will be put to the test later down the road, but his college coach has already detected improvement.
“I think he has become much more vocal,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said. “My feeling is that Kyrie is becoming a better leader quicker because he feels it’s more on him. I love the fact that he’s growing like this and wanted to be in that environment. Some people would call it pressure, but he wanted the opportunity to expand his abilities — and they’re just not shooting and ball-handling, they’re leadership-wise.”
Statistics-wise, Irving’s marks from last season are hard to beat. His numbers halfway through the current season look awfully similar, at a glance.
But a deeper dive will reveal a pair of noticeable changes:
1. Irving is taking more shots without dribbling. Compared to last season, shots with a touch time of fewer than two seconds and shots with zero dribbles are both occurring more frequently. Accordingly, catch-and-shoot opportunities make up a fifth of his offensive production this year.
2. When comparing Irving’s shot chart from the past two seasons, there are fewer midrange jump shots with the Celtics. His finishes at the rim have also improved against the league average.
“I think he’s gotten a lot better,” Krzyzewski said of his former player.
But what do Irving’s opponents think? Do they notice any differences in his play in Boston versus in Cleveland? Are they finding he’s a different player with the Celtics than he was with the Cavaliers?
Boston.com asked 25 players to share their thoughts:
Bucks center Giannis Antetokounmpo: “He’s the number-one option right now. He knows that. His teammates know that. He’s out there having fun, as you can tell. He’s just competing hard.”
Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes: “I don’t know if he does anything differently, but he has more of an opportunity. He’s the number-one option. The difference is that he plays more of his game. I think he scores in a variety of ways. He can shoot the three, get to the money and finish, and have the in-between game, which makes things really hard to scout.”
Wizards center Marcin Gortat: “He’s Kyrie Irving. He’s always going to get you 20. It doesn’t matter what day or what game or what team. He’s always going to get you 20. First of all, he takes a certain amount of shots that he will make half of them or a one-third of them, and he’s going to get 20 easily. He’s leading his team. He’s good.”
Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris: “He’s still the same person. He’s just holding these guys accountable. You notice in the fourth quarter he’s getting on guys — even though they’re up — getting on them about taking care of the ball, making sure they’re running the play the right way. He’s stepping up and becoming more of a leader than he already was.”
Heat forward Udonis Haslem: “He’s still just as dominant. He’s still a game-changer. He’s still got a great handle. He’s still probably going to be the best point guard on the floor, no matter what team he’s on. But this is his team. It’s clear this is his team. You can see he’s a young fella — with the opportunity to have his own team — who wants to prove that he could be the guy to lead the team to the championship. I understand his ambition, and I understand him wanting to be great.”
Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: “He’s playing without a really, really good superstar, which is LeBron, but he also has really good pieces here and talented young guys. Kyrie’s a playmaker. Him having the ball in his hands a lot more just kind of draws people to him. He can get to the basket and finish, but he’s also kicking it out to shooters and other guys that can make plays. A lot of time in Cleveland, he just sat in the corner or waited for LeBron to do it. Going down the stretch in Boston, they look at him: ‘Let’s go. Let’s do it.’ In Cleveland, they looked at LeBron like that.”
Jazz forward Jonas Jerebko: “He’s the man in Boston. He was obviously the man in Cleveland, too, but he had LeBron with him. He’s really showcasing what he can do and getting more space to do his thing. He’s got an unbelievable handle and an ability to get to the rim at any point. He’s one of the best players in the league, so it’s good to see him blossom out.”
Nuggets forward Richard Jefferson: “No differences. It looks like he’s playing the same, aggressive, good basketball that he’s always played that’s led him to being an All-Star and an NBA champion.”
Jazz forward Joe Johnson: “It’s totally different because he’s so in control of the game. He can really pick his spots, when he wants to attack versus when he wants to be kind of passive and get other guys involved. He controls that from start to finish.”
Bulls center Robin Lopez: “He’s playing pretty freely in Boston, not that he didn’t in Cleveland, but I think he’s definitely enjoying being ‘that guy’ here. He’s definitely getting his shots, but he’s also putting guys in the right places. He’s making everybody around him better. He’s so talented in so many different facets of the game and just constantly getting better here.”
Bucks center Thon Maker: “He’s playing the same way in terms of exciting basketball. Just here in Boston, he’s able to play a lot faster. He’s got the ball in his hands, so whatever it takes for his team to win, he can do it. He’s playing desperately — more desperate than he was in Cleveland. Because of Hayward’s injury, they have to lean on him, but he’s also trying to get everybody else involved.”
Heat forward Jordan Mickey: “He’s not much different. He’s a great player and made things happen on both teams. Here, he’s more of a leader. He gets his guys more organized. He’s kind of the man now, so he takes on a leadership role more.”
Jazz shooting guard Donovan Mitchell: “When you go from a team where he’s not ‘the guy’ to a team where you have to be ‘the guy,’ it brings out a different player and a different person. It brings out a different energy, and I think his leadership qualities have definitely been shown in Boston. He’s a leader. He’s a true leader. And he’s quick: He gets to where he wants to get, and you know it’s going to happen.”
Wizards forward Markieff Morris: “He’s the same, man. He’s a flat-out scorer. He can score with the best in the league. I think now he just has the ball in his hands more, without playing with LeBron, but other than that, he’s the same.”
Nuggets guard Jamal Murray: “He’s quick. He’s got a great handle. There’s really nothing he can’t do. But his leadership. He’s definitely stepped up his leadership.”
Mavericks center Dirk Nowitzki: “He’s always been an amazing, amazing offensive talent — probably has the best handle in the game. He’s a clutch shot-maker. Now he just gets the opportunity a little more down the stretch to his thing. He’s been fantastic, making big shots, making big plays off the dribble. It’s been incredibly fun to watch.”
Nets center Jahlil Okafor: “I don’t really notice any difference. He just has a killer mentality, killer instinct. He’s out there trying to win — the same thing he did in Cleveland. He’s more on the ball now, but the way he moves, the way he scores, the way he competes is pretty much all the same.”
Heat center Kelly Olynyk: “He’s the same player, but they’ve got a lot of actions to get him to do different stuff in Boston. A lot of it is really similar, but obviously, Brad Stevens has some great actions that help him out. He has the ball a lot now. In Cleveland, LeBron probably had it half the time and he had it half the time. There was a little more isolation stuff, but here, he’s definitely in motion more. Everything ends up in his hands. He has the ball more, and he’s a force to be reckoned with.”
Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr.: “When he was in Cleveland, he just wasn’t as aggressive. He wasn’t in attack mode like he is. In Boston, the ball is going to end up in his hands at the end of the majority of possessions, so he’s a little bit more confident because he has his own team behind him. It’s not somebody else’s team. It’s his team.”
Wizards forward Otto Porter: “Kyrie here is their go-to. He does a good job of moving without the ball, directing traffic. Everything is going through him and Al Horford. You know he’s going to get to his spots, but he’s also making plays for other guys.”
Bulls forward Bobby Portis: “He’s the same player — still aggressive, still attacking, still trying to score. But he’s the unsung hero now, and it’s his team. You kind of see all the guys try to feed off him. He tries to make them all better. He goes out there and he’s a tough cover. But all the attention is on him, which gives Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford open looks.”
Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio: “He’s always been that type of guy, who’s always in an attacking mode. But of course, knowing that LeBron is not on his side, he’s being more aggressive and stepping up as the main guy.”
Bucks guard Jason Terry: “He’s the same player. Very aggressive to score. Always looking to facilitate when he can’t score. He’s the same player to me. It’s just a different team. And he’s not option 1B, now he’s option 1A.”
Heat shooting guard Dion Waiters: “More maturity. More responsibility now. He wants it more, for himself and for his career. Being young, the way he is, he achieved a lot. To take on that next challenge is big, so I respect that. And he got better. He definitely got better. He’s just so skilled, so he can play like this anywhere, but he found out how to win here. He’s always been like that — good, can finish with both hands — he’s always been like that. He just found out how to win now. There’s also a luxury of having a coach like that, too, who lets you play.”
Wizards point guard John Wall: “He moves a lot more without the ball. A lot of the plays they run are kind of like what they ran for Isaiah Thomas. He still can score the ball any way you want him to. He’s a guy that’s probably the best clutch player so far in this league, in terms of making shots and making plays. There’s not a defense he hasn’t seen. There’s not a shot he hasn’t made.”