Coming into the 2018–19 season, few teams had higher expectations than the Boston Celtics. With LeBron James finally departing for LA and releasing his stranglehold on the Eastern Conference, the team seemed poised to step up as the conference’s new top dog.
The Celtics boast a strong core of young talent, much of which General Manager Danny Ainge acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in one of the most lopsided deals in recent NBA history. Young forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both have the potential to grow into dynamic two-way stars, while veteran big man Al Horford provides a steadying presence in the paint and many of the intangibles that drive winning teams. All in all, the Celtics possess an embarrassment of riches — they suit up perhaps the deepest roster in the league. However, ball-handling wizard Kyrie Irving stands alone as their only established star. There’s just one problem: The team seems to play better without him.
The Celtics have, by any measure, proven inconsistent this year. Despite ESPN experts projecting them to win 58 games, they currently stand at 37–23 — on pace for only 50 wins. While this is by no means a terrible record, the Celtics, who were expected to lead the East, have been surpassed by four other teams. However, they have amassed a record of 9–2 in games which Irving has missed, including a notable win over rival Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 12. At the same time, the Celtics boast an impressive net rating of plus 8.9 with Irving on the floor, and only plus 1.7 with him off it. That statistic alone seems to shut down the argument for Irving’s negative influence on the team.
However, there is another caveat too important to ignore: the Celtics’ remarkable playoff run last year, accomplished while Irving was sidelined with a left knee injury. The young guns showed out, with Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier — Irving’s replacement at point guard — putting forth a number of memorable performances. This plucky squad, which of course also lacked prize free agent signing Gordon Hayward, came within one win of the NBA finals. Despite appearing the superior team to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they eventually fell in seven games to the greatness of LeBron James. Tatum, Brown and Rozier all saw sizable increases in scoring, without losing any efficiency. While the team may have performed as well, or perhaps even beaten the Cavaliers with Irving on the floor, it’s hard to see those players having the freedom to make the same kind of impact.
The issue may lie less with Irving and more in the Celtics’ overabundance of players who need the ball in their hands to be effective. The depth of talent that many viewed as the team’s greatest strength may simultaneously be their weakness, as the offensive hierarchy has appeared muddled and inconsistent. Irving is one of the best scorers and closers in the league, but his ball dominance has stunted Tatum’s and Brown’s development, as well as Hayward’s return to form from injury. The Celtics still need Irving to reach their peak level, but it’s possible that ideal lies more in the hypothetical realm than in reality.