The 2017-18 NBA season has completed a quarter of its journey and there are already a few outlandish proclamations. Chief among them is, Kyrie Irving leading the race for league MVP. While on the surface, that statement appears valid, it’s also woefully incomplete. This piece attempts to provide nuance or at least pour some coolant on the narrative of Irving’s march to the MVP.
The Celtics Structure is second to none
The Boston Celtics is one of the most successful organizations in the history of North American professional sports. There are countless banners hanging from the rafters of the TD Garden Arena, their home court. Former player and now President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Danny Ainge continues to keep his team relevant and in contention. From the masterful hire of talented yet unproven coach Brad Stevens to the shrewd acquisitions and the compilation of assets, the Celtics continue to stay in the hunt. Many have criticized Ainge for his perceived hoarding of draft assets over the years. Most notably the inability to parlay said assets into a star player at the trade-deadline meant Ainge bore the brunt of serious criticism.
None of that mattered though as the Celtics entered the 2016 playoffs as the number one seed. Ultimately, they were defeated by perennial eastern conference champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals. In the off-season, Ainge pulled off the NBA’s version of the ‘Great Train Robbery’. By acquiring Irving for Isaiah Thomas (who’s injured by the way), Ainge strengthened the Celtics and weakened the Cavaliers in a single stroke. Before that though, Ainge swapped the first overall pick in the draft with the Philadelphia 76ers for third overall selection netting forward Jayson Tatum. The 76ers selected consensus number one pick, Markelle Fultz. Ironically, Fultz like Thomas is also injured. Ainge also signed prized free-agent Gordon Hayward, who suffered a gruesome injury on opening night versus the Cavaliers.
This is where the Irving for MVP narrative began to take shape. Though obviously short-handed, the Celtics raced to an impressive NBA best 18-3 record. While Irving is leading the charge on the court, his work has not been as stellar many want to believe. Compared to last season, Irving’s statistics are similar (according to basketball-reference.com). What is noticeable however is Irving’s willingness to play defense or at least appear to.
Brad Stevens is a genius
Head Coach Brad Stevens is an absolute basketball savant. His ability to improve and adapt players is that of a grizzled veteran. A major part of the Celtics early success is defense. Last season the Celtics were the 8th ranked offence, and the 13th ranked defense. This season, the offense stagnated somewhat ranking 19th in points scored per game thus far. The Defense, however, has blossomed magnificently ranking first. The Celtics are holding opponents to an NBA low 98.9 points per 100 possessions. Last season, Stevens’ offense, the 5-out motion was almost unguardable. This season’s defense led by second-year guard Jaylen Brown, and anchored by Al Horford causes opponents a myriad of problems. The Celtics are currently leading the league in steals and defensive rebounds/total rebounds. They (the Celtics) currently rank 3rd in opponent effective field goal percentage. Irving plays a minimal role in each of these figures.
Jaylen Brown plays the opponent’s top perimeter threat and has excelled as the primary defender. Offensively, under the leadership of Stevens, Brown has blossomed as his offensive game has taken a huge step forward. Through this early season, Brown has shot an excellent 41.5 percent from three while attempting close to 5 per contest. Brown also improved his overall shooting percentage from last season. With the departure of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, Brown has embraced the challenge and is shining thus far.
Marcus Smart, the scrappy reserve guard continues to make solid timely contributions to the Celtics effort. Measuring at 6’4″, Smart embraces the defensive challenge of matching up against any point guard and or wing as the situation demands. Offensively, Smart is not the most polished. He averages at least 2 turnovers per contest and is shooting terribly both from the field and beyond the 3 point arc. However, Coach Stevens is rewarded time and again when he has Smart play crucial, crunch-time minutes. Smart’s defensive prowess makes up for his offensive inadequacy.
The development of players like Tatum and Terry Rozier, together with the revelation of rookie Semi Ojeleye prove Steven’s coaching acumen. Integrating new players like Aron Baynes, and Marcus Morris to complete the rotation is also a testament to the coaching staff, not the individual brilliance of one player, namely Irving.
Horford is quietly having a fantastic season as well. His offensive efficiency and low usage rate (18.3 percent) makes him an invaluable member of the team. Couple that with stellar defence and amazing intangibles, Horford may very well be the most valuable player on the Celtics. Al Horford positively impacts all of the advanced metric categories. He is the by far the Celtics’ best 2-way player.
More impactful players
Trivia question: Following the Celtics loss to the Heat, name the team with the longest winning streak? The answer: The Cleveland Cavaliers, presently at seven games. Led by ‘King James’ LeBron James, the Cavaliers has endured injuries and inconsistency to remain in the hunt. Armed with the worse defence in the league behind him, James is currently in the midst of a career year. James is currently averaging 28.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. All this while having an effective field goal percentage of 63.3 and a three-point percentage of 42.2.
Last season MVP runner-up James Harden continues to be a marvel to behold in Houston. Harden, while playing 36 minutes per night leads the league both scoring and assists (31.4 and 9.8 respectively). He currently leads the league in 3-point shots attempted and made as well as free throw attempts and made. Harden’s offensive dexterity makes him indispensable to the Houston Rockets. The Rockets presently possess the best record in the vaunted Western Conference, which can’t be overstated also.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the ‘Greek Freak’ is in the midst of a career season. The Milwaukee Bucks play primarily under the radar, so Antetokounmpo’s development went largely unnoticed except the odd highlight here and there. Physically gifted like few before him, Antetokounmpo has improved each season he’s been in the league. Currently playing a league-high 37.9 minutes per game, Antetokounmpo averages 29.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.5 steals per contest. Antetokoumpo is the rare player that is positive in all the advanced metrics statistics also. His all-round game makes him a genuine contender for league MVP as long as his Bucks team remain relevant.
In closing, this is not a criticism of Kyrie Irving, but an attempt to add some nuance to a discussion. Irving is having a fine season, and his attempt to play defence has not gone unnoticed. However, the fact remains that as a member of the Cavaliers last season Irving was posting similar numbers on a team that included King James. There was no talk of MVP consideration then. Now consider this, under Brad Stevens’ tutelage, Isaiah Thomas went from an okay player to an All-NBA player. Or better still, in 2015 general manager Danny Ainge turned Marcus Thornton and a Cavaliers first-round pick into Thomas. Then two short years later, flipped Thomas for Irving.
Brad Stevens for coach of the year is a legitimate question, considering his team changed ten players from last season and lost Hayward for the season. Ainge for Executive of the Year is an obvious choice now just watching the roster he assembled. But Irving for MVP? In the words of Kobe Bryant (Irving’s basketball mentor) before his first battle against Jeremy Lin, “Let’s not get carried away here”.