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Four Questions About the New-Look, Kyrie-Led Boston Celtics

The former Cavaliers guard is the new star in town, but how does he fit into the team’s identity? And has the team addressed its preexisting problems?

Cleveland Cavaliers v Utah Jazz Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

The way we will look back on and judge the Kyrie Irving trade will be based on whether the Celtics won a title with him. Blockbuster trades like this one are judged by the results they create, not the process by which they were made. The Celtics are making a huge bet on their newfound apparent belief that star power will trump synergy or continuity. After all, they lost their top three players in terms of minutes played, and, as my colleague Kevin O’Connor pointed out, return only four of their players from last season.

But Danny Ainge pulled it off. He finally made the trade that he was long rumored to make. With Irving, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward as the three pillars of what should be head coach Brad Stevens’s offensive juggernaut, the Celtics have the pieces they need to compete (emphasis on compete) for a title. But this reality of a new Big Three in Boston does present some questions about how the Celtics will deal with their new-look team with the season fewer than two months away.

What Do the Celtics Do About Their Defense?

The Celtics were 12th in the league in defensive rating (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) during the regular season, but dropped near the bottom in the playoffs (111.3, 13th among the 16 teams). In losing Jae Crowder, after trading Avery Bradley to the Pistons earlier this summer, Boston has now lost three of its top five players in defensive win shares.

Bradley’s relentless and timely hand-in-your-space defense on the ball, as well as his ability to play larger than his size and maintain position against more athletic players, was incredibly valuable. His departure leaves a gaping hole in the Celtics defense that could be problematic come playoff time, when the games are slowed down and stretched out as if they’re being put through a lasagna pasta maker. Bradley’s burden will now likely fall on Marcus Smart, who brings a lot of the same qualities as a tough, relentless on-ball nuisance, even if he can be erratic at times. Smart may be a perfect sixth man, but in crunch time, he will likely be the one the Celtics turn to for timely on-ball defense.

Losing Crowder is a bittersweet moment for a lot of Celtics loyalists. There’s the good side of him, the off-ball shooter and disruptive on-ball defender who often got the LeBron assignment in games against the Cavs. Then, there’s the tougher side. The one whose inconsistencies on the perimeter (his 3-point percentages declined in the playoffs in his last two seasons in Boston) were disheartening at times, and whose defense, much like the Celtics’ as a whole, also declined in the playoffs. Crowder’s 3-and-D potential, however inconsistent at times, was of extreme value. The Celtics are now going to need to turn youth into consistency as soon as possible. Hayward is underrated as a defender, so don’t rule out him even improving on Crowder’s work. In Boston's attempt to fill Crowder's void, the three-headed 21-or-younger trio of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and even Semi Ojeleye will come up big. Literally. Crowder and Bradley were good defenders, but at their size—6-foot-6, and 6-foot-2 respectively—they come up short on Brown (6-foot-7) and Tatum (6-foot-8). Brown has the slight edge on experience plus the athleticism, Tatum has the savvy, already-mature offensive game and Stevens’s endorsement as a good defender, while Ojeleye has the potential to become an off-the-bench spark plug on both sides of the court with his energy. The prep to get them ready for playoff basketball begins now.

How Does Kyrie Irving Fit Into Brad Stevens’s System?

Isaiah Thomas’s amazing 2016-17 season was an anomaly in so many different ways, one of them being the frequency with which he was allowed to isolate within Stevens’s offensive system. Thomas used isolation plays 9.1 percent of the time throughout his season, the highest on the Celtics, but far lower than some of the league’s top point guards. By way of screens and handoffs that Stevens engineered for Thomas, he was able to gain that separation that made him a deadly off-the-dribble scoring option, especially late in games. Meanwhile, on the Cavs, Irving, with LeBron in tow, used isolation plays more than twice as frequently as Thomas did, 21.4 percent of the time—the sixth-highest rate of anyone in the league.

The convergence (or possible collision) of Stevens’s basketball philosophy with Irving’s basketball instincts will be one of the most fascinating subplots to watch this season. To an extent, Thomas showed that isolations can work in Boston, but Irving’s fondness for them is on another level—one that could take time to massage into the idealistic system Stevens wants the Celtics to run, but also one that could be better suited for situations late in games. Of course, Stevens does not appear irrationally hell-bent on placing his ideology above star talent, and Irving’s outright skill level in tandem with Stevens’s schemes could potentially make for a deadly combo. Besides, Stevens will arguably be starting from scratch, anyway. Remember, he got another star player earlier this summer, too.

How Does Kyrie Irving Work With Gordon Hayward?

Speaking of low isolation numbers, Hayward's isolation frequency was a minuscule 7 percent last season. Hayward has shown he can handle the ball well and attack off the dribble. Since playing with Deron WIlliams in his rookie season, Hayward has not shared the court with a true ball-dominant point guard, which presents an interesting wrinkle to this new situation. Irving will likely shoulder ballhandling duties and should be the one taking the shots at the end of the game, but the journey to that point will be fascinating to both witness and analyze.

Stevens has his hands full—full of ball handlers, that is, including Smart, which is a stark change to the Celtics of just two seasons ago. Imagine Hayward or Horford dishing to a cutting Kyrie who finishes at the rim with ease, or finding him open after an out-of-bounds play for a 3 from the wing. There will be plenty of isolation opportunities for Kyrie throughout a game, and he should take them. But with so many playmakers on the roster, he'll have to find ways to diversify his output to keep with the team's identity.

Do Boston's New Stars Change One of Their Most Glaring Issues?

Sandwiched in between the Nets and the Magic, the Celtics were 27th in rebounding rate last season. Horford had by far his worst season in total rebounding rate, and none of the three Celtics who rebounded the ball at a higher clip last year are still on the team. Boston did attempt to alleviate this hemorrhaging this offseason by adding Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris, who will help them on the defensive glass. Hayward, who had a career high in total rebounding rate (9.0) last season in Utah, will have the chance to crack double digits in his rebounding rate this season. (Irving and Thomas put up comparable rebounding numbers, which makes that the swap a wash on that front.) Regardless, rebounding was one of the biggest problems for the Celtics last season, and it will remain an issue until Horford improves drastically or those around him pick up more of the slack.