Despite losing Kyrie Irving to the Brooklyn Nets, the Boston Celtics will be in a fantastic position with Kemba Walker now on the roster.
The Celtics are going to have an entirely different backcourt with backup Terry Rozier on the way to replace Walker on the Charlotte Hornets next season. Boston will have a new starting point guard and a new backup with rookie point guard and former March Madness standout Carsen Edwards in the mix.
Next season, despite losing Irving as well as potentially losing veteran big man Al Horford, the Celtics can take several steps forward and still contend for a championship. Their young core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and even Grant Williams and Robert Williams will continue to develop and get more experience in the NBA.
Irving may have a higher ceiling than Walker but overall, the players can be fairly similar. Both have championship-winning experience with Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Walker from UCONN in the NCAA.
According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, neither of them were considered solid defenders for their teams. Even though Irving did rank better, his defense has never been one of the positives in his game.
Otherwise, we focused on the biggest changes that their offense will have over the next few seasons in Boston.
Note that several statistics for this report were pulled from Synergy Sports Tech.
Pick and Roll
In a recent feature, Jared Weiss explained how Walker’s game will help revive the offense that Brad Stevens ran with Isaiah Thomas at point guard (via The Athletic):
“A huge part of what Thomas achieved that season was a perfect balance of running pick-and-roll and curling out of the corners for dribble handoffs. It was a small part of Irving’s game in Boston but has been a much bigger part of Walker’s game in Charlotte.”
As the primary ballhandler in a pick-and-roll offense, Irving averaged 0.99 points per possession (86th percentile) to go with 6.5 points per game (22nd overall) last season. Walker, meanwhile, produced 1.01 PPP (91st percentile) and 11.9 PPG (1st overall) on this play type.
When including passes, Irving (1.09 PPP) was slightly more efficient than Walker (1.04 PPP). But the Charlotte point guard created 20.6 PPG (2nd) on PnR sets while Irving was at 14.4 PPG (17th).
Boston ranked 22nd out of 30 teams in pick-and-roll scoring and 25th out of 30 in this play type frequency. One would expect with Walker now running their offense, the Celtics will run pick-and-roll far more often than they did when Irving was leading the charge.
Irving and Walker are currently two of the best one-on-one scoring guards in the NBA and they compare favorably in terms of both efficiency and overall production.
The truth of the matter is that Walker may have been forced into playing a more iso-friendly game due to the lack of talent that surrounded him on his roster in Charlotte. Realistically, it may have been more because of a need than a desire.
Last season, Irving averaged 0.98 PPP (75th percentile) and 2.9 PPG (8th among guards) while Walker put up 1.03 (82nd percentile) and 2.1 PPG (12th among guards) when facing defenders during one-on-one scenarios.
The Hornets guard typically had the ball in his hands more often, averaging 5.0 dribbles per touch and 84.5 touches per game (via NBA.com). Compare that to Irving, who averaged just 3.9 dribbles per touch and 76.8 touches per game.
After seven or more dribbles, Walker led the Eastern Conference with 318 buckets and 90 three-pointers. Irving, meanwhile, had 161 field goals and 24 three’s after 7+ dribbles. Walker also led the East with 49 baskets from long range after between three and six dribbles.
But for the Celtics, the good news is that Walker will be able to create his own offense when necessary.
He was significantly better than Irving when he took jumpers off the dribble – one of the most valuable ways of creating your own shot. Walker led the league with 8.5 PPG in this type of offense while Irving ranked No. 22 with 4.9 PPG last season.
Walker also averaged more points and assists per game (9.1 PPG and 1.6 APG) than Irving did (7.6 PPG and 1.0 APG) when driving, per NBA.com.
Shooting off the catch
The truth is Walker had far fewer opportunities off the ball due to his roster construction, which required the Hornets to use him as their primary source of offense. When he has been tasked with playing off the ball in the past, he has risen to the occasion.
Regardless, Irving was significantly better than Walker when playing off the ball last season. He was more efficient than Walker when spotting up as well as shooting on handoffs and coming off screens.
Irving averaged 1.24 PPP (88th percentile) off the catch and Walker was much less impressive at 1.02 PPP (44th percentile). Irving ranked Top 20 among guards in terms of scoring while Walker was No. 58.
This was a huge part of the offense for the Celtics, who ranked No. 2 in total points scored off the catch and No. 5 in points per possession. They were the only team besides the Golden State Warriors to rank Top 5 in both PPG and PPP.
Irving connected on 102 three-pointers without a dribble, shooting 44.2 percent. Walker had 83 and connected on 35.7 percent of these looks.
It’s worth mentioning that Boston ranked Top 10 in terms of total scoring in a transition offense. When including passes, Irving averaged 1.47 PP(P+A) with 102 assists in the open court while Walker averaged 1.33 PP(P+A) and 81 assists.
Irving and Walker both scored 3.0 PPG as the ballhandler in transition, tied for No. 10 overall in the NBA last season. Irving turned the ball over (14.9 percent) more often than Walker did (11.4 percent) when attempting to finish possessions in the open court.
While it may not have been his main way to create offense during his tenure with the Hornets, he will be able to replicate a lot of the fastbreak chances in Boston where Irving thrived.