The Celtics Aren’t Done, But Their Ceiling Is Much Lower Without Kyrie Irving
Well, that sucks for Boston.
The Celtics announced on Thursday that All-Star guard Kyrie Irving will miss the NBA playoffs and 4-5 months after undergoing major knee surgery to remove infection in his surgically repaired knee. What began as a minimally invasive procedure became something much more serious when an infection in the hardware was found, which will require the screws inserted in his knee to be removed. That’s a big pile of “ow” and “not good.”
Beyond the disappointing loss of Irving, a spectacular individual player for these playoffs, the impact of this news is going to shape the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the road to the Finals, and the futures of players, coaches, fans, and yes, bettors. Here are all of the ripple effects.
BOSTON IS NOT DONE
I’ll cut to the hot take: don’t fool yourself into believing the Celtics are a pushover. They’re going to get Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart back for the playoffs. To understand why Boston can hang, you have to understand their identity.
League rank this season:
Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions): 18th
Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions): 1st
Boston hasn’t won with offense all season. The Celtics’ model has been defense and clutch play, much of it from Irving. Their defense will be better without Irving, their rating on the season was 4.2 points better defensively without Irving on the floor this year. Their strength gets stronger without Irving, given the defensive strength of Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart.
The issue is that their weakness gets weaker. That pitiful offense is 7.4 points worse per 100 possessions without Irving on the floor. Since Irving went out, the Celtics are down to a 101.9 offensive rating.
The primary issue isn’t just the loss of Irving’s individual production. Irving’s 24 points per game is big, and his ability to go for 40-plus can turn a game Boston should lose into a victory. But he’s also crucial for providing Boston its only effective scoring option: spot-up shots. The Celtics rank third in spot-up shots per possession this season. It’s their only effective way of scoring.
Irving is not the best at creating opportunities for others. He doesn’t have great vision, his passing is only “good,” but his scoring ability draws so much attention that others often get open looks. That’s gone now.
So Boston’s going to struggle to score.
But it is going to be a beast to deal with regardless. In the Celtics’ first-round matchup, they’ll be dealing with a team that either lacks a singular threat to shape the series (Miami), a system that makes the most of its weapons (Milwaukee) or too often fails to play with the kind of discipline necessary to win (Washington). Boston is still going to be favored, but these games will be ugly as all get out.
It’s the Celtics’ long-term playoff hopes that get dimmer. Boston is almost a lock for the 2-seed after Toronto’s win on Wednesday, which means the Celtics are going to run into either LeBron James — who you may remember from such hits as “going up by 50 on Boston last year with what was a much better team than this one without Irving” and “owning the Garden since Game 6 in 2012 to the point they should just put his signature on the damn court at this point” — or the Sixers, who are the hottest team in the East.
But don’t be shocked when Boston beats expectations.
Watching the market on this is going to be fascinating. The Celtics went from +450 at Westgate to win the Eastern Conference to +2000 after the Irving injury. That number is untouchable without Irving, but it’ll be key to watch where the market settles on their first-round matchup series price. While Boston will be favored, there may be some overcorrection. How exactly that plays out will ultimately be determined by who they face. But it’s something to watch closely.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have moved back into firm pole position for the East title as even money. The Raptors have moved up slightly to +125, while the Sixers have only slightly moved up to +700. (I’m not going to discuss title odds, I’m not willing to seriously consider value of any of these teams beating the Warriors or Rockets.)
The seas have dramatically parted for LeBron James & Co. in the past three weeks. The Raptors fell off a cliff, Joel Embiid suffered a facial injury, and now Irving is out.
The Celtics aren’t done, there are reasons to believe they’ll be undervalued once the playoffs show up. But their ceiling is dramatically lowered, and the window has widened for the Cavaliers, Raptors and Sixers.
Next year, the Celtics will, presumably, have Kyrie Irving back healthy, Gordon Hayward back healthy, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown in his third year, Jayson Tatum with a full NBA offseason regimen, likely Rozier, and will have added a draft pick in some capacity. Their window to make the Finals remains much more open over the long haul than it does in the next three months. This setback is disappointing, and it calls into question how Irving’s long-term health will hold up, but Boston’s future remains bright.
This year, unfortunately, right from Game 1 and Hayward’s injury, turned out be just one of those injury-riddled seasons for Boston.