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NBA Daily: Is Kyrie Really The Problem?

Over the last handful of seasons, Kyrie Irving’s teams have played well when he hasn’t been in the lineup – could it be becoming more than a coincidence?

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In 127 total regular season games with Kyrie Irving, the Boston Celtics were 78-49. Without him, they were 26-15 – not setting the world on fire, but good nonetheless.

The bulk of those 41 games without Irving came in his injury-shortened 2017-18. That’s the team that came within one game of knocking off LeBron James and advancing to the NBA Finals.

15 of Boston’s non-Irving games came last season. Boston went 12-3 in them.

Now, after replacing Irving with the good-but-less-talented Kemba Walker, Boston is in the mix atop the Eastern Conference at 12-4.

The sample size of games without Irving is small in comparison to the 127 he played. But the point is this: They’ve been just fine without him. And teams that lose high-level offensive players typically aren’t breaking even – let alone flourishing.

Then in the move of this past summer, Irving and Kevin Durant pledged their allegiance to the upstart Brooklyn Nets. Durant, of course, is out for the year with the torn Achilles he suffered in the Finals in May. That left Irving in a situation similar to the one he was in last year as the unquestioned star on a team with capable complements and role players around him.

The relationship with the Celtics bottomed-out and there’s no need to rehash all of its ins and outs. But quickly: Boston was trounced 4-1 by Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Irving shot 35.6 percent from the field and 21.9 percent from the three-point line in five games. It led to 20.4 points on 20.8 shots per game. Jaylen Brown was second on the team in shot attempts with 11.6 per game.

Irving was the singular figure on a supposedly good team that clearly wasn’t good enough to contend.

Last season, Brooklyn was the feel-good story of the Eastern Conference. They finished 42-40 with D’Angelo Russell becoming a first-time All-Star and despite second-best player Caris LaVert suffering a long-term injury.

Then, they swapped Russell for Irving. Otherwise, they returned many of major supporting players.

The conference reshuffled. Toronto lost Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics should’ve, theoretically, taken a step back. Indiana was still sans Victor Oladipo. Malcolm Brogdon left Milwaukee. Brooklyn looked improved and capable of a splash.

Instead, they stumbled. Irving dropped an electric 50 points on opening night at home, but the Nets fell to the perpetually mediocre Minnesota Timberwolves. Their 4-7 start was discouraging, especially having added a player of Irving’s caliber.

After dropping three in a row out west, Brooklyn finished their five-game road trip in Chicago. Irving missed the game with a right shoulder impingement.

Brooklyn snapped their losing streak against the Chicago Bulls, and have won 5 of 6 without their best player. Irving is slated to miss the rest of the week, including two contests against his former franchise.

If you’re keeping the score at home: Through 2018-19 and the beginning of this year, Irving’s teams minus Irving are 17-4 (If you add in the current Celtics’ record, which doesn’t seem totally fair, they’re 29-8. Yikes.).

With him, they’re at 46-41.

That record doesn’t help the narrative that’s followed Irving since the Celtics’ conference finals run in 2018 – that despite his offensive greatness, teams are better off without him.

This is interesting for a few reasons. One, the sample size argument. The beginning of every season has sample size asterisks next to everything. See: Are the new Celtics really this good? Are the 76ers in trouble? Is Pascal Siakam a 1a. star? Will anyone ever score on the Clippers?

Are 50 games enough to say anything definitive?

Second, if it is definitive, is it even damning? It’s hard to win in the NBA. It’s almost impossible to do so with only one clear-cut star – Kawhi Leonard against the ravaged Golden State Warriors as the clear exception. Not leading the Celtics to glory isn’t a condemnation in itself.

As far as the sample size, however, it’s becoming a lot harder to ignore. This 5-1 stretch for Brooklyn wouldn’t be evidence of any Irving-related issues. However, 50 games are approaching two-thirds of a season. The prior run seemed peculiar and like a flash in the pan – but the subsequent flop in the next year’s semifinals with Irving isn’t great. Neither is the Celtics’ current record after flipping Irving for the lesser Walker and losing Horford as well.

But it’s normal for teams to rally without their best player, especially if that player dominates the ball. Even the Warriors thrived without Kevin Durant in last year’s Western Conference Finals – yes, they still had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green – but the ball was moving like a pinball without the future Hall of Famer. More opportunities existed. That’s certainly been the case on Irving’s teams when he’s sat.

There’s still a need for a star isolation player to get a bucket in big moments. Irving is that. Those moments just haven’t happened since Irving left Cleveland.

And therein lies the second point: Losing as the singular star on the floor isn’t damning. Irving showed his championship chops moving step-for-step with LeBron in 2016. He hit the biggest shot since Ray Allen in the corner during that championship series. His game necessitates another star to be successful — that isn’t bad considering how rare it is for a lone star to carry a team to success.

The Celtics played well without Irving in spurts. But they weren’t good enough last year, with or without him. During their vaunted Eastern Conference Finals Game 7 loss in 2018, Terry Rozier started in place of Irving. He was 0-10 from three. Don’t you think Celtics’ brass wish Irving had been there to take those 10 threes?

Brooklyn is playing well without Irving now — albeit against some weaker league-wide competition. Of course, they are in danger of facing the same fate as the 2018-19 Celtics. Even with Irving, they won’t be good enough to compete for a championship appearance. Irving’s involvement, or lack thereof, won’t change that.

Who will change that is Kevin Durant – a superstar to pair with Irving, to cover up the embattled point guard’s shortcomings.

LeBron James did that once, and that pairing won a championship. Then, ultimately, shouldn’t we wait until Durant returns to pass full judgment on Kyrie Irving?

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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