Although eventually the Isaiah Thomas vs. Kyrie Irving debate will go the way of the Eddie Jones vs. Kobe Bryant debate, the trade is fresh enough in my mind to notice differences in players and the Celtic team as a whole.
I loved watching Isaiah Thomas. I was one of the first ones on the Isaiah Thomas All-star bandwagon in 2015. I was one of the first ones on the Isaiah Thomas All-NBA team and MVP ballot bandwagon in 2016.
And yet, even with all of the offensive efficiency, personal accolades, and easy-to-cheer-ness (not a word, but you get my point), in my more honest moments, I knew Thomas was a really good player, but not a great player.
What that meant, I didn’t know, but I did know it was true.
Then Kyrie became a Celtic. His offensive efficiency in 2017-2018 was not up to Thomas’ level in 2016-2017. His offensive rhythm in our offense was off-beat, which was shocking compared to Thomas’ rhythm last year. He wasn’t moving the ball as well. He wasn’t getting to the basket as consistently. He wasn’t drawing fouls.
And yet, I knew Kyrie was more than a really good player … I knew the Celtics had a higher ceiling because it had Kyrie.
Why did I know that?
I think I’ve found the reason. Let me try to explain.
Thomas was not a selfish player, but he was a me-first player. He genuinely believed he could make the Celtics better by being about himself. That doesn’t mean he’s necessarily selfish, but he was so focused on himself, that I think he didn’t make other guys better.
Can you credit any player’s success to Thomas in his time with the Celtics? I know he averaged 6 assists. I know he set up Crowder and Bradley and Horford, but were they better players for having played with Thomas?
I think you could argue that Thomas was better for having played with a heady big like Horford and next to wing defenders like Bradley and Crowder, but I don’t think you could say they were better for having played with Thomas.
And yet, this year, I think you can credit part of the success of Tatum, Brown, Horford, and Rozier to Kyrie, not necessarily because of great open looks are good offensive rhythm or anything else, but because of another ineffable quality.
I know its a cliche word, especially when talking about sports, but I don’t think there is a better term for what Kyrie does.
It’s obvious that Kyrie has taken Rozier under his wing to make him a more confident and efficient scorer. Rozier tries to be a mini-Irving when his number is called. At times that has been frustrating, but other times he is swinging entire games for the Celtics.
It’s obvious that Kyrie inspires Brown to shoot confidently from three whenever he is open. I know Brown was due for a leap in production, but would it be this significant without Kyrie?
It’s obvious that Kyrie provides a blueprint for Tatum to play confidently, even as a 19 year old rookie. I’m sure he’d be pretty good no matter what teammates he played next to, but would he have been this good this soon without Irving?
It’s obvious that Kyrie and Horford have one of the best two-man games in the NBA. The eye test says that Horford is using scoring abilities that he didn’t use last year in the post and mid-range, largely because Irving is setting Horford up in the post.
Or what about the confidence that he shows in Larkin to ignite momentum for the team in key moments.
Kyrie exudes confidence in his teammates. Thomas exuded it in himself. Both are special, but one makes others better.
If basketball were based on 2K ratings, then you could argue that Thomas and Irving are not that different, but there is a human element to the game. Personality matters. Pride matters. Leadership matters. Relational conflict matters.
My eye test tells me that Irving’s personality and leadership promote confidence in his teammates, which makes them better.
Kyrie Irving is making his teammates better, more confident, and more productive. His production has been pretty good (not great) this year, but its obvious that he is more than a really good player — he is a great player, entering his prime, that is making a bunch of other high-potential players better.