Celtics Won the Kyrie Irving Trade in a Way They Didn’t Expect

On Tuesday we will be exactly two weeks into the 2017-18 NBA season.

That’s still about two years too early to judge who won the blockbuster trade that sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers and left the suits of northeastern Ohio chewing their fingernails for the Brooklyn Nets to be bad enough to send a high 2018 draft pick to Cleveland.

A six-game—seven in the case of the Cavaliers—sample size is enough only to judge Irving on his own merits. We probably won’t see Thomas until early 2018, at the earliest, making any current comparisons even more silly. What we can say—Irving has been good so far on offense for the Celtics, rather than great. He hasn’t provided the offensive explosion that the Celtics need with a cast of inexperienced but talented players on the floor, and with Gordon Hayward out for the season. Through six games, Irving is slightly under his career points-per-game average of 21.6. His rebounds are up; his assists are holding steady and he has been lights-out from the free throw line.

The assumption was that without Hayward, who suffered a gruesome ankle and leg break in the Celtics’ opening-night loss to the Cavaliers, Irving would have to haul his new team along with a barrage of point-scoring. (Side-note, doesn’t that game seem a long time ago?). That was always unrealistic, to the extent that Irving being anywhere near his Cavaliers numbers while surrounded by an offense he’s not yet comfortable in must be an achievement and a credit to him. He has been clutch when he has needed to be on offense—in the closing moments of the Celtics’ win over the Miami Heat on Sunday night, for instance. “Rookie Jayson Tatum handled the offense most of the night, but Kyrie Irving knew how to get it done late in the night,” the Boston Herald wrote of that victory in South Beach that took the Celtics to 4-2 on the season. Irving sank nine of his 24 points in the final two minutes of the game.

As the Celtics blog Hardwood Houdini points out, though, Boston under Brad Stevens isn’t second in the Eastern Conference behind the surprising Pistons thanks to an unstoppably fluent offense. Perhaps most crucial so far has been an area of Irving’s game that Stevens and his coaching staff might have expected to be a weakness, or at least not much of an upgrade from Thomas. “The Celtics have been a better defensive team with Irving on the court, and that overall defense is the biggest reason why this team is winning games right now,” the piece states. That’s quite a timely turnaround, if one insists on seeking comparisons, since the Cavaliers are pretty awful right now defensively when Derrick Rose is at the point.

Conclusions? Only, tentatively, that the Celtics can feel pretty good about being 4-2 when Irving is yet to show his best offensive capabilities. Who is to say how the trade eventually turns out—but for now, Boston has an unexpected bonus in its new point guard’s defense.