The Kyrie Irving era in Boston has come to a close, but the Celtics still have a perennial All-Star running the ship.
Enter Kemba Walker - a player coming off of a season in which he finished 10th in the league in scoring with a career-best 25.6 points per game on his way to his first-ever All-NBA nod.
The Celtics signed the three-time All-Star to a four-year, $141 million max contract, handing Walker the keys to the franchise in pursuit of adding onto their league-best 17 NBA titles.
It isn't - and shouldn't - be a concern about how Walker will fit in with this young Celtics roster. He joins a hungry group of talented players who are ready to bounce back after experiencing one of the most exasperating and disappointing seasons the NBA has seen in a long time. He'll also gain plenty of chemistry playing with teammates like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart at the FIBA World Cup.
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Teammates and chemistry aside, what will head coach Brad Stevens have to do differently to get the most out of his star point guard on the offensive end?
It's no secret that Walker loves working out of the pick-and-roll on offence. According to NBA.com's tracking data, Walker has finished in the top three in pick-and-roll possessions every season since 2015-16 when tracking data became available. Last season, Walker averaged a league-leading 11.8 pick-and-roll possessions per game, which resulted in a league-best 11.9 pick-and-roll points per game.
So without a doubt, the pick-and-roll will still be heavily utilized to play to Walker's strengths, just as Stevens used it to play to Irving's strengths during his time in Boston as well. But there's a different offensive set that you should expect to see Stevens bring back to get even more out of Walker - handoffs.
During the Isaiah Thomas days, the Celtics lived by varieties of handoffs. They finished second in the league in handoffs per game in 2015-16 and finished top of the league in handoffs per game in 2016-17.
A lot of that was tailored around the All-Star, All-NBA point guard who strung together two wildly successful seasons in Stevens' offensive schemes, and it seems like a perfect fit for Walker's style of play.
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In 2016-17, Thomas led the league in handoff possessions and points off of handoffs. He also finished top-10 in pick-and-roll possessions and just outside the top-five in pick-and-roll points, proving Stevens can do a bit of both with Kemba, too. The overarching result - the best two-year stretch of Thomas' career in both points and assists per game.
Take a look at this set that the Celtics ran often to free up their star point guard to get a bucket at any level of the floor:
Thomas starts in the corner as Terry Rozier brings the ball up. Rozier feeds centre Tyler Zeller at the top of the key while forward Jonas Jerebko begins to set a down screen on I.T. Simultaneously, Zeller begins to work toward Jerebko and Thomas, setting Thomas up with a handoff off of staggered screens. I.T. takes advantage of the defender getting caught behind the screens and gets an easy bucket on a pull-up.
Luckily for this year's Celtics, those sets will be run with players like Tatum, Gordon Hayward or Enes Kanter - players who are more of a threat offensively. But during Thomas' time in Boston, it was more likely that the very same set was ran with players like Al Horford or Jae Crowder.
This gave Thomas the freedom to shoot from the perimeter, pull up in midrange or attack the rim - whatever he felt was the best look. Walker should thrive under that type of flexibility and playing alongside the most talented teammates of his career, he should rack up assists on sets like that as well.
Watch here as Thomas goes through the same set and finds an open Crowder on the perimeter - something you'll likely see a lot with Walker feeding players like Tatum, Brown or Hayward:
Though Crowder dishes the ball a tad early and it becomes more of a pick-and-roll than a handoff, the set is still the same as the previous video above.
Thomas's freedom to create for himself or teammates off of sets like this led to career numbers in assists per game. Last season, Irving also reached a career-high in assists per game working under Stevens.
And during Irving's time, they didn't completely get away from handoffs. Take a look at this set in the high-post with Horford:
Irving starts out in the corner as Horford fights for position on the elbow. Smart feeds Horford as Irving aggressively cuts toward his big man for the handoff. The defender gets caught behind Horford on the handoff screen and Irving easily pulls up for a midrange jumper.
Walker, who's a solid midrange shooter at 47% last season, should have no trouble scoring with a similar look.
With four legitimate scoring threats from all three levels of the floor, Stevens should have some fun mixing up different sets on the offensive end with this team. When it comes to Walker, the pick-and-roll will still play a huge role, but expect an uptick in handoffs for another source of offence in his first season donning the Kelly Green.
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