BOSTON — The name Kyrie Irving barely passed the lips of anyone now associated with the Celtics organization during Kemba Walker’s introductory press conference, but Irving’s season-long contributions to the team’s locker-room dysfunction, the All-Star’s disappearance in the Eastern Conference semifinals and his eventual exit to Brooklyn echoed behind almost every aspect of Wednesday’s media availability.
Following some customary well-wishing for Irving, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said of when he knew his now ex-point guard was leaving: “I think I had a pretty good idea in March or April. Not for sure, though. Not certain. But I was obviously thinking about moving in a different direction at that point.”
Ainge also knew All-Star big man Al Horford had one foot out the door before free agency opened at 6 p.m. on June 30. Whether he knew Horford had a handshake deal with the Philadelphia 76ers two weeks prior, as the Boston Herald’s Mark Murphy reported, Ainge felt Horford’s exit may have been tied to Irving’s.
“I don’t know that Al makes the decision he makes if he knows that Kemba’s coming. I have no idea,” said Ainge. “That’s how free agency is. You try to make decisions before you know other certainties. We got two new guys who chose to come play for us, who really want to be here, and we wish them well. We’re grateful that Al and Kyrie chose Boston, and we’re grateful for all that they gave us.”
Walker’s commitment to the Celtics was widely reported in the days before free agency, and Boston tried every avenue to retain Horford once they had it. That would have required Irving and the Nets to cooperate with a sign-and-trade — with draft compensation as incentive — that also sent Terry Rozier to Charlotte for Walker, but it was mathematically possible, and the Celtics were open to it. Except:
“We talked to Al’s agent about the circumstance and whether there was any way we could make it work,” said Ainge, “but I think a decision had already been made.”
So, the Celtics entered free agency with different priorities than Irving and Horford.
“When we got done with the draft and started our preparations for free agency, as we started planning,” said Ainge, “our Plan A was Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter.”
They had not previously planned on having cap space, but once they had a path to getting it, they made Walker the priority as their Irving replacement. That left them with only the room exception to replace Horford. They hoped Kanter would take it.
Ainge met with Walker at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston about 15 minutes after free agency opened. Roughly 10 minutes into their conversation, before Walker had even given his official commitment, Ainge plugged Kanter’s number into his phone, handed the phone to Kemba and asked his new point guard to recruit a new center.
“I answered the phone, and it was a deep voice,” said Kanter. “I was like, ‘Who’s this?’ He’s like, ‘It’s Kemba, man. We want you to be here.’ I was excited about it.”
Before committing, Kanter called former Portland Trail Blazers teammate Evan Turner to ask about his experience playing for Celtics coach Brad Stevens, and once he got rave reviews back, Kanter told his manager, “I think that’s the place for me.” As Ainge said from the dais on Wednesday that the Turkish 7-footer “probably could’ve got more money in some other places,” Kanter nodded in agreement.
There are plenty of questions about how Kanter can fill Horford’s shoes, especially defensively. Stevens raved about Kanter’s passing and pick-setting in the playoffs, and each member of the Celtics brass referenced his efforts to expand his range.
“This summer, the plan was to add that to my game,” said Kanter. “I think it’s very important to stretch the floor. It would be amazing. Coach gives me confidence, so that’s going to make me comfortable out there. Aron Baynes, Al Horford, they became the ‘Splash Brothers’ here, so it could change for me, too. I believe it.”
The fit for Walker is obvious. Isaiah Thomas and Irving played at a second-team All-NBA level in Boston, and the expectation is that Walker could, too. As he said of Boston’s system under Stevens, “Point guards are very successful. Score a lot.”
When the Celtics introduced Walker to the media at the Auerbach Center on Wednesday, his reasons for leaving the Hornets — “As a pro, I haven’t won consistently, and I just want to get a taste of that.” — almost became ancillary to Boston’s reasons for targeting the former UConn star. Stevens, Ainge and Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck all made special mention of his character, which, whether they meant it or not, came across as digs at Irving’s contentious tenure.
“We’re excited about what they bring in many facets of the game,” said Ainge, “but also as people. Who they are is just as important as what they are on the court.”
Walker was peppered with questions about leadership, all vague references to Irving’s failures in that regard, and his statements also echoed with the gathered media. “I’m easy to get along with. ... Just being a good teammate. ... Chemistry is important. The team has to be together. That’s one thing that throughout my career I try to do, team activities and small things like that.” He had traveled to Africa with Jaylen Brown in 2017 and went to France with Jayson Tatum this summer.
Fifteen minutes into a 20-minute introductory press conference in which Irving was only previously referenced as “the last point guard we had,” Kanter let the air out of the room. Asked why he chose to wear No. 11, Kanter quoted a now infamous commercial in which Irving said he wanted the number to be retired in TD Garden.
“I want to be the reason no one else wears it,” said Kanter, who suggested Celtics fans tape his name over Irving’s rather than trashing their No. 11 jerseys.
“I’m against wasting, so if you were going to burn it, just cover up the back.”
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