Don’t forget: This is what Kyrie Irving wanted. Or at least what he said he wanted.
He may not have said it in so many words, speaking in tongues whenever asked about why he requested a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017. But there were well-sourced reports from the moment the news broke that Irving wanted to spread his wings free from the shadow of LeBron James and explore what he could accomplish as the primary option on a talented team.
“I just wanted to be in an environment where I felt like I could be taught every single day and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential,” Irving told a national TV audience some 20 months ago, expressing gratitude for landing on a Boston Celtics team that had just added Gordon Hayward to a roster that reached the 2017 Eastern Conference finals. “I wanted to see how far I can go.”
Well, he’s seen it now, and it’s not as far as the same roster went with Terry Rozier as its starting point guard a year earlier. Every season is its own animal, but it’s hard to ignore this: The Celtics upgraded from Rozier to Irving, and then lost in five games to a Milwaukee Bucks team they had beaten in seven a year earlier. Granted, the Bucks surrounded Giannis Antetokounmpo with better shooting in a system designed by a better coach, but Irving was supposed to offset that.
He didn’t, and there is a mountain of evidence that he made it worse. What happens now that Irving will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career is anybody’s guess.
“For me, it’s just moving on to the next thing,” Irving told reporters when asked point blank if he would consider re-signing with the Celtics this summer, “and just seeing where that ends up.”
Irving arrived in Boston in good hands. Celtics coach Brad Stevens was set to improve on a top-four finish in Coach of the Year voting. Irving also wanted “to be with a group of individuals that I can grow with,” and he was in luck. Boston just added the 25-year-old’s fellow Blue Devil and friend, Jayson Tatum, to a talented young bunch that included Rozier, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. Irving stepped into the high-usage playmaking role vacated by Isaiah Thomas, joining Al Horford and Hayward, a pair of complementary stars who were more than willing to defer to, as former Cavs general manager David Griffin once put it, a champion “who knew he was capable of more and who wanted the opportunity to do more in terms of leading a franchise.”
It’s hard to imagine a team more tailor-made to Irving’s request. As he said upon leaving Cleveland, “I'm looking forward to becoming something that I've always envisioned myself being — that's being a complete point guard on a great team,” and Boston was in need of one.
The first season did not meet expectations, or at least his. Hayward snapped his ankle six minutes into the 2017-18 campaign, and Irving carried that disappointment with him until his own season was cut short by another knee surgery. Irving took some heat for not attending Game 7 of his new team’s Eastern Conference finals series against his old team due to a previously scheduled deviated septum surgery, but a summer spent by some questioning whether Boston even needed Irving did not derail him from embracing the promise of what was to come: The Celtics were adding Irving and Hayward to a team that nearly reached the Finals, and LeBron’s exodus West left the East open for Irving to reign supreme into the next decade.
“If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here,” Irving told a horde of season-ticket holders at TD Garden in October. But a Nike commercial built around the idea that his No. 11 would one day be retired in the arena’s rafters had not even aired before the Celtics fell to 9-9 with a disappointing loss to the New York Knicks and Irving began alluding to internal issues.
By mid-January, he was openly calling out his young teammates, pledging he wouldn’t do it again, seeking leadership counsel from LeBron, apologizing and then doing it all over again. Somewhere in this syllabus of How Not to Lead a Team to Championship Contention, Irving wavered on his commitment to the Celtics, responding on Feb. 1 to questions from reporters in New York about whether he still planned to re-sign in Boston with this: “Ask me July 1.”
The Celtics proceeded to finish 11-13 in the regular-season games Irving played after that and 6-1 in the games he sat. That provided plenty of radio talk-show fodder in Boston, but Irving’s confidence never wavered, at least not publicly. Asked why he felt the Celtics would be fine in the playoffs, even after an embarrassing late February loss to the Chicago Bulls, Irving told reporters, “Because I’m here.” He repeatedly reassured everyone that, despite the many trials of the regular season, he and the Celtics would finally meet expectations come playoff time.
He was right for a few weeks. Boston swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round and blew out the Bucks in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. All was right with the Celtics, or at least several of them said as much to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, and then it all went to excrement.
They lost four straight to Milwaukee, each one seemingly worse than the last, each met with another empty promise from Irving. When the Bucks blew them out in Game 2, Irving said, “This is what I signed up for. This is why Boston traded for me.” When they lost Game 3 at home, he said, “From this point on, I don’t think you’ll see another 8-for-22 or any missed layups.” When he shot 7-for-22 and missed four layups in the Game 4 loss, making the worst slump of his career official, he said, “Who cares? … The expectations on me are going to be sky-high. ... I'm trying to do it all. … For me, the 22 shots? I should have shot 30. I'm that great of a shooter."
Then, when he shot 6-for-21 and finished a team-worst minus-25 in a disastrous Game 5, Irving said of the Bucks, “They deserved this series. They played like they wanted it, and I’m looking forward to seeing them in the Eastern Conference finals and playing their next opponent. It was a great opponent for me to play against for the rest of my career, because I know I won’t forget something like this. The taste of feeling defeat in this style, being down 1-4, I haven’t felt.”
Being down 1-4 is losing, just so you know. Badly. Embarrassingly. It’s unclear why someone who played in three straight Finals and was robbed of a fourth by a knee injury would need to be reminded that playing like you want it is a requirement for advancing in the NBA playoffs. Maybe watching Milwaukee in the next round will be the wakeup call that Games 2-4 were not.
Here’s the thing: When Irving says stuff like, “I’m that great of a shooter,” and, “I’m an actual genius when it comes to this game,” he’s not lying. Statistically speaking, Irving enjoyed the best year of a career that has seen six All-Star appearances and a title in his first eight seasons, but he showed up in Boston expressing a desire to reach his true potential within the team dynamic.
“Is there such a thing as just one person carrying a whole team? I don’t think so,” he said in his introductory press conference in September 2017. “When you have a collection of individuals who all have one mission and one goal and collectively get better every day, there are a lot of moving parts, and you have to depend on those moving parts to do their job at their ultimate ability that only they’ll know. It’s our job to bring the best out of one another every single day.”
He has fallen well short of that mission. To be fair, Boston’s failures are not all on him. Just about everyone on the roster and the coaching staff must look at themselves in the mirror after this season. And Irving only turned 27 years old in March. There is still time for him to get this right.
He also brought much of this on himself with the public criticism of his teammates throughout the season. The quote that opened the floodgates came after a loss in late December, when Irving said, presumably of Tatum, “You don’t need the ball to just dribble, dribble and shoot a fadeaway every single time. You can cut backdoor, you can screen for a teammate. There are other things to help an offense flourish rather than just standing out on the perimeter.”
Except, when push came to shove, Irving failed to heed his own advice. Few players have held the ball more often than Irving in these playoffs, where his isolation possessions and fadeaway jump-shot attempts increased exponentially. This is to say nothing of his declining defensive engagement after a regular season that also saw some individual improvement on that end.
More questionable defense from Kyrie: George Hill is his man and Baynes has Giannis. What is Kyrie doing here? pic.twitter.com/GxUiPvHjjy
— Brian Robb (@BrianTRobb) May 9, 2019
As he finishes his first playoff run in Boston, the criticism levied at Irving in Cleveland — that he posted incredible individual statistics on underwhelming teams before pairing with LeBron — continues to follow him. Where he goes next will be one of the NBA’s biggest offseason questions.
Irving will have options aplenty this summer. The Celtics will undoubtedly offer him a max contract more lucrative than any counter his many other suitors will put on the table. It has long been known in NBA circles that Irving would consider playing close to home in New York, and the opportunity to play with his friend, Kevin Durant, is a fascinating one. Boston might also sell Irving on a reshuffling of its roster, with another Irving friend, Anthony Davis, as the centerpiece.
The one thing that Irving has stayed true to since his trade request is his own pursuit of happiness. The clearest statement he made in his transition some 20 months ago was this: “I want to be happy and perfect my craft in doing so.” It does not appear he achieved either goal in Boston this year, despite the Celtics fulfilling so many of his other prerequisites for success.
It may be time for Irving to reconsider what he wants, especially if he thinks James Dolan’s Knicks in New York is where he will meet the lofty and admirable expectations he set for himself.
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