Kyrie Irving, the Celtics and a New Beginning

The Celtics have struggled to live up to expectations and Kyrie Irving has admitted that he has not handled his role as a leader as well as he could. Can Boston turn things around in the playoffs?
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BOSTON — The Kyrie Irving experience in Boston has been bumpy. Last October, Irving pledged allegiance to the Celtics, publicly declaring an intention to re-sign this offseason. Since then Irving has backtracked (sort of), called out his younger teammates and seemed frustrated in his leadership role, all while outside forces seemed to be conspiring to poison Irving’s relationship with the team.

Or did you forget about the sudden concern Anthony Davis’s father had with the way the Celtics treated Isaiah Thomas?

It makes you wonder—was this pairing meant to be? Might the Celtics see letting Irving walk and handing the keys to Terry Rozier and the collection of young stars as the smarter long-term play? 

Do the Celtics still want to lock Irving up for the long term?

“Yes,” team president Danny Ainge told The Crossover.

Has anything that has happened this season made Ainge rethink that position?

“No,” Ainge said.

Here’s the thing about Ainge—it’s tough to move him off something he believes in. A little locker room drama isn’t going to do it. Remember, Ainge played with Larry Bird, whose leadership once included blasting his teammates for playing like “a bunch of women.” Irving spinning the wheel of leadership all season to try to find something that worked isn’t going to influence him.

Ainge believes in Irving. They don’t text daily, but Ainge says they do talk regularly.

“There’s moments where he’s happy and things are going well [and] there’s moments where he’s frustrated and wishes things were different and talks about how can we get better,” Ainge said. “But one thing I like about Kyrie is he does want to get better himself. I mean he wants to take responsibility. He wants to carry a load and knows that he is capable, because of his experience and how a good player he is, that he’s capable of carrying a bigger load than a lot of guys on the team.”

Ainge knows this, too: You need stars to win championships. Irving is one, which is why it’s unlikely Ainge will do anything short of offering Irving a full five-year, max-level contract on July 1st. Davis is another, which is why if Irving stays, Ainge will do whatever it takes to get Davis in a Celtics uniform.

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Figuring out what Irving wants is more complicated. Irving’s inner circle is a tight one. There’s his father, Drederick, who once starred at Boston University. There’s his longtime agent, Jeff Wechsler. There’s his personal trainer, Robin Pound. Figuring out what Irving is thinking can be difficult because he doesn’t share it with many people. Which is why his public comments—that he doesn’t “owe anyone s---,” for example—can be so enlightening.

Has free agency been wearing on him?

“I don’t think free agency is wearing on him,” says Ainge. “I think that not being able to live up to expectations as a team is wearing on him more than that. But I feel like he’s in a good place. And ending the season and starting the playoffs I feel like his mind is in a fresher place than it was a few weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to great things with Kyrie.”

For his part, Ainge doesn’t think much of Irving’s mid-season waffling, but the reality is this has been a difficult year. The team has struggled to live up to lofty expectations, and Irving has admitted he has not handled his role as team leader as well as he could.

“A lot of bulls---,” Irving said this week. “A lot of the up-and-downs that just could have been handled better from a professional standpoint. I'm talking about me personally, I'm not talking about our team. I had a lot of questions, a lot of things that weren't being answered straight up about what it takes to be a great professional in this league and I think that the frame of that is just outdated, in terms of what you have to be every single day and it's not that hard.

"Questions of what I was capable of doing and I've always had the answers, and I just looked in the wrong places. I think that that for my career has been the biggest mistake since I came into this season, trying to get validation for stats or other things that really don't have any validation in my life and allowing all of this to bother me. All you guys (media), all the questions—everything that comes with it is just so irrelevant to what I do on the court and how hard I work every single day.”

It doesn’t help, says Al Horford, when everything Irving says and does is put under a microscope.

“I think it’s very encouraging when your guy is so driven to win,” Horford told The Crossover. “He wants to win. It’s a new position for him, and there’s ups and downs. I think that if we were a smaller-market team you probably wouldn’t hear much about us because we are where we are. The history of the Celtics, it’s just everything that we say is magnified, so I just think that it’s a part of the grind. I feel like we’ve all learned from the experiences, and I think that’s kind of making us better. We’re continuing to move forward, and I just feel good where we’re at today heading into the playoffs.”

Ah, yes—the playoffs. Irving has been desperately trying to get to this point, with the Celtics opening up a first -ound series against Indiana on Sunday. Irving has a brilliant postseason resume (23.9 points, 4.7 assists, 3.1 rebounds in 52 games, including the three Finals appearances) and believes, like many in the Celtics organization do, that the playoffs are going to bring this team together. If they do, all the drama from the regular season will be quickly forgotten.

For Irving, perhaps, a new beginning.

“It’s been a long time trying to get back to this point,” Irving said. “It’s been a year in my career where I’ve learned a lot about my body. Over the last year, getting two knee surgeries and a nose surgery. Really setting goals for myself and I just have a genuine love for the game and just want to be back to this point, playing at the highest level. Stats go out the window, everything else in terms of what has happened and transpired throughout the regular season goes out the window. It’s just like everything is about the true essence of basketball.”