DA's Morning Tip
Hurt feelings, misconceptions of decision not a concern for Kyrie Irving
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The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Kyrie Irving contemplates the question. Or, at least, you hope he’s contemplating the question; silence can denote many things — curiosity, politeness, boredom. As he completes his contemplation, he dissects the question, as a second-grade teacher separating subject and verb for the first time to the class might do.
“What do you mean?,” Kyrie Irving asks, and it’s a fair rejoinder to your question, which was: Do you think people will ever understand why you wanted to be traded? It may be that Irving is genuinely interested in parsing out the question, literally seeking out the meaning: What is it you’re asking me? Or, it could be a defense mechanism, designed to put the interviewer on his heels, no longer in control of the interview. Or it could be a Socratic exercise. Who knows? (See what I did there?)
The question was asked because it is now October, and Kyrie Irving is 652 miles from where we all expected him to be after he walked off the floor of Oracle Arena, as the Warriors celebrated the wresting of the NBA championship from the Cavaliers. He is in Canton, MA, where the Celtics are, instead of Independence, OH (helpful map here), where the Cavaliers are, understandably declining a request to take off his hoodie because it’s damn cold in this studio. Underneath the hoodie is a number 11 jersey with a GE patch sewn above the left breast, Irving’s new work clothes.
He is 25. He was the first overall pick of the Cavaliers in 2011, the year after LeBron James left for Miami and the ceiling caved in on what was left of the franchise. For three seasons, injuries and D-list teammates stunted Irving’s potential, and Cleveland shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. Then James returned, and Kevin Love arrived from Minnesota, leaving Irving a whole new role, grafting his incomparable wizardry with the ball to James’ uncanny passing and presence and Love’s catch and shoot prowess.
Three straight Finals appearances followed, including the moment the Cavaliers finally slayed the 52-year-old demon that had sucked the sporting marrow out of their city: When Irving rose up over Stephen Curry in the final minute of Game 7, on the road, in that very Oracle Arena, and drowned the Splash Brothers with his own, series-winning 3-pointer — ending the city of Cleveland’s five-decade championship drought. The Warriors countered by bringing in Kevin Durant and snatched the title right back, so it was now Cleveland’s move in this game of two-team chess.
The questions that came to the Cavaliers after the Finals loss were about Paul George and Jimmy Butler, and how Cleveland could acquire either to pair with Irving and James and Love, to take another expected swing at Golden State in June, 2018.
They did not include retooling without Irving.
But Irving, infamously, wanted out of Cleveland. He asked the Cavaliers, who were in the process of replacing their now-former GM, David Griffin, to trade him. That was shocking enough; that the Cavs ultimately worked out a deal with the Celtics, their nascent Eastern Conference rivals, whom they had just throttled in the conference finals, only added to the craziness.
Which is why, now, we’re here, in this cold studio about half an hour outside of Boston, and Irving starts to answer the question, which has been repeated to him.
“Honestly, I don’t even care,” he says, not flippantly. “And I said that not because it’s — I understand the effect I had on people’s feelings. But it’s just that because it was with, I feel because it was at a time when no one expected it, that’s when it came in as a big surprise, and everyone wanted answers. And at the end of the day, it’s like, you can say as much as you want to make sense of it, in terms of what you did for what you deem best for yourself. Whether they understand that or not is on them.
“I’m not here to answer all those questions, because it’s literally coming from a place that has almost zilch to do with two hoops and a basketball. I see it as just basketball. Then you add business to it. And then you add the personal relationships into it. And then that’s when things just, everybody has more and more questions. And I feel like that’s where it went. I never had anything to say — until I went on (ESPN’s) First Take, and now I’m talking to you. It’s like, now, you can ask as many times as you want, frame it however you want. My focus will never be there, in that place, in terms of trying to fixate or making someone feel better or having someone understand. I can’t. It’s impossible.”
He’s right, to a point. For those who saw a Cleveland team that, with Irving, James and Love, still had a relatively unencumbered path back to The Finals this season and another likely shot at the Dubs, Irving’s decision will never make any sense, and nothing he can say will change that.
Yet the specter of James hangs over Irving, as it does over everyone who plays with him. But Irving is the first great player to play with LeBron who walked away from him in his prime. Dwyane Wade, who had a ring before James got to Miami, didn’t walk away from him; Chris Bosh, who did not, didn’t walk away from him. Love, who sacrificed much more of his game the last three years in Cleveland than Irving did, didn’t walk away from him.
And 652 miles away from Irving, James is holding court with the media in Ohio, doing that passive-aggressive thing he does, constantly referring to Irving as “the kid,” yet saying he was more than ready to give Irving, as he puts it, the keys to the franchise in a few years.
Maybe Irving just didn’t want to wait. Maybe he wanted to be able, after six NBA seasons, to drive the car right now, to call someone else “the kid” and show them himself how to make the secret sauce that leads an NBA team to where so few get — holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
He does not agree with a notion posed to him that things had gotten stale for him in Cleveland.
[Kyrie Irving] wants to be here. He wants to be in Boston. He seems very, very excited about it. And you can see, just in the few days he’s been here, feel that excitement and energy.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge
“We were winning,” he said. “That’s always the goal at hand, is to win at a very high level. In that, you have to figure out what you really want, and what makes sense to you and what feels good. And I was very fortunate that the great organization of Boston traded for me. It turned out to be a hell of a blockbuster trade. It took a few pieces. But that right there, that appreciation is eternal, for them taking a chance on a 25 year old evolving into a man, coming from a championship culture. I played with the best. I’ve competed with the best. And I’ve beaten the best. I understand a lot of the rigors of an NBA season, of being on a high-profile team. And I feel like I brought all that experience here.”
Ironically, Irving is now playing for the franchise with the most NBA championships in league history — yet almost no one on the current roster has even gotten to a Finals; only backup center Aron Baynes, signed this summer from Detroit, has a ring, won with San Antonio in 2014. So Irving brings unique perspective and accomplishment to these Celtics, who will have 11 new players on the roster this season.
“A ring in and of itself doesn’t bring you cachet,” Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said. “But I think the fact that Kyrie had some great games against us last year, and he was spectacular in the Finals (averaging 29.4 points, 4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game), the fact that he has a ring is one thing. But the fact that he is a fantastic player is another. He wants to be here. He wants to be in Boston. He seems very, very excited about it. And you can see, just in the few days he’s been here, feel that excitement and energy.”
The Celtics gave up a lot for Irving — All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, the team’s heartbeat and fan favorite last season, ultimate glue guy Jae Crowder, young center Ante Zizic and the unprotected first-round pick in 2018 Boston had via the Nets. What they bought for that was all of Irving’s prime seasons — he has two years remaining on his five-year, $90 million contract he signed in Cleveland in 2014.
Boston’s original plan was to get both George and Gordon Hayward, the free agent from Utah. But the Celtics couldn’t get a deal done with Indiana before the Pacers sent George to Oklahoma City. Hayward did come, though, and soon after, the Celtics reached for Irving, a four-time All-Star, to create a new and unexpected triumvirate with Hayward and Al Horford.
“He not only has a championship, but the shot he made for them to win it at the end of that game is pretty incredible,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think that everybody has ownership, and we’re going to lean on Al and his experience. We’re going to lean on Kyrie and his experience, we’re going to lean on Gordon and his experience. We’re going to lean on (assistant coach) Walter McCarty as a 10-year veteran NBA player who played a lot some years, and didn’t play as much the next, to help our young guys.”
Stevens says it’s like he has a new job this season, even though he didn’t change teams or offices. And for some of the young guys, the idea of Irving being their teammate just months after he helped torch them in the conference finals is still settling in their minds.
“It’s definitely still a little weird for me,” second-year man Jaylen Brown said. “I’ll let you know when it stops being weird.”
It will take a while for everything to stop feeling weird. The Celtics were an offensive force last season, eighth in the league in offensive rating as Stevens drew up sets that stretched defenses to the breaking point — putting Thomas in endless pick and rolls and dribble handoffs, mastering misdirections to free up Crowder or Avery Bradley or Horford for open 3s (only the Rockets and Cavs attempted more 3s last season than Boston). But Stevens could tinker with the playbook at a micro level because the team’s core group other than Horford had been together two years.
“We were doing things especially at the offensive end, toward the end of last season, that really started to show some corporate knowledge,” Stevens said. “So you just have to build that as fast as you can. Making it as simple as possible early is going to be important, not overdoing it early, especially with offensive and defensive installations, getting in what you need to get in — but still recognizing at the same time there’s things you’re going to have to do on the fly — whether it’s at a shootaround, tweaking during a game — and recognizing it’s part of this process.”
Irving took to heart James’ admonition that a championship team can’t skip any steps, and must build toward peak play over the course of a season — in practice, on the plane, in the locker room.
“It’s not going to look pretty every practice, not going to look pretty every game,” Irving said. “But the biggest thing that will tell the sign of our identity is how we respond. It’s like we can go through it and some things won’t look like they’re supposed to, or some people react in a way you’re not used to. That comes with being human, learning new individuals. I understand that and I appreciate it. So now that you’ve been in that moment, how do we move forward and address this so, as a collective group, we’re back on the same page? I haven’t even talked about the basketball part; that’s just the human being part of getting to know your teammates.”
Hayward knew Irving over the years from USA Basketball workouts, but he, too, will need time to get his arms around the idea of playing with Irving and learning from him.
“There was so much drama going on with the whole thing,” Hayward said. “You hear it’s going to happen, then it might not happen…when it finally did happen I was excited about it. I would have been excited to play with IT on the basketball court, but you realize it’s a business and these things happen. We get another superstar in return with Kyrie.”
Last season, Bradley and Thomas were the voices that resonated in the locker room. Now, Horford will have to be more vocal (“everybody listens to every word he says,” Stevens said) and Boston’s younger rotation players will have even bigger roles this season. Brown is a strong candidate to start at the two, where the hope is his length and quickness can replace at least some of what Bradley brought to the table defensively. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier will be counted on as rotation guys and scoring options off the bench.
And Irving will be the lynchpin, now older and more accomplished than in his first stint as a leader in Cleveland, in the pre-LeBron days. What Boston is getting is a clear-eyed killer, secure both in his methods and choice of weaponry.
“I think that the prime years are always better,” Ainge said. “We’ve had a lot of 19-year-old kids come here and be successful — Kendrick Perkins and Al Jefferson and Avery Bradley — and they’ve thrived. But there is a time to grow up. Some take a little bit longer than others. But having Kyrie, that’s been in three NBA Finals in a row, and been very good and sort of through that phase of development and maturity, he has a good group of people around him. I think we’ve got good people in the locker room for him to listen and learn from, and a group that he can teach and lead also.”
Boston Kyrie will indeed be different from Cleveland Kyrie — one that sprang, it seems, from a Platonic conception of himself. If he truly believes this is the best version of what he will be as a leader, as a player, then one can begin to understand why he’d walk away from what seemed like a perfect basketball situation. He is young, still, by NBA standards, and in the flattened east, Boston remains a favorite to challenge the Cavs for supremacy. Seven games of Kyrie versus LeBron would compel.
But it’s a long drive to get there. He has the keys in hand, ready to start the trip.
“I would say when you have to satisfy a want for more, it’s an interesting conversation you have to have with yourself,” Irving said. “How much more do you want out of what you’re in right now? And that was an answer that led to me going to take the bold move of wanting to get traded — especially with two years left on my contract. It’s unheard of. But to have that understanding and know what I got myself into — I’m taking a leap of faith. With the confidence I have in myself, it was pretty easy. Like I said, I got pretty fortunate to have a situation like this to come across, for Danny to take a chance like that.”
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