Brooklyn has won eight straight and Irving is posting career highs in scoring (27.4) and shooting percentage (52.1%) and is the league leader in offensive rating. Not only that, the addition of ball-hoarding guard James Harden in mid-January, to a roster already featuring Irving and Kevin Durant, has not led to the destructive power struggle many predicted.
But perhaps most surprising — especially to Celtics fans — is the praise Irving is garnering for his leadership and the positive example he’s setting. Second-year center Nicolas Claxton said of Kyrie: “I know he gets a bad rep sometimes, but he is a great teammate and a great leader.”
And guard Landry Shamet also talks glowingly of Kyrie. “It’s been great to be able to be around him, be in the locker room with him, get to know him as a person,” said Shamet. “I know he believes in all of his teammates and he wants the best for all of us.”
Following Brooklyn’s 129-92 pummeling of Orlando Thursday, when asked about how he’s grown as a leader since his days in Cleveland and Boston, Irving was (somewhat) diplomatic.
“There were a lot of people speaking for me or speaking on my behalf that really didn’t know who I was,” Irving said. “And I didn’t offer that access to a lot of people because it’s just a trust. Leaks here, somebody saying this here — in Cleveland and in Boston. And I’m not gonna sit here and talk about Cleveland and Boston because I know where that goes and where that can go in terms of who you’re talking about or what you’re talking about.”
Speaking generally, Irving continued:
“What I learned from those experiences was, if you’re not enjoying the journey, and you’re not committed the way you’d like to be committed — and I mean everyday, even when you’re tired, even when you’re having good days, bad days you gotta be able to galvanize the group even when it’s low and even when it’s high. It’s just the balance of leadership. And there isn’t one leader and I’ve had to accept that, too. It’s not on me to lead the group by myself and be the hero that everybody wants, because that’s what America is, that’s what this world is. they love to build you up, they love to tear your ass right down.
“I’m grateful to be in this position, to be able to set a better example now than I did then. And I take accountability for not necessarily stepping up to the plate or stepping up to the responsibility for my own actions. I had a lot to do with the success and failures of the teams that I was on. I take my role very serious in terms of that and I’ve been able to learn lessons from that to give to others.
“And that’s been the most beautiful part, just to learn. That’s the growth. So I’m just more excited about that than anything. And it’s been able to translate here, with the guys that are here. It’s always been bigger than the game for me, is what I’m saying. Leadership now is just about having fun and giving those guys the energy to galvanize the group.”
A History of Leaving
Irving began his career in 2011 with Cleveland, winning a championship in 2016 as second fiddle to LeBron James. Following the 2016-17 season, Irving’s desire to be out of LeBron’s shadow impelled him to ask Cleveland for a trade. The Cavs obliged and traded him to Boston in August of 2017 for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a 2018 first-round pick.
An All-Star selection his first season in Boston, Irving underwent a procedure in March of 2018 which eventually forced him to miss the last 15 games of the regular season and the entire playoffs. Even without Irving, Boston reached the Eastern Conference finals but lost to Cleveland in seven. That offseason, while still rehabbing from his injury, Irving refused to sign a contract extension with Boston, sparking mistrust amongst Boston fans and the media.
Back for the 2018-19 season, Irving, who would be a free agent at season’s end, grew frustrated with the play of the team. Increasingly at odds with fans and the media, and prone to on-court outbursts against teammates, Irving became more detached and moody as the year went on. By the time the Celtics lost to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the writing was on the wall: Irving wanted out. He signed with Brooklyn in July of 2019.
Speaking to Felger and Mazz on 98.5 The Sports Hub this week, Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck suggested that Irving’s departure had an adverse effect on Boston’s future prospects and made it tough to add experience to the young roster.
“We had hoped Kyrie would stay forever and lead us all the way,” Grousbeck said. “He’s on maybe the best team in the league right now, and so that’s that. That change touched off a lot of stuff because when he left, we weren’t able to maybe recruit free agents in the same way, and it had a bit of a domino effect. But, it is what it is. We went for it with Kyrie. We had a good year with him. He tried hard and then he moved on.”
Two Different Approaches
Before Irving arrived in Brooklyn, then-head coach Kenny Atkinson had worked wonders with a mostly young and unproven Nets roster. In his first two years as coach, Atkinson had failed to win more than 30 games. But he led the Nets to the playoffs the next two seasons and was seemingly primed for a long tenure at the helm.
When Irving joined the team in 2019, however, he immediately had problems with Atkinson’s approach, which emphasized team, first and foremost, over stars. When Atkinson was abruptly let go with 10 games left in the season, Irving, who had sat out most of the season with an injury, was partially blamed for the firing. Ex-NBA star Steve Nash was eventually brought in to coach the team.
Irving, however, disputes that he had a hand in Atkinson leaving. Though in an October 2020 episode of Durant’s podcast “The ETC’s with Kevin Durant,” he didn’t deny that he had objections to how Atkinson ran the club.
“I want to give a shout out to Kenny Atkinson because some people came out and was like, ‘Yo, Ky and KD got Kenny fired.’ And look, that was completely false,” Irving said. “Listen, Kenny was great for the group that he served, and I was very appreciative of what he was giving us throughout the season when we were playing. We always heard how great Nash was or saw how great Nash was as a player, but also when you get to know him as a person, you understand why he can co-exist with us because we don’t need somebody to come in and put their coaching philosophy on everything that we’re doing and change up the wheel and, ‘Yo, you guys need to start doing this,’ and we start running on the first day of practice, and it’s just like, ‘No.’
“I want somebody, I need somebody that’s going to understand that I am a human being first. I serve my community and where I come from first, and then basketball is something I come and do every single day because I love [it], and also I have the right ingredients and people around me to come in and do my job at a high level, and I know that they will hold me accountable to that level. It’s no disrespect to Kenny or any other coaches I played with, it’s just Steve coming in at this moment and then following up with putting together a great coaching core was going to make us more successful.”