Kyrie Irving looks like the least interested player in the NBA these days. Watching him lead the Boston Celtics has become a depressing, sometimes comical look into a team’s demise. The Celtics have underachieved like no one else in the NBA this season. As it becomes increasingly likely Irving departs in free agency this summer the question has to be asked: Would the team be better without him?
In a sweeping piece for The Ringer that delved into the issues the Celtics are having this season, Kevin O’Connor unleashed this nugget:
"These days, Irving plays lackadaisical defense, and unfocused offense. Sources around the team told me that Irving’s persona has changed, too: He’s become disengaged and detached from those around the team. There is talk that Irving’s friendships on the team start and end with Tatum, with whom he shares an agent. Two sources peg Irving’s change in demeanor to early February, around the time he was asked about the possibility of joining the New York Knicks next season. That’s when Irving infamously said he’d make the best decision for his family and that he didn’t “owe anybody shit.”"
Irving is notoriously moody and never seems happy or comfortable. Those personality traits wouldn’t be an issue if he played tennis or golf, but in a team sport where players rely so much on those around them, they can poison a locker room.
Some of his angst could stem from him being 26 and having never been the most beloved player on a team. He may not be capable of being the alpha dog on a championship contender either. He made some huge plays during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ run to a title in 2016, but let’s be honest, that team rose and fell on LeBron James’ back.
It’s clear Irving hasn’t connected with his Celtics teammates and doesn’t show any interest in doing so. Any number of those players probably look back fondly on last postseason, where they were missing Irving and Gordon Hayward, yet still took the Eastern Conference Finals to Game 7. It has to be hard for those players and the fans alike to not miss how that team played. In the 2018 postseason, the Celtics were plucky, they battled and they fought and clawed for everything.
Last season without Irving and Hayward, the Celtics played like one of Brad Stevens’ teams from Butler. They were a scrappy group that played as a unit, didn’t have a true star and the team became better than the sum of its parts. The ball moved on offense and guys hustled on defense. Irving has just never been that guy. The offense must go through him or he sulks. On defense, he has the natural ability of a stopper but the interest level of an early-career James Harden.
Irving has all the talent in the world but doesn’t possess the will to surrender something of himself for the greater good of his team. Yeah, he’s a great player, but he’s never been the kind of guy to give up everything for a win. He’s basically the exact opposite of a player who would fit in Stevens’ system.
The Boston Celtics were supposed to own the Eastern Conference this season. The path to the NBA Finals was opened by LeBron’s departure to the West. As of March 5, they sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, 10 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks. They’re not even contending in the Atlantic Division, where they’re in third place and trail the first-place Toronto Raptors by eight games.
Given the preseason hype, this campaign has been an abject disaster for the Celtics. If Irving wants to leave, Boston should embrace that decision. The franchise might be better off without him.