It seems like decades ago that Celtics fans lamented the exit of Kyrie Irving, some blaming the organization for his abrupt departure and desire to sign with the Brooklyn Nets.
It also seems just as long since Irving said he had finally found peace in Brooklyn, playing close to his childhood home for the team he rooted for when he was younger. It was supposed to be his happy place, where he could just ball, be close to family, and pursue his off-court interests.
These days, Irving is a serious headache and distraction for the organization. While the NBPA announced that 96 percent of its players are vaccinated, Irving is not one of them and is refusing to budge, even if that means he can’t play.
Under New York City’s vaccine mandate, athletes will need to be vaccinated to participate in indoor events such as NBA games, which would exclude Irving from playing in Brooklyn. There was discussion about allowing Irving to play in games outside of New York, but the Nets shut that down this week, announcing that he won’t play or practice until he’s vaccinated.
So there’s a standoff — Irving took to Instagram Live to relay his message, which like many things he says, are complex, at times thoughtful, but also confounding.
“I just care about our world a lot and if I’m going to be demonized for that, at least let me go out on my own accord,” he said. “I’m standing for all those who believe in what’s right and are doing what’s right for themselves. Everybody has a personal choice with their lives. Everybody is entitled to their own opinions. Putting me as a hero or painting me as a villain for going against the vaccine mandates, that wasn’t my intent at all.
“To be sitting in this seat here and seeing the way this is dividing our world up, being vaccinated or being unvaccinated; it’s just sad to see. We’re not giving each other spaces to speak. Everybody is trying to do what’s best for their family. It’s about staying real and staying true to who you are.”
Irving said he’s not anti-vaccine but against being forced to take the vaccine in order to work, and he’s decided to stand up and represent those who can’t speak for themselves on the topic. He is going to be paid during this time, as the NBA does not have a vaccine mandate for players.
But it’s causing a disruption for a Nets team with championship aspirations and again supports the idea that Irving only wants to play basketball when he feels like it, that he doesn’t love the game enough to sacrifice. Players such as LeBron James and Marcus Smart said they chose to get vaccinated partly because they wanted to play basketball without criticism and disruption.
Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins applied for an exemption and was denied and reluctantly took the vaccine because he wanted to play.
“I’m a hooper, I’ve been a hooper since I was 4 years old, and coming into the NBA, I just had a dream to play ball at a high level,” Irving said. “I didn’t anticipate all of this coming with it, but if I am going to be responsible for my own life then I have to speak on things that truly matter to me.
“Nobody is going to hijack my voice. Nobody is going to take the power I have to speak on these things.”
Irving appeared offended by speculation that he was going to stop playing or doesn’t love the game as much as his contemporaries.
“Don’t believe that I’m retiring,” he said. “Don’t believe I’m going to give up this game for a vaccine mandate or staying unvaccinated. Don’t believe any of that. All of these people saying what’s going on with me, and that’s not true. People are losing jobs with these mandates.
“People are having to make choices with their own lives, which I respect. What would you do if you felt uncomfortable going into the season when you were promised you would have exemptions or you didn’t have to be forced to get the vaccine? This wasn’t an issue before the season started.”
What is astounding about Irving is that he appears amazed at the criticism he’s received over the years. Irving wanted out of Cleveland and was thrilled with the trade to Boston. That didn’t last long, and he left the Celtics after two years, seemingly disgruntled with the organization.
Brooklyn was supposed to be the place where there was no drama, a chance to play with Kevin Durant and eventually James Harden. A chance to win championships without the pressure being entirely on him, and then there’s this.
“Why are you putting it on me?” he said. “This is not what’s going on with conversations with scientists, physicians, and doctors. I’m just a hooper. For some odd reason, people love to have my name in the mix of some BS. Like just hearing the way people speak with so much conviction with what I should do with my life, what my teammates should be feeling about me and what the organization should be feeling about me, I put a whole lot of time into my craft.
“I’m always going to stay true to me. I get to do whatever I want with this body. It has nothing to do with the Nets or nothing to do with my teammates. This has everything to do with what’s going on in the world. I’m being grouped in with somebody that’s bigger than basketball. I’m staying grounded with what I believe in. It’s as simple as that.”
Again, Irving feels as if he’s a victim. He does not understand the negative impact he’s now had on three organizations. The problem is never him. And it will be interesting to see whether this will permanently damage his best chance to win another championship and earn the respect he feels he sorely deserves.
“I’m real enough to stand up when I feel like I’m being put in a [real bad] position,” he said. “I haven’t hurt anybody. I haven’t committed a crime. If I’m being called out and I’m living for me and living for the people that love and support me, how is it that I have to be at odds with everybody? This is not normal what’s going on.”
bullish on Celtics
ESPN/ABC analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy had glowing things to say about the Celtics’ offseason moves and the promotion of coach Brad Stevens to president of basketball operations.
“It’s not a move that you see very often but I also don’t think many people [are] — I know I wasn’t — as smart as Brad Stevens,” Van Gundy said. “I just think his skills are greater or more transitive because I think he’s very, very sharp and smart and poised and disciplined. And he wasn’t an over-reactionary coach, nor do I think he’ll be an over-reactionary boss.”
There were questions as to whether Stevens would be able to part with players he coveted as coach, like point guard Kemba Walker. He traded Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder soon after taking over in a deal that brought back center Al Horford.
“The one thing that I did like, I thought he was very decisive,” Van Gundy said. “They traded Kemba and I think that was as much to try to surround their two best players, [Jaylen] Brown and [Jayson] Tatum with pieces that fit as best they could. And who would be the best judge of who could fit around them best than someone who has coached them their entire careers and who has coached Kemba for a while? They chose to bring back Horford and I think he had a tremendous impact on their team from a skill standpoint and his ability to stretch the floor, to pass and lead a defense. I think that was a tremendous trade.”
Stevens signed point guard Dennis Schröder after he turned down a lucrative contract offer in Los Angeles, for just $5.9 million for one season.
“I have such respect for Schröder’s game,” Van Gundy said. “What he did in Oklahoma City with Chris Paul, and coming off the bench makes him an instant Sixth Man of the Year candidate and he can really impact the game and finish games. I also like very much the coach Brad chose to succeed him. You’re not going to have a better coach than Brad Stevens.”
Van Gundy worked with new Celtics coach Ime Udoka for the past few years with USA Basketball and had nothing but compliments.
“[Stevens] is as good a coach as you hope to find, he had a tremendous run in Boston, but Ime, not only is he a terrific basketball mind who played, he’s got Mark Jackson-level communication skills but he’s super bright basketball-wise,” Van Gundy said. “He worked for Gregg Popovich, Brett Brown, and Steve Nash. He had to try to convince people to guard the elite offensive players in our league. What a background he is. He is so bright. I learned so much. I’m so impressed on a daily basis and I’m so impressed with the staff he assembled.
“Him being able to get Will Hardy from San Antonio was a bold move but it also might get Ime permanently removed from Gregg Popovich’s dinner invitation. I think they’re a real threat in the east.”
The prevailing issue coming out of the WNBA playoffs is an increasing desire for an expanded postseason. However, the WNBA also wants to get its postseason over as quickly as possible so it doesn’t conflict ratings-wise with the MLB playoffs, the NFL, and the start of the NBA season.
The first two rounds of the playoffs are single-elimination games, giving a sort of high school feel to a professional sport. Yes, single-elimination games are exciting, but it’s also unfair for teams who have fought through a 32-game season to get to the playoffs.
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has attempted to take the growing league to the next level and her next goal is to ensure sponsors and television rights-holders that WNBA games deserve more coverage and an expanded playoff system.
“I think it’s great that there’s so much discussion about the playoff format, and I think it was so exciting this year to have these single-elimination games, have some underdogs make it into the WNBA Finals,” Engelbert said this week at the WNBA Finals in Phoenix. “From that perspective — and we see there’s other single elimination like the wild-card games in baseball, like obviously the NCAA March Madness tournaments — single-elimination games are exciting. So we’re looking at that, whether we would retain first- and second-round single elimination.”
One option would be to allow the lowest seeds to play a single-elimination first round, then go to five-game series for the remaining rounds. In the current format, the first two rounds are single elimination, with the final two being five-game series.
“Would one of those [early series] go to a three-game series? Would we only go to a three-game series and then go into our semis and finals?” Engelbert said. “I’m sure whatever we change it to in the next three to five years, we’ll be looking at it again because there’s pros and cons to every different playoff format. So we want to be very thoughtful about what we do. We’ve been meeting with our competition committee. We had a subcommittee around the format. So we’re getting a lot of input and feedback.”
The key is persuading networks such as ESPN and ABC that playing deeper into October is worth their investment. It won’t be an easy sell, especially with ESPN now broadcasting the NHL, in addition to the NBA and NFL. The WNBA Finals had a two-day break between Game 1 and Game 2 because ESPN had Monday Night Football on Monday and the opening of the NHL season Tuesday. October is perhaps the busiest sports month of the year.
“Again, it’s not as easy as just changing the format because when you add games, if you add a three-game series, you’re adding a significant amount of games, and there’s a lot of logistics to doing that; broadcast windows and arena dates and things like that,” Engelbert said. “We’re going to be very thoughtful about it, but we’ve been having significant discussions since last offseason, and I think we’ll be in a position to make a decision whether we’ll stay with the current format or change it over the course of the next few months.”
The second issue facing the WNBA is expansion. It’s been a 12-team league for more than a decade and it appears to be gaining traction toward expanding to 14 teams, with a handful of interested cities. The NBA would prefer to pair a WNBA team with an NBA peer, like finalists Phoenix and Chicago. Expansion, however, means procuring interested owners and a capable venue.
“I just had a meeting readout on it this past week about different cities, some of the metrics that you look at are [Division I] college basketball, how popular it is, viewership of current WNBA games in those markets that don’t have a WNBA team, merch sales in that market,” Engelbert said. “So there’s a myriad of probably 15 or so metrics that we’re looking at to determine whether a market or city could be good.
“Then obviously you have to evaluate what ownership groups would step forward and support the team because the owners are a very important cog in this whole thing, around picking cities to expand in.”
The WNBA doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to expand, but the demand for the sport is increasing and the WNBA Players Association would also prefer to add 24 jobs. Competition for roster spots is already intense because of the 12-woman roster limit.
“I think in my state of the league at the beginning of the season, I talked about that time next year we’d be talking about a little more details on the plan,” she said. “So I think I would stick with that into the spring and summer next year and into the 2022 season we’ll be sharing more.
“The data looks like it’s going to read out some interesting information for us to start having exploratory discussions with certain cities and make sure that we can find great ownership groups to support a WNBA team and great fan bases.”
There’s concern in New Orleans about prized forward Zion Williamson, who will miss at least the first few weeks of the season after foot surgery. The Pelicans have tried feverishly to keep the burly scorer healthy but he underwent surgery last month and the Pelicans are going to take their time bringing him back. This is a big year for the organization with new coach Willie Green and offseason pickups in Devonte’ Graham, Tomas Satoransky, and Jonas Valanciunas. General manager David Griffin wants his club to make a playoff run after a couple of disappointing seasons but the key is the pairing of Williamson and Brandon Ingram, along with the development of second-year point guard Kira Lewis . . . The Charlotte Hornets saw enough in free agent LiAngelo Ball to sign the forward to a training camp contract with the purpose of playing for their G League affiliate in Greensboro. Ball never played a college game after being suspended at UCLA following a shoplifting incident in China and has tried playing professionally since. He fared well for Charlotte’s summer league team and now will play in the same organization as his Rookie of the Year brother LaMelo . . . The Celtics may be looking to fill their second two-way contract in the coming week as clubs will make roster decisions and there will be a group of solid players available when opening night rosters are set by Tuesday. Former Virginia standout Sam Hauser was signed to the other two-way contract. The Celtics have one open roster spot and it could come down to Jabari Parker or Bruno Fernando. Two-way contracts are generally reserved for younger players or prospects, making it unlikely that the Celtics would convert Parker’s contract to a two-way . . . The Phoenix Suns are had their most successful season in 30 years, but there are concerns whether they will make a long-term commitment to center Deandre Ayton, who is eligible for a contract extension — but the Suns don’t want to offer the former No. 1 overall pick the maximum. Ayton, who was drafted ahead of Luka Doncic and Trae Young in 2018, feels he’s worthy of that $207 million package those aforementioned players have signed. The Suns definitely don’t want Ayton to enter this season as a restricted free agent next summer, when other teams could offer the max and the Suns would be obligated to match to keep their young star.