The comparisons to Kyrie Irving are flattering for Rod Strickland, yet he doesn’t see them as much as outsiders.
Strickland was a master ballhandler of his era, like Irving; he was a master shot maker in traffic, like Irving; and he played with the utmost confidence, like Irving.
Thirteen years after his final NBA game, with his career rather overlooked and overshadowed because of a lack of championships or All-Star Games, Strickland’s humility won’t allow for such comparisons to Irving. Even though Irving is his godson and he has known Irving’s father, Drederick, for more than 30 years.
Those comparisons continue as Irving’s career progresses and Strickland gains more appreciation from the YouTube era. Strickland, for your information, is still 12th in assists and 29th in steals in NBA history after a 17-year career.
“When Kyrie was in the ninth grade, my brother Byron called me and told me he’s [going to be] a pro,” Strickland recalled. “But I hadn’t seen him play yet. I was ripping and running. I was in the league.”
Ironically, the first time Strickland watched Irving play was at the LeBron James camp in 2009, when the 17-year-old Duke signee dazzled.
“Right there, it was like ‘wow’ because I saw the right hand and the left land,” Strickland said. “If you look at young players, you don’t see that all the time. I saw the handle. I saw the feel for the game. From that time, I thought he was special. Once I saw him at Duke, I thought he was really special. He came through in the [big] moments and he played defense.”
As Irving developed into an All-Star point guard, the resemblance to Strickland increased.
“People used to say, he plays like you,” Strickland said. “They was giving me that credit and I had my chest out, but once I saw him in the pros I was like, please don’t make that comparison anymore. He’s on another level. His creativity. His ballhandling, his shot-making capability, his jump shot, the physical play. I mean, just has it all. And then he has that mind-set, he has that killer mind-set where he thinks, ‘I got it, give me the ball, I’m going to make it happen.’ ”
The biggest correlation between the two is ballhandling. Strickland was a master of the dribble when players weren’t allowed to openly carry the ball as they are now. Strickland would use his 6-foot-2-inch height to dribble low and past defenders, or his speed to dart around defenders without coming close to losing control of the ball.
“A lot of times, I watch AAU or high school or even in the pros, guys are out of control going to the basket,” Strickland said. “Irving is hitting with the right hand to the left hand and with the scoop but he’s under control.”
Strickland said the key to being a master dribbler is pretty simple. It’s practicing. He said as players dedicate summers to taking 1,000 jump shots per day, ballhandlers need to do that with the dribble. For hours prior to games, Irving works on his dribble as well as tirelessly shooting bank shots off one foot with each hand.
“It was the same for me coming up, I mastered the backboard at every angle,” said Strickland, who played for nine teams. “I sat there and practiced it for hours. It wasn’t that I went in the gym and did it for 15 minutes. You have to be creative because you’re trying to find ways to get to the cup and score.”
One of the caveats of the Irving comparisons is that basketball pundits are beginning to fully appreciate Strickland’s skills and his contributions to the game. Because he experienced some personal issues and he only played in 52 playoff games in his 17 years and never reached a conference finals, Strickland has been overlooked, especially since he preceded the generation of the scoring point guard with Stephen Curry, Irving, and Damian Lillard.
“You have to be skilled, skill wins all the time,” Strickland said. “I don’t care about the height. They’re obviously looking for length and taller guys, but if you have the skill you will play.”
While they are a generation apart, there remains a bond between Strickland and Irving, and Strickland’s close relationship with Drederick Irving, a former Boston University standout, cements the connection.
“His father was there when I was there, and he saw a lot,” Strickland said. “He saw the good, the bad. He saw my triumphs. He saw my flaws. He saw me make mistakes. He had a taste of all of that. I think Kyrie gets a lot of that from pops. He gets afforded that because pops was there.
“I have so many experiences, not all great. But experience has taught me a lot and I got a lot inside this head and I love sharing it.”
Ten matchups not to be missed
The NBA has become a 365-day-a-year sport and the schedule release gives fans more subject matter to devour until training camp starts in mid-September. The Celtics’ preseason opener is just less than seven weeks away, Sept. 28 against Charlotte.
So, for those looking for a guide to the 2018-19 season, here’s 10 games that you cannot miss:
1. 76ers at Celtics, Oct. 16, TD Garden: Finally, the Celtics will field their full, healthy roster for a regular-season game. It will be 364 days after Gordon Hayward broke his tibia and dislocated his left ankle in a frightening injury five minutes into the opener against Cleveland. Hayward is expected to return healthy along with Kyrie Irving and Daniel Theis to begin what should be a march to the Finals. The 76ers will bring their emerging squad back with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and J.J. Redick. Philadelphia will be the primary challenger to the Celtics for a spot in the Finals and the rivalry has been renewed.
2. Lakers at Cavaliers, Nov. 21, Quicken Loans Arena: It’s LeBron James’s return to Cleveland with his new team. The question will be what type of response will James receive in his second return to the Q with another team? James helped the Cavaliers win Cleveland’s first major professional sports title in 52 years but also left the city via free agency for the second time in eight years. The Cavaliers won’t be pushovers. They have a legitimate chance to compete for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Tyronn Lue is motivated to prove he can coach up a team that doesn’t feature the best player on earth.
3. Raptors at Spurs, Jan. 3, AT&T Center: It’s Kawhi Leonard’s first game back in San Antonio as a member of the Toronto Raptors with an unknown reception from the Spurs’ faithful because of his unceremonious departure. Leonard played just nine games last season because of an injury and was damaged by the perception that he was dogging it in his rehabilitation. Leonard did pen a thank-you letter to the city of San Antonio and thanked coach Gregg Popovich, but his return could be greeted with disdain. Also, it will be the first game for DeMar DeRozan against many of his former Toronto teammates.
4. Lakers at Warriors, Dec. 25, Oracle Arena: If the Lakers want to be considered legitimate challengers to the Warriors in the Western Conference, an impressive Christmas Day performance with 40 points from LeBron would help their case. The Lakers are back on the national stage after adding LeBron, but are the Lakers ready for the likes of the Warriors, Rockets, and Thunder? That remains to be seen because LeBron can’t do it all. The Lakers will need Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram to show their developing games also.
5. Suns at Warriors, March 10, Oracle Arena: Why this game? Because DeMarcus Cousins will likely be healthy and could make his season debut with Golden State on this night. Cousins accepted just $5.3 million to play for Golden State this season and won’t be rushed to return from a torn Achilles’ tendon. The Warriors are hoping Cousins can play in the final 20 regular-season games to prepare for the playoffs and then slice through their Western Conference competition with this super team.
6. Hornets at Spurs, Jan. 14, AT&T Center: It’s another return game, this time for Tony Parker, who left San Antonio after 17 seasons with the Spurs. His signing with Charlotte was overshadowed because of Leonard’s summer-long ordeal, but it is equally as important. Spurs greats generally retire in San Antonio. Two of their all-time great players left within weeks of each other. But it was time for Parker, who served as a backup to Dejounte Murray last season and was being pushed out of San Antonio’s retooling plan.
7. Pistons at Clippers, Jan. 12, Staples Center: It will be the comeback game for Blake Griffin, who if you recall, was supposed to retire a Clipper when he signed that five-year maximum deal last summer, only to be shipped to Detroit by Doc Rivers a few months later. The Pistons, with new coach Dwane Casey, have serious playoff aspirations and Griffin wasn’t exactly pleased with how his Los Angeles tenure ended. Will Griffin be the first Clipper to have his number retired? He should be, right?
8. Lakers at Celtics, Feb. 7, TD Garden: It’s LeBron’s first game at TD Garden as a Laker and his presence won’t be lost on Irving, who will be looking to make a major statement against his former teammate. Also, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry gets a major boost after sagging over the past few years. James will most certainly get an unceremonious welcome back to Boston with his new team after knocking out the Celtics again in the playoffs.
9. Warriors at Rockets, Nov. 15, Toyota Center: It’s way too early to make any determinations from this game. But it will be interesting to see how the new-look Rockets match up against the Warriors after losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute and adding Carmelo Anthony. It was Houston that finished with the best record in the NBA and home-court advantage last season, but that mattered little with Chris Paul hurt for Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals.
10. Timberwolves at Nuggets, April 10, Pepsi Center: Last season these teams battled for the final playoff spot on the season’s final night in Minnesota. Now the scene shifts to Denver and both teams are banking they will be playing for playoff seedings and not playoff spots.
Business booms for the Celtics
There is high anticipation for the Celtics in this fast-approaching 2018-19 season, and that is especially the case for the business side. The Celtics have sold out their season-ticket packages and will be on national television 27 times in what could be a landmark season.
Team president Rich Gotham has prepared for a season like this for the past five years, since Danny Ainge made the franchise-altering trade of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for a slew of draft picks.
So, this type of attention wasn’t unexpected and is welcomed.
“The offseason for us really begins from a business standpoint in February,” Gotham said. “That’s when we renew all of our season tickets. We’ve had a fantastic offseason so far. We’ve pretty much sold out of all of our games next season, the loge, the balcony, the courtside seasons. We’re working with the Garden on premium seating, that stuff has moved really well. There’s a higher than ever demand for pretty much all things Celtics this offseason. The television ratings reflected that during the regular season and during the playoffs.”
The Celtics kicked off the summer by officially opening the Auerbach Center in their partnership with New Balance. The hope is the state-of-the-art practice facility will help attract free agents in coming years.
“We’ve got a lot of good things coming for fans,” Gotham said. “I think it will be a fun season.”
Gotham said there will be elevators that will be installed from the parking structure at TD Garden to the premium and event levels. Season tickets are sold out and Gotham said there’s a “pretty substantial waiting list” for those seats.
“There’s demand for this team beyond of which we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll back up that demand with a great season.”
Gotham recalls when the anticipation was brimming 11 years ago when the Celtics acquired Garnett and Ray Allen to join Pierce for what became a championship season. What has whetted the appetite of Celtics faithful is their stunning run to the brink of the NBA Finals last season without All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
“People who have been fans of the team for 30, 40 years and they were more excited about [the 2017-18] team than they were about any other,” Gotham said. “Including the not-too-distant past when we were competing for championships with Pierce, Garnett, and Allen.
“Going into this year, the anticipation is incredible. Obviously getting Gordon Hayward back on the floor, getting Kyrie back on the floor, fans were able to see our young guys develop, to see all of that coming together is pretty exciting for fans, so the anticipation is beyond anything we’ve seen in a long time around here.”
The next phase is how to market the team for this season. The star power is obviously there with Irving and Hayward, but their absence also allowed Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier to become NBA celebrities. The “Scary Terry” moniker took off, especially during the playoffs when former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe showed up at Game 7 of the Eastern Conference first round rocking a Rozier T-shirt.
“The run to the Eastern Conference finals markets itself, but every year we like to sit down with the players and get the feel of what the vibe is with the team,” Gotham said. “I would anticipate we would be a super-max team with a maximum amount of national television dates, which generally means you’re playing on a few of the bigger holidays and you’re involved in a lot of the fun, those days the fans mark the season by. That’s a good sign, the fact that we’ve got all of this local demand, but nationally the Celtics are in demand as well.”
The Morris twins are wasting no time in preparing for free agency next summer as both have departed from agent Leon Rose and have signed with Klutch Sports’s Rich Paul, the agent for LeBron James. The Morris twins have an interesting situation with their contracts. They agreed to a combined four-year, $52 million extension in 2015 with Markieff Morris taking $8 million per season and Marcus Morris $5 million. That has made Marcus one of the league’s biggest bargains, and he is banking that a successful season with the Celtics could garner him a lucrative deal at age 30, which may be his last major contract. Marcus has been underpaid his entire career and the reason the Celtics were able to acquire him for Avery Bradley to make salary-cap space to sign Gordon Hayward was because of his $5 million salary. Markieff has turned himself into a physical enforcer at power forward with the ability to stretch the floor . . . Cleveland swingman Rodney Hood remains the most intriguing restricted free agent on the market, although nearly every team has used their salary-cap space and would be unable to make a competitive offer . . . With the Raptors agreeing to a deal with former Celtic Greg Monroe, Lucas Nogueira is likely the odd man out, and the 7-2 former first-round pick is a free agent. Also on the free agent market are three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and 3-point specialist Nick Young.