Gradually, the Celtics don’t need to sell Boston as a destination NBA city. Kevin Garnett thoroughly enjoyed his time here. Isaiah Thomas wanted to stay so badly he asked Danny Ainge to return after he was dealt to Cleveland.
Add Kyrie Irving to the list of players who have enjoyed the Celtics experience in the last decade, which has been enhanced by the coaching of Brad Stevens.
When Doc Rivers left the Celtics for the Los Angeles Clippers, there were thoughts that the lure of playing Boston for a player-friendly coach would leave with him.
But the Stevens effect, which is a combination of astute instruction, even-handed discipline, and accentuating his players’ strengths, has sold many players on Boston.
It began with Al Horford, who committed to a maximum contract two years ago, followed by Gordon Hayward last summer. Irving, who has an opt out of his contract after this season (and will exercise that clause), reiterated his desire to re-sign with the Celtics on July 1, when he is eligible for a five-year, $188 million package considering his NBA service time.
For the Celtics, it offers peace of mind to an organization that feels it’s on the cusp of greatness. Irving was considered a centerpiece of that ascension but there has always been a level of uncertainty because of his impending free agency and the big-market teams that have salary-cap space — both Los Angeles teams, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets.
It was understandable that Irving would be tempted by the two New York clubs because of his New Jersey roots and the attraction of being the next great Big Apple superstar. But he said he cares more about being the next great Celtic, his No. 11 hanging in the rafters among the all-time greats.
It seems that relocating for the 26-year-old Irving was tough enough the first time, even though he wanted badly out of Cleveland. He doesn’t have to live in Boston in the offseason. He is able to travel to attend to his various business interests. But being the leader of a young, emerging team without LeBron James hovering over him and a growing relationship with Stevens sold him on Boston long term.
This erases one of what could have been annoying story lines heading into this critical season. Can you imagine Irving’s four trips to New York this season if he hadn’t made this declaration?
“I just needed some time to be back in Boston and feel great about different things I wanted to explore in my career,” he said. “But I think the important thing was just being happy and having an environment where I’m challenged in a physical level, as well as mental, and I can get better as a basketball player but as a man, and I do have a dream of putting my No. 11 in the rafters one day, if I’m so blessed to do that.
“I could sit here and say I want to be one of those guys, but a lot of players come through Celtics history. That’s the challenge in itself that I willingly accept.”
Once upon a time, the Celtics had major trouble attracting major free agents (that is no longer the case) and once upon a time Boston couldn’t compete with the likes of the Knicks, Lakers, Bulls, and Heat in keeping premium players (that’s not the case either).
Irving had been offering rather large hints about his happiness in Boston over the past 10 days. In July, when pubbing his movie “Uncle Drew,” he was resistant about discussing free agency. Last week, he said he wasn’t crazy about all the questions that he would field during his stops around the league. On Tuesday at a summit at Emerson Colonial Theatre, he declared he was happy.
On Thursday, he committed, further cementing a Celtics culture that has been rebranded and re-established in the past five years. It was no coincidence that Paul Pierce was there to witness Irving’s declaration in front of Celtics’ season ticket-holders.
Pierce played 15 years in Boston, did not want to leave, and had his number retired just a few months after calling it a career. He is now Celtics royalty and fully understands the meaning of playing in Boston and winning a championship.
“It’s not surprising to me because when you look at his situation, this is a great situation,” Pierce said. “He’s on a team that could pretty much start hitting their prime right now with him being at the forefront, something that could go on for a long, long time. Even as he gets older, he has young guys that could really pick him up, if he starts to decline, when he gets into his 30s.”
Irving will be 32 by the end of a five-year deal. Jayson Tatum will only be 26. Jaylen Brown 28. And that Sacramento Kings pick the Celtics could use on another potential standout likely won’t be able to rent a car on his own.
It seems like the most sensible decision for Irving. Why would you want to leave a franchise that has the most potential in the NBA over the next five years. That’s something the Knicks, Lakers, Clippers, or Nets couldn’t promise.