Leaders that no one follow aren’t leaders. They’re loners. Celtics franchise frontman Kyrie Irving has tried to be a leader this season, but he has ended up behaving like a loner, especially after frustrating losses to the Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic last week.
Despite Irving’s best efforts and intentions, his candid leadership approach has created divides instead of bridging gaps. Irving’s attempts to hold Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier accountable have often sounded like he’s making them culpable for the team’s underachievement. The young guys have been frequent fall guys for the underperforming Green.
The Celtics’ lack of chemistry can be identified as one of the main culprits in their failure to live up to their preseason Golden State Warriors East expectations. To quote the movie “Remember the Titans”: attitude reflects leadership.
Kudos to Kyrie, he swallowed his pride and his words, going back to the drawing board and back to LeBron James — a leader he declared he had outgrown — to find a better way to lead the Celtics. Just like he does on the court, Kyrie took a step back to find a better angle. This change of direction is just as impressive as any Irving has executed with his dribbling prowess. It’s also more essential to the Celtics’ success.
Irving bared his soul following the Celtics’ scintillating 117-108 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, admitting his leadership style needed an adjustment. He confessed to breaking out the bat phone to call the guy whose guidance he bristled at and whose shadow he fled, Big Brother ’Bron, for leadership advice. Now having walked in LeBron’s Nikes, Irving also offered James an apology for his own petulance.
“Being in this position is something new for me,” Irving told reporters. “I take it with a grain of salt, and I just enjoy all of this. Having a moment to be able to call a guy like that where we’ve been through so much; we won a championship together. It took a lot to think our road could have been easier.
“And now I’m in this position. I asked for this and I want this and I will take it on full force. But it’s also good to reach out for help. It takes a real man to go back and call somebody and be like, ‘I was young. I wasn’t seeing the big picture like you were.’ ’’
For all the talk about the “young guys” — the same players who had the Celtics minutes away from the NBA Finals last spring without Irving or Gordon Hayward — needing to learn to accept and function in their roles, the same is true of Irving. There has been a leadership learning curve for Kyrie. It’s a position he has embraced but not yet mastered.
On the court, everything comes so easily to Irving. He can, as he said after the Come-to-Kyrie team meeting following a December defeat to Milwaukee, literally do anything he wants. Just ask the Raptors, who saw Irving dance through their defense for 27 points and a career-high 18 assists, draining physics-defying step-backs, burying a 31-foot 3-pointer, and passing out more deliveries than a UPS driver.
But leading this team has not come easily for Irving. The cocksure confidence and self-assurance with which he controls the game have been a detriment as part of a leadership style that has lurched from defiance to disappointment. The guy who hit one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history to deliver a cathartic title to LeBron and Cleveland has taken too many shots at his teammates.
It came to a head after last Saturday’s road loss to the Magic, which ended with Tatum, not Irving, getting the final shot. After the game, Irving, in self-imposed solitude at his locker, cited a lack of experience for the team’s penchant for vacillating between impressive win streaks and head-scratching losses.
Brown offered a rejoinder to Irving on Monday in Brooklyn. He said the emotional Celtics needed to stop making comments and pointing fingers, adding “it starts from the top to the bottom, not from the bottom to the top.”
Irving acknowledged that Brown was right. Irving admitted that he “did a poor job of setting an example for these guys of what it’s like to get something out of your teammates.”
You can’t be a leader if your message is resented instead of received.
“I don’t think [my comments] were hurtful because my intent was really just set in stone that I want to win,” Irving said. “I don’t think it probably came out the best way I wanted to. I have been on a team where things have been said publicly. It’s not the best way to get the most out of the group.
“You do everything as the leader of the team to get the most out of the group, and sometimes it may not be received as well as you would like, and you’ve just got to live with that.”
Perhaps, now, Irving has a greater understanding of the delicate balance and omnipresent burden of leading a team on a singular, championship quest. It’s hard, much harder than breaking the ankles of defenders or backspinning layups off the backboard like a pool hall hustler. Those skills come naturally to him. Successfully setting the tone for this Celtics team has not.
Irving has struggled to find the right methods and message. After the great airing of grievances following the Milwaukee loss, the Celtics are 8-5.
The leader this team needs is Professor Kyrie, one who leads with stoic intelligence and keen perception instead of raw emotion and unfiltered honesty.
This team needs leadership that is steady, in good times and bad. It needs Irving to point the way with consistency and equanimity.
It’s one thing for fans and media to ride the emotional roller coaster of great wins and dispiriting losses, but you can’t have the leader of a team doing that. You can’t be pronouncing after a satisfying victory over the Raptors that if your team finds consistency “we’ll run over everybody in this league. I can guarantee it.” Then be dejected and sullen, lamenting the lack of experience after the next unexpected loss.
The truth hurts, and there is truth to what Irving has said about the young players. Rozier has not excelled in a more limited role. Brown’s defensive intensity is too often directly tied to his offensive success. Tatum at times channels his inner Kobe Bryant, trying to take over on a team that doesn’t need him to.
The problem is the truth needs to be applied evenly.
While Irving visibly expressed frustration with Hayward’s decision to inbound the ball to Tatum on the final play in Orlando, he hasn’t verbally thrown the team’s lapses in Hayward’s lap like he has for the young guys. Hayward’s halting return to form has been one of the primary reasons there’s a gap between this team’s expectations as the rulers of the East and its reality as a 26-18 club that wouldn’t even have home court in the first round if the playoffs started today.
That can cause frustration and resentment for those who are in the firing line of Irving’s critiques, just as Irving felt that way about LeBron.
Empathy is the mark of a good leader, so is asking for help.
Irving has grasped one of the most important lessons of leadership. Sometimes you have to admit you were wrong.