The Celtics are still the leaders to retain Kyrie Irving, but there’s reason for concern
NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving walked slowly across the Madison Square Garden floor before the Celtics’ morning shootaround Friday and headed toward the courtside seat where his sneakers had been placed for him.
Before he sat down, he picked up a large mat with a Knicks logo on it and moved it out of the way. Maybe the juxtaposition was a sign, or maybe Irving just wanted to move a mat out of the way. During this suddenly tumultuous week, the search for clues about the All-Star point guard’s future has been endless.
Irving sat there as reporters inched closer, waiting to ask him to provide some clarity about his situation that once seemed quite clear.
“What’s going on?” Irving said.
That was his way of saying he was ready to talk, ready to get this interview over with. The reporters stepped closer. After Irving said that the sore hip that sidelined him for two games was fine and that he was ready for Friday’s game, he was asked about recent rumors that he was considering signing with a team other than the Celtics this summer, which would be a shift from a proclamation he made in the fall.
Irving could have just said he’s not talking about free agency. He could have said nothing has changed. He could have told everyone to ignore the rumors about what Anthony Davis’s trade demand or the Knicks’ free agency push had to do with him. But he didn’t really do any of that.
“Well, at the end of the day, I’m going to do what I feel is best for my career,” he said. “And that’s just where it stands.
“My focus this season is winning a championship with the Boston Celtics. Obviously, we had goals coming into this season, and the primary goal is to win a championship. So that’s where my focus is.”
He was then asked whether his plan to re-sign with Boston had shifted.
“Ask me July 1,” he said.
That, of course, is the start of free agency. It was not the answer Celtics fans were hoping to hear.
Irving then held court for a 5-minute-20-second session that took several twists and turns and ended only when a Celtics media relations executive signaled that it was over.
If you closed your eyes and plucked three random sentences from the interview, you could have come upon three different messages. Sometimes Irving sounded like he is leaving. Sometimes he sounded like he is staying. Sometimes he sounded like he is just sick of all this — the media, the speculation, the intrusiveness. All of it.
“Obviously, things this season haven’t gone as I planned,” he said. “And that’s part of being on a team where you’re still trying to figure things out. So I’m always going to be mature about that, professional, come to do my job every single day, and really just see what happens.”
At a Celtics fan appreciation event in October, Irving took a microphone, stood up from a chair, walked toward TD Garden’s center court, and announced to a group of season ticket-holders that he planned to re-sign with Boston this summer. Just like that, it seemed, Irving had stomped out any flickering embers of uncertainty.
The fans at the Garden roared. The Celtics fans across the world exhaled. The Celtics could move forward and begin what appeared to be an inexorable march to the NBA Finals.
On Friday, Irving was asked why he had decided to make that announcement that day. He said he was excited to be back after missing last season’s playoffs with a knee injury, and that he wanted to show that he was a team-first player.
Despite his statements Friday that sounded like a player eager to explore free agency, Irving then said something that should at least give Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge some peace.
“I still have confidence in Boston and what they can promise for the future and what we have in terms of our pieces,” Irving said. “That’s what excited me a lot about the beginning of the season was the opportunity to come into this season really just doing what we planned on doing, set a goal and go after it, and then see what happens at the end of the season. That was the plan before and that’s still the plan now. Obviously, Boston is still at the head of that race. That’s just where it stands.”
This season has not quite gone as planned for Irving and the Celtics. The team moved into fourth place in the Eastern Conference with Friday night’s win, but Irving has publicly criticized the team’s young players several times, and some young players have become frustrated with Irving at times.
Still, Irving is in the midst of perhaps the finest individual season of his career, the Celtics are finally healthy, and they had won seven of eight games.
But last week, Davis publicly and officially requested a trade. The Pelicans superstar and Irving are close friends, and the Celtics have been pursuing Davis for years. But multiple reports have suggested that Davis only wants to join the Lakers, and that if he is traded elsewhere — even to Boston — he would leave after becoming a free agent in July 2020.
Perhaps that is because he knows Irving does not want to stay. Or perhaps Irving does not want to stay because he knows Davis is not coming.
Irving, for his part, made it clear that he did not enjoy having his future linked to the demands of others.
“Obviously this has become an entertainment thing for everybody,” he said. “So somebody else is asking for a trade and I’m thrown into that, and uncertainty comes back on me.”
Multiple reports last week also stated that Irving was actually considering reuniting with former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James on the Lakers, although a league source told the Globe that is not really an option.
Then on Thursday, the Knicks completed a massive trade with the Mavericks in which star center Kristaps Porzingis was sent to Dallas, thus freeing up two maximum-salary slots for New York.
Irving grew up in New Jersey, has already starred in one movie and is soon to star in another. One of his other close friends, Kevin Durant, is believed to be the Knicks’ primary target. You can connect the dots.
“I respect the Knicks organization,” Irving said. “Obviously they’re making moves to position themselves for this upcoming summer. So, I wish them the best.”
During the Celtics’ 113-99 win over the Knicks later Friday, New York’s fans put forth a lukewarm effort at wooing Irving. They cheered for him during introductions and the first few times he touched the ball, and there were scattered attempts to start “We want Kyrie!” cheers that mostly fizzled out.
Irving said he appreciated the support, but also called it a distraction. He acknowledged that it will probably be that way for some time now. He is not looking forward to that, but his own words earlier in the day provided much of the kindling.
“At the end of the day, like I said this morning, I’m going to make the best decision for me and my family,” Irving said, “and that’s how it’s going to go.”