Kyrie Irving arrived at a Celtics fan appreciation event at TD Garden on Oct. 4 feeling quite comfortable about his future in Boston.
He had the keys to a franchise, just as he had wanted when he asked to be traded from Cleveland a year earlier. He had seen the Celtics surge to the brink of the NBA Finals without him, and now he was healthy and prepared to be the missing piece. His summer movie, “Uncle Drew,” had been a box office success, further proving that it was not necessary to be in Los Angeles or New York to maintain a different kind of stardom.
He also loved the Celtics’ sparkling new training facility, which had replaced the previous eyesore that was stationed in the back of a Waltham health club. And he had a relationship with coach Brad Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge that was filled with mutual respect.
Basically, Irving had just about everything.
Irving, who would become a free agent at season’s end, knew that his future with the team would become a dominant story line as this season unfolded, and on this October night there was a chance to squash it.
He had informed some within the organization that he would announce during a small news conference prior to the fan event that he planned to re-sign with the Celtics in July. A few team staffers lingered in the back of the room during the media session, excited to hear the big news themselves.
Then the group interview came and went without Irving saying anything about his future. It was not because he did not want to; it was because he had not been asked. So Irving took matters into his own hands. As he sat on the court during a Q&A with television analyst Brian Scalabrine, he stood up from his chair with a microphone in his hand and broke the news himself.
“If you guys will have me back,” he said. “I plan on re-signing here.”
The crowd cheered. The front office members exhaled. Irving smiled. He was ready to try to lead the Celtics to a championship.
Later that month, he filmed a Nike commercial in an empty TD Garden in which he played a one-on-one game against his father, Drederick.
“Oh, man, what better place?” Irving said as he walked onto the floor.
The commercial ended with Irving hinting that he hoped to have his No. 11 raised to the Garden rafters someday. And given his age, talent, star power — and, perhaps, his looming commitment — it did not seem like a stretch.
But for Irving and the Celtics, this season would never really feel that good again. Although Irving had perhaps his best statistical season — he averaged 23.8 points on 48.7 percent shooting, and career highs of 6.9 assists and 5 rebounds — it did not equate to team success.
The Celtics had a 10-10 start, and it did not take long for Irving’s good vibes to fade. Several players said the team routinely followed Irving’s mood, and for long stretches during the topsy-turvy year, his mood was sour.
He frequently criticized the team’s younger players in the media, an apparent attempt to place the blame for the struggles on them. On the court, he did not hide his frustrations with teammates, following their mistakes with his own looks of exasperation. He openly questioned some of Brad Stevens’s coaching decisions. He even stunned the basketball world when, in the afterglow of one of the Celtics’ biggest wins of the season over the Raptors, he revealed that he had called LeBron James to apologize for how he had acted in Cleveland, and asked for guidance on how to lead a young team.
While Irving’s frustrations were apparent, there was still no real evidence that he was wavering on his October commitment to re-sign with the Celtics.
Then in late January, Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis publicly requested to be traded. Irving was almost instantly linked to Davis’s situation. Perhaps the Celtics would trade for Davis this summer and pair him with Irving to form their own super team. Perhaps Davis would end up with the Knicks, and Irving would then follow.
To add fuel to this sudden inferno, reports emerged around the same time that Irving had interest in rejoining LeBron James on the Lakers.
With all of these rumors swirling, Irving was asked during a morning shootaround before a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 1 whether his commitment to the Celtics remained firm.
“Ask me July 1,” he said.
Suddenly, nothing seemed certain anymore. Irving added that he was frustrated by all the “unwarranted commentary about his future.” Several league sources said that some of Irving’s frustration seemed to stem from the growing notion that he once again needed to pair up with a superior player — James, Davis, or his close friend Kevin Durant — while Irving viewed himself as a No. 1 option who could lead a team to a title.
As weeks turned to months, nothing really improved for the Celtics. They ended up winning 49 games and securing the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, finishing with six fewer wins than the previous year.
Despite the struggles, Irving remained steadfast that Boston would be fine when the postseason began. He consistently minimized the importance of the regular season and vowed to lead this team when the games mattered most. He said he did not think anyone could beat the Celtics in a seven-game series.
While Boston swept the Pacers in the opening round of the playoffs, that was something of a mirage, as Indiana had scuffled ever since losing its best player, Victor Oladipo, to a knee injury.
In the conference semifinals against the Bucks, reality struck. Boston opened the series by grabbing an emphatic road win in Game 1, but then it crumbled by losing four games in a row, with Irving at the forefront of the collapse.
The All-Star made just 25 of 83 shots (30.1 percent) and averaged 5.3 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.5 turnovers per game. On defense, Irving’s effort was spotty at best and nonexistent at worst. He waved an arm at shooters, jogged to closeouts, and made halfhearted attempts to communicate on switches. With Irving on the floor against Milwaukee, Boston allowed 109.1 points per 100 possessions. When he was on the bench, the Celtics’ defensive rating was an elite 98.6.
As Irving sat at the dais after Game 5, looking like he would rather be just about anywhere else, he was unsurprisingly in no mood to address his future. He was asked what he would be looking for in a team when he considered his options this summer.
“I’m going to be honest,” he said. “I’m just trying to get back to Boston first, safely. See my family, decompress, do what human beings do.”
The Celtics will be able to offer Irving five years and $189 million this summer while other teams can only offer four years and $151 million. But that might not matter. The Lakers, Knicks, Nets, and Mavericks are among the teams that will have the salary cap space to pursue Irving if they wish.
In January, multiple league sources laughed off the idea of Irving potentially reuniting with James. And while that still seems quite unlikely, given Irving’s apparent fickleness, it also seems unwise to rule anything out.
The Celtics’ hope is still that Irving will re-sign and that they will trade for Davis, giving them two legitimate superstars. But the tenor of a large segment of the fan base has now shifted, with many finding Irving’s effort and actions off-putting, and yearning for a return to the gritty, hard-playing style that had previously defined Stevens’s tenure.
Irving said Wednesday night that he would take a lot of lessons from this season. He said it had all felt like a rush, and that he had enjoyed it as much as he could.
“For me, it’s just moving on to the next thing,” he said, “and just seeing where that ends up.”