Kyrie Irving getting more blame than he deserves for Celtics’ disappointing season
The Celtics fully expect Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to be ex-Celtics in the coming days, as both have indicated they want to leave via free agency. It’s uncertain whether the Celtics have even made an offer to Irving, but it is apparent his tenure in Boston was troubled and regrettable for both sides.
There have been stories circulating about Irving’s behavior over the past two years, including his disregard for team officials and anger with his younger teammates.
Some of these stories have been overblown or paint Irving as a malcontent and poor teammate. From this reporter’s observations over the past two years, Irving engaged his teammates — they had conversations, they laughed and joked, and yes, sometimes they argued.
But to characterize Irving as the root of all that went wrong with the Celtics is quite inaccurate. There is a lot of good in Irving, but he seems to be conflicted between the jock and savant labels. He wants to be known for more than basketball, but he is obsessed with being great at basketball.
He doesn’t want anyone to delve into his personal life and treasures his privacy, but he had a starring role in a movie, “Uncle Drew,” and wants to pursue more acting opportunities.
He wanted to be a leader and front man of his own franchise, but bristled when many pointed fingers at him as the main source of the team’s issues. Irving definitely shares in the responsibility for the Celtics’ demise, but he isn’t the entitled prima donna who felt he was too talented and established for his teammates.
For example, his only public community relations appearances during his two years in Boston were for the Celtics’ stops at Children’s Hospital for their annual Christmas party. Irving fully participated in those, but those weren’t his only community contributions.
A team official told me that Irving did more things privately because he didn’t want it to be publicized and that his participation was “heartfelt.”
Call it just a bad mix of players, a combination of unfortunate circumstances beginning with the Gordon Hayward season-ending injury five minutes into the 2017-18 season, or just a team unable to handle expectations, but Irving’s tenure with the Celtics will be considered a disappointment for both sides. It will teach president of basketball operations Danny Ainge about just tossing any player into the Celtics’ culture and how quickly unhealthy team chemistry can derail a thriving franchise.
Irving wasn’t prepared to be the primary leader for a championship-contending team, but he didn’t receive a lot of help, either. Many of his teammates who participated in the team’s run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2017-18 wanted more respect and regard than they felt they received from Irving and the team this past season.
And by the time coach Brad Stevens got wind of the dysfunction, it was too late. If you recall, Jaylen Brown told the Globe the environment was “toxic” after the All-Star break — that was late February. There were times when it improved, when the Celtics were actually cohesive, but it didn’t last and Irving appeared to mentally check out toward the end of the Milwaukee playoff series.
Neither did Irving handle well the pressure of playing in the final year of his contract, nor the questions about his impending free agency. But the environment wasn’t ideal and perhaps the worst thing to happen to the 2018-19 Celtics was the playoff run of 2017-18.
The Horford news took the Celtics by surprise. They fully expected him to return on a three-year, $60 million extension, which would have benefited both sides in offering Horford security and the team salary-cap relief. But there is a mystery team that is believed to have offered Horford a four-year, $100 million-plus deal. That team is believed to be the Clippers, contingent on Doc Rivers’s team signing a maximum-salary free agent to pair with him.
The Celtics are planning to move on, and they likely won’t talk with Horford before free agency begins. That’s why talks cut off so soon. Boston had no plans to offer a fourth year and Horford’s representatives believe they already have a deal in place.
Yes, teams are contacting agents about players prior to Sunday at 6 p.m. Eastern, when they are allowed to contact free agents.
Of course, things could change for Horford. The first premium free agents to sign will begin to determine the market and who will go where. The Clippers are going after Kawhi Leonard, but he likely won’t agree to a deal until a few days into free agency when he completes his meetings with the Clippers, Lakers, 76ers, Knicks, and Raptors.
So there will be quality free agents who will have to wait several days before agreeing to contracts. Yet it’s apparent that Horford is certain that he’s headed elsewhere on a better contract than the Celtics would offer.
Ainge set sights on positive vibes
Danny Ainge made it clear that the Celtics’ draft was a reflection of their desire to change the locker room culture. They selected four players — Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, and Tremont Waters — who get along and appear intent on injecting positive vibes into an organization that desperately needs it.
“Very good guys, that played a big part as to why we selected them,” Ainge said. “I’ve always said everybody is leading somebody. They’re leading the right way or the wrong way and I consider everybody a leader. Character and leadership are very important as we look at players. Good people make coming to work more fun.”
The departure of Al Horford leaves Ainge with far more free agent options. Irving’s departure alone would not have freed up enough money to chase a maximum player. Horford’s loss, along with potentially renouncing point guard Terry Rozier, would create enough salary-cap space to pursue Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, who is expected to sign early in free agency.
“We have some flexibility, but I really don’t know what is realistic yet,” Ainge said. “Listen, I’ve always said when somebody goes, somebody else gets a new opportunity. I’m very excited about what the possibilities are over the next month. We’ll be able to talk a lot more about all of it, hopefully next month.
“I feel like my staff, we have a really good feel for all the players in the league and who they are and how they might fit with us and our needs . . . so I wouldn’t say a lot more homework, but I would say we’ll have a lot of conversation and get as organized as we possibly can.”
Ainge had some pleasant news and a prediction for Gordon Hayward, who is completely healthy and at the team’s Brighton practice facility working out daily. “I think Gordon’s going to have a great year,” Ainge said. “He’s putting in as much work as anybody. We get to see it. He’s here a lot. I’m very excited for Gordon.”
Prediction time for free agents
It could be an unprecedented free agency period beginning Sunday with several All-Star players eligible to sign with new teams. Here is a prediction on where some of them will go.
Kyrie Irving — Has he spent enough time convincing Kevin Durant the two should pair up and play for the Brooklyn Nets? That’s a distinct possibility. Irving appears set to sign with Brooklyn and get back to his New York-New Jersey roots. Remember, the Nets and Knicks were on his list of preferred teams when he demanded his trade from Cleveland in 2017. Prediction: Nets
Kawhi Leonard — He is going to take his time with his decision, meeting with as many as five teams. But it would be astute for Leonard to return to Toronto on a short-term deal, and then he could sign a maximum contract again in two years with 10 years vested, which would earn him more money. Prediction: Raptors
Kevin Durant — He has spent all of his time in New York since his Achilles’ surgery and it’s hard to envision him returning to the Warriors since he opted out of his contract. Golden State will offer him the super-max, but it seems Durant’s heart is in New York. Prediction: Nets
Al Horford — The Clippers are in need of a center and they have money to spend. Horford is a Doc Rivers-type of guy — a coach on the floor and a strong defender who won’t ask for much else besides teammates to play hard around him. The Clippers would want to pair Horford with a Leonard or Durant, but if not, they’ll invest their money on a quality veteran big man. Prediction: Clippers
Kemba Walker — It appeared that he would re-sign with Charlotte, but then he made the All-NBA team and was eligible for the super-max (five years, $221 million). Suddenly the Hornets balked. Walker wants to play closer to his New York roots and has always had support in Boston because of his UConn ties. The Hornets would be better served letting him go and rebuilding because they have $85 million in contracts not including Walker’s money. Prediction: Celtics
Conley’s trade is worst-kept secret
In an era where trades can’t be announced until after free agency begins and the new salary cap is set, Mike Conley’s move from the Grizzlies to the Jazz is the NBA’s worst-kept secret. He goes to Utah to become the team’s point guard, to help take the Jazz to the next level.
Utah expected to emerge as a Western Conference power but has been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs the past two years. Conley was acquired to be a calming presence on the floor and a community leader off it.
He earned the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award and the NBA Sportsmanship Award this past week.
“Honestly, I don’t think it’s anything I will have to try to do; I think it’s my personality. It’s who I am,” he said of his commitment to community service. “Already the whole organization, the Utah Jazz, they do so much in the community that I will just fit right in. I want to fit in seamlessly and be that player that everybody is used to being around in the city.
“So it’s our responsibility to be those kind of people — role models and good people, not just basketball players — and that’s what I want to try to continue to do.”
Conley expected to be traded. Memphis, where he spent the past 12 years, was headed in a different direction. The Grizzlies traded Marc Gasol at the deadline and hired new coach Taylor Jenkins, who at 34, is just three years older than Conley.
Since Conley has two years left on a five-year, $150 million contract, it was difficult to find trade partners where the Grizzlies could receive adequate compensation.
Memphis received Kyle Korver, former Celtic Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen, and a first-round pick.
Conley has been a true professional throughout his NBA career, and, like Gasol, was well aware that the Grindhouse Era in Memphis (tabbed by former Celtic Tony Allen) was over. There’s nothing personal to the deal. The Grizzlies want to develop second overall pick Ja Morant and want to go young. Conley knew the team was shopping him. The Pistons also showed interest. Others inquired, but Conley harbors no hard feelings. He finishes as one of the great Grizzlies and will eventually have his number retired.
“At the time, you know, you try to prepare yourself for that moment, but you really don’t know how you’re going to react to it,” Conley said of being traded. “Once it happened, you know, you just reflect on all the memories . . . Memphis, there for 12 years, and it was a great 12 years, and I’m going to miss that city a lot.
“After about 30, 45 minutes it started to all settle in and I started to get really excited about the new opportunity and the great team that I will be joining. They’re already so good and to be added to that is something I’m really looking forward to, trying to make those guys the best players they can be and try to do something special.”
Former Boston College standout Ky Bowman went undrafted but eventually signed a contract with the Warriors. He will try to earn an invitation to training camp starting this coming week when the Warriors appear in the California Classic. Bowman expected to get drafted, but it’s probably better that he wasn’t a late second-rounder because it allowed him the opportunity to choose his team . . . The Washington Wizards have made a series of trades in the past few weeks with interim general manager Tommy Sheppard, who has served as an assistant to Ernie Grunfeld. Owner Ted Leonsis had his sights on Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri, expecting to make a big-money offer after Toronto’s postseason run. But the Raptors won the title. Ujiri’s price and value went up and the Wizards did not make an offer. It’s giving Sheppard an extended opportunity to make an impression to get a permanent job. He acquired the expiring contract of Jonathon Simmons and then took three Lakers second-year players for a second-round pick and cash to the Pelicans as part of the Anthony Davis deal. Because John Wall is likely out for the season with a torn Achilles’ and the Wizards aren’t going to compete, Sheppard decided to take an expiring contract and three young players to foster the rebuilding plan. Ian Mahinmi, Simmons, and Dwight Howard come off the books next summer, adding a total of $26 million to the Wizards’ free agent money and enabling them to go after a max player in 2020. Until then, they are parting with most of their tradable assets besides Bradley Beal and planning for the future . . . The deadline to offer fourth-year contracts to the draft class of 2015 was Friday and two former lottery picks were cut loose by their teams. The Pelicans did not offer a contract to Stanley Johnson, a former eighth overall pick of the Pistons who was riddled with inconsistency. The Hornets passed on stretch-4 Frank Kaminsky, the ninth overall pick, who could never get steady playing time in Charlotte and could use a new environment. The 2015 draft, highlighted by Karl-Anthony Towns, has turned out to be an ill-advised one for most of the lottery teams. Of the 14 lottery picks in that draft, nine have already changed teams. Only Towns and D’Angelo Russell have reached the All-Star Game.