In Boston, we love our sports heroes and love to hate our villains. Kyrie Irving, in the span of several months, transformed himself into a villain with his actions, words, and bloated or exaggerated stories about his ambivalence toward respect or disregard for his teammates.
He was supposed to return Wednesday to TD Garden for the first time with the Brooklyn Nets, but he was absent because of a shoulder impingement that caused him to miss the past seven games. He is uncertain to play in the rematch Friday at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but there were plenty of questions thrown at Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson about coaching Irving.
Somehow, Irving has gone from being an integral part of last season’s implosion and disappointing season to solely responsible for it. If there was anything that went bad in Boston in the past 12 months — the Red Sox season, the Bruins’ Game 7 loss, the elongated winter, the rising cost of parking at Logan — it was Kyrie’s fault.
He was single-handedly responsible for ruining a franchise and cryptic stories have surfaced about his unpredictable attitude, his diabolical plan to ditch the Celtics before last season even started, and his disregard for his younger teammates.
Some of that is true. Irving was hard on players such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And while Tatum, because of their Duke ties, responded with respect to Irving, Brown wasn’t so cooperative. When asked this week in Denver whether Irving’s absence has opened up the offense for him and Tatum, he responded, “No comment.”
It’s essentially time to move on from the Kyrie Irving era in Boston. Leave the dude alone. He’s playing with the Nets, they are below .500, he has already missed 38 percent of their games and will miss more with myriad nagging injuries.
Meanwhile, Kemba Walker missed one game after his neck went into Semi Ojeleye’s chest like the top of a pen and popped back out. The Celtics made out OK from the Irving situation. They were able to acquire Walker, which has allowed Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart to grow and become better leaders.
That likely would not have happened if Irving had stayed. His shadow would have continued to hover over the organization, and questions would have continued to surface about his personality and whether a team led by Irving could actually win an NBA title.
Irving was a moody dude. But he was not unapproachable. Certain athletes will answer questions regardless of how they are worded. They are amicable. They actually enjoy speaking with the media. Irving enjoyed the process occasionally but was often annoyed with questions he didn’t feel were worded to his liking.
Also, there were Celtics officials who often wondered what exactly made Irving happy. He spent his two years in Boston trying to find himself, learning more about his Native American heritage, regretting his disinterest in LeBron James’s mentorship so much he called James and apologized two years after they went their separate ways.
There was happy Kyrie. Philosophical Kyrie. Unapproachable Kyrie. Worldly Kyrie. Aloof Kyrie. He was one of the most complex professional athletes I have covered because it was nearly impossible to penetrate his impeccable shell. He often talked about disliking the social media attention and invasiveness of playing in the NBA, yet he decided to star in a movie.
It’s very easy to point out his off-court faults, blame him for the disappointment that was the 2018-19 Celtics, but it wasn’t nearly all his fault. It’s time to leave Kyrie Irving alone, let him try to find true happiness in Brooklyn, and for Celtics faithful to cherish Irving’s replacement, Walker.
“He’s one of the best players in the NBA,” Stevens said. “And the level of scrutiny is unfair, but it comes with the territory of all those guys. I think that’s why it’s so important that we constantly remind ourselves how good they are. The way that people talked about his time — I mean, he was second-team All-NBA last year. He was ridiculous the year before. He’s a heck of a player and he gets to choose where he wants to go play.
“Gets to go home, I think that’s something that we all very much respect and we certainly — like I said, we wish him nothing but health and happiness. I just think this is the world we live in. I think that’s just part of it. I don’t particularly like it, even being in the seat where you’re getting too much praise is uncomfortable. But we’ve got to react to something and, unfortunately, we’re pretty reactionary.”
The Celtics are better off because the atmosphere is not dictated by Irving’s attitude and Irving is better off because he is finally seeking happiness on his own terms. If that’s playing close to his New Jersey home with buddy Kevin Durant, so be it. So maybe there was something to that All-Star Game chat with Durant that Irving was so defensive about afterward.
He admitted he left here with a satchel full of regrets. He made mistakes. He didn’t know how to handle true leadership, being the central figure of a championship-caliber team, but everything wasn’t his fault. There was a bunch of fingerprints on that disaster, and while Irving’s may have been the biggest, the issues were far deeper than just Irving’s prickly personality.
There was the combination of the previous year’s Eastern Conference finals run, the return of a not-quite-ready Gordon Hayward, the desire of Brown, Tatum, and Terry Rozier for increased roles, and Stevens’s lack of recognition that all these factors may cause dissension.
So it’s time to move on from Kyrie Irving, time to eliminate the negative energy, stop talking about why last year went wrong and focus on a team that’s more likable and with a better opportunity to reach lofty goals.