Kyrie Irving is the Boston Celtics starting point guard — for now. The last few months have been a rough stretch for Irving and the Celtics. Things may only get more complicated.
The assumption when Irving joined the Celtics was that he’d be around for years while the team tried to build a dynasty. Irving would be at the heart of that dynasty. In a recent interview with the Boston Sports Journal, Irving was asked about his future in Boston.
“For me, it’s my job to just stay present. When all that stuff at that time comes, we’ll see what happens.”
It’s very similar to what he told the New York Times. A normal athlete answer, right? He’s just leveraging for contract negotiations when the time is right. And the time will be right in 2019 when he can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent. Context, however, might make Irving’s comments feel a bit more ominous.
In the playoffs, Terry Rozier played well enough in Irving’s absence. And while there were moments when Boston sports fans seemed to think they could go on without Irving, Rozier hit troubled patches during away games in the playoffs (and at home in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals). That’s a weakness too profound when comparing him to Irving. Rozier can’t be Irving’s one-for-one replacement. Still, the idea was spread through the dirty-water city (through sports radio waves): Irving may not be the long-term star in Boston. And perhaps Irving got the same idea.
“I think they’re scared. I think they’re scared and should be scared to some degree of Kyrie Irving walking in 2019. I know he had a great year, but you know there are people in Cleveland that will tell you that the Knicks should be considered a real threat for Kyrie Irving. Because Kyrie had talked about it, about playing with the Knicks with some players in that Cleveland locker room from what I was told.
“You know things can change. Obviously, you go to Boston and you become the face of the franchise. You’re on a winning team. Maybe the mindset has changed significantly.”
To add fuel to the fire, Irving was absent from the Celtics’ sideline for much of the playoffs, including the eastern finals. At the end of the playoff run, he got an elective surgery on his face, and missed Game 7.
Then there’s Irving’s knee issues. The health concerns complicate whether he can be “the guy” for Boston — or any franchise. If Irving wants to be the alpha, he’s got to be healthy enough to get his knees and his team through the NBA Finals. He couldn’t do that in 2017-18.
Irving’s lack of commitment won’t get solved this offseason, as he won’t sign an extension (because he stands to gain an enormous lump of cash by waiting for unrestricted free agency). He will rightfully string the Celtics along.
Add all those issues up. Danny Ainge is probably listening to trade calls, though he’s probably not actively looking to trade Kyrie. Irving is actually a very tradable asset if he can pass a physical (no promises there).
Irving and the Celtics will be at the center of most trade rumors. They always are. Inquiries will lead to rumors and speculation — Irving will likely get tied into these reports of trade talks. After all, if the Celtics want to acquire LeBron James, they’d have to shed a max contract (and more). Irving is a natural person to move, because he doesn’t get along with LeBron. Similarly, if trade talks heat up surrounding Kawhi Leonard, Irving (or Al Horford) might be the type of player the Spurs are seeking. The list of trade targets goes on, but Irving is often the corresponding piece.
If Irving won’t commit to the Celtics, then Boston won’t commit to him. That doesn’t mean they will part ways immediately or at all. But as Irving begins to get entrenched in rumor, his relationship with the Celtics will get more and more complicated. How can Irving feel good about his long-term viability on a team that tosses him into every trade offer? Especially if he wants the Celtics to be his team. And to be fair, he does seem to like this team a lot.
“I think that’s the exciting part about all this is that when you’re shaping up to gear up to be a championship-caliber team for years to come — which I think Danny (Ainge) has echoed for a little bit. I’m just appreciative to be a part of it and see where my career can take off as well. I’m excited.”
As long as he doesn’t take off to New York.
As Irving and the Celtics proceed, they’ll have to step lightly so as not to frustrate the other. They’ve quickly hit a tenuous stage in their relationship that cannot get resolved until 2019. This offseason could help rebuild their relationship — or it could lead to the eventual abandonment of it.