Celtics

Can Irving put spin move on drama? Celtics success might depend on it

Can Irving put spin move on drama? Celtics success might depend on it

A smiling Kyrie Irving, a luxuriant summer afro atop his dome and frayed rope bracelets dangling from his wrist, plopped into a chair in front of a large throng of reporters at Celtics Media Day in late September and gushed with an obvious excitement about the season to come.

"I’m just appreciative of the opportunity to finally be comfortable. That’s the biggest thing. I’m happy. It’s peaceful,” said Irving, noting how the constant questions about the reasons behind his trade request from Cleveland a year earlier had worn on him.

"I used to be nervous to come up here and talk to you guys because I would wonder what you guys would ask me. But, at this point, it’s like I really don’t care. So it’s about the team, how successful we can be and the potential of it. I’m excited about that. So I’m just kind of comfortable and happy to be here now, and present.”

Ahh, those were simpler times. 

Five months and plenty of bumps in the road  later, Irving slumped in a chair on the campus of Marquette University Wednesday afternoon and bristled when a reporter asked his thoughts on a video of Irving and Kevin Durant at All-Star weekend that went viral, with social media sleuths (rather recklessly) suggesting the two were plotting a future together in New York.

Irving, already worn down from the incessant speculation about his future ever since his name got dragged into the Anthony Davis trade request drama, could have laughed off the video. He could have tried to shift the focus to Thursday night’s Eastern Conference showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks. Instead, Irving pushed back at the notion that he should have to respond to a random clip of him talking with a close acquaintance and the story snowballed.

“So it’s a video of me and one of my best friends talking, and then it turns out to be a dissection of a free-agency meeting? Do you get that? Like, do you get that?” said Irving. "And then I’m questioned about it? That’s what disconnects me from all this s—.”

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Irving is well within his right to be frustrated by the questions about a random cell phone video snapped in the hallway at the All-Star game. Given the amount of attention and speculation the video created, however, it’s also fair for reporters to ask him about it.

Much like Irving could have squashed the speculation about his future earlier this month by simply stating that he still plans to re-sign in Boston, he allowed the video drama to mushroom by ranting about it.

Irving is still figuring this leadership thing out. He’s had notable missteps, including repeatedly assigning blame for Boston’s struggles on the team's younger players (and he hinted at it again at All-Star weekend in a sitdown with ESPN that aired Wednesday morning). As much as he obviously desires to be a great leader, he’s seemingly found it’s more difficult than he envisioned. Heck, that’s why he called LeBron James (but even revealing that call turned into a headache when it got spun by the national media).

It’s all worn on Irving, maybe more than Boston’s roller-coaster season (which, truth be told, has largely been on the upswing since mid-November, though the few bumps have been pronounced). On the eve of one of the team’s biggest matchups of the 2018-19 season, at a time when the focus should be on the Celtics trying to build off a strong pre-All-Star finish, Irving finds himself atop NBA headlines for grumping about a video that didn’t deserve as much acknowledgment as it got.

“This is the stuff that just doesn’t make the league fun,” said Irving. “Like, it doesn’t make the league fun. Nobody helps promote the league even more by doing bulls— like that.”

We’re not sure Irving is right here. The drama is at least putting more eyes on the NBA. The Davis trade request dominated the sports news cycle during Super Bowl week because of the soap opera-like nature of the situation, replete with the twists and turns that dragged Irving’s name into the mix (Does he want to play with LeBron again?! Is he planning to sign somewhere other than Boston this summer?!)

Irving must realize that, if he laughed off these reports or politely tried to steer the conversation to actual basketball, they’d pass quietly. Instead, his loquacious — and sometimes confrontational — responses end up extending the drama shelf life and only create more noise.

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It would be contradictory of this reporter to suggest that Irving should bottle up his opinions up when we plead for our athletes to be more open and honest. It’s actually refreshing to see someone be so honest. But there has to be a balance to it all, and Irving would be well served to look at the way other high-profile stars (yes, even LeBron) handle the daily inquiries about hot-button topics and (typically) defuse them. 

Irving is wired differently than most. He doesn’t want to give you the perfunctory answer. It’s much like Irving on the court, when you expect him to zig, he zags. He always keeps you guessing.

We’ve said it before but it’s a fascinating dichotomy watching Irving try to figure out how to be a leader. As easy as he makes everything look on the court, he’s clearly hit a few potholes off of it. Maybe that shouldn’t be unexpected for a 26-year-old tasked with guiding a young roster with absurd expectations.

So much of this team’s success this season could hinge on Irving’s growth as a leader. Can he get the most out of his teammates, and get the young core he’s often criticized to buy into the big-picture goals? Can he navigate the constant speculation about his future and keep the focus on Boston’s title aspirations?

To do such, Irving might have to alter his approach to the topics he so clearly does not yearn to engage in. He cannot allow them to sour his mood. When basketball starts back up on Thursday night, that task should become a bit easier, as the focus will slowly shift from the Days of Our Lives All-Star break to what should be an exhilarating stretch run in the Eastern Conference.

Irving needs to get back to the frame of mind he had in September. He needs to find an inner peace, even if the questions that gnaw at him linger. If Irving can stiff arm those queries a bit and keep the focus on basketball, the team’s success will diminish the noise.

Irving must heed what he said in September: “It’s about the team, how successful we can be, and the potential of it.” The noise isn’t going away but Irving can spin move around it and change the storylines with Boston’s success on the court.

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Classic Celtics: C's outlast Michael Jordan's Bulls in 1986 playoff thriller

Classic Celtics: C's outlast Michael Jordan's Bulls in 1986 playoff thriller

Want to witness one of the greatest individual performances in NBA history? Just tune into NBC Sports Boston on Sunday night.

Our "Classic Celtics" series -- which featured Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals on Friday night -- continues Sunday with a throwback: Game 2 of Boston's 1986 NBA playoffs first-round series with the Chicago Bulls.

That April 20, 1986, game at TD Garden was a defining moment for then-23-year-old Michael Jordan, who went off for an NBA postseason-record 63 points.

But Celtics fans can appreciate Jordan's masterful performance knowing that Boston outlasted Chicago 135-131 in double overtime and swept the series en route to an eventual NBA title.

The broadcast begins Sunday at 7 p.m. ET, and as an added bonus, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge -- who scored 24 points in this game while defending Jordan -- will join Brian Scalabrine to provide real-time commentary throughout the game.

Other reasons to watch:

- A vintage performance from Celtics star Larry Bird, who scored a team-high 36 points to go along with 12 rebounds and eight assists.

- The 1980s Celtics at their peak: Bird, Ainge, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton all scored double figures.

- Jordan hitting two free throws in the final seconds of regulation to force the first overtime.

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NBA Rumors: Execs expect Gordon Hayward to opt in to $34 million Celtics contract

NBA Rumors: Execs expect Gordon Hayward to opt in to $34 million Celtics contract

Gordon Hayward was enjoying his best season as a Boston Celtic before the 2019-20 season came to a screeching halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Through 45 games, the 30-year-old forward was averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 59.3 percent from the field. Hayward's performance was setting himself up for a solid contract if he were to opt out of his contract and hit free agency this summer.

That scenario doesn't appear likely, however.

According to Heavy.com, NBA executives expect Hayward to exercise his $34 million player option.

'It’s too much money to pass up,' one general manager told Heavy.com. 'He could get a longer deal if that is what he really wants. But I don’t think the Celtics want to give it to him, they have a lot of young guys to pay and the starting (salary) number on whatever the contract is will not be close to $34 million. He can opt in this year and then take a big contract next year. When you look at what he has done since his injury, he has only gotten better. He could get better next year and be ready for the summer of 2021.'

That doesn't exactly come as a surprise. Hayward may get a nice contract if he were to hit the open market this year, but it certainly wouldn't be anywhere near that eye-popping $34 million figure.

It makes far more sense for Hayward to take his money and test the market in 2021 if he and the Celtics don't agree on an extension before then. The 2021 free agent class will be much deeper, and teams will have more cap space to give Hayward a sizable long-term deal. That is, if he can duplicate the kind of success he's enjoyed so far this season.