When Kyrie Irving trudged off the court before the final buzzer of Boston’s Game 4 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that all but sealed the Celtics' postseason demise, a chorus of fans near the tunnel vented their frustrations by suggesting Irving could just leave (even if maybe the loudest fan, and the outlier of the group, pleaded for the opposite.
Now that the Celtics have bowed to the Bucks, capping one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history, the dispirited masses have only grown louder in their suggestion that it would be best if Irving did not return to Boston next season.
Here’s what those folks are missing while blinded by their anger at the 2018-19 Celtics: Nothing would be more catastrophic for the future of the Celtics than Irving signing with another team.
We understand the frustrations. Irving’s missteps trying to learn how to be a leader this season caused avoidable strife in the locker room and, combined with the heavy burden of expectations, left this team perpetually frustrated by its shortcomings. Irving compounded matters by brooding midseason about the speculation about his future. And he could have erased those memories by keying a Boston postseason run — just like he had boldly declared himself ready to do as early as February — but he instead endured one of the worst shooting slumps of his career while Boston lost four in a row and got unceremoniously dumped by the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
While Brad Stevens blamed himself for a bad coaching job this season, all while Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown offered public apologies for Boston’s underwhelming campaign, Irving never quite took accountability for the Celtics’ failures. The “We Miss Isaiah” crowd dropped from out of the clouds with their pitchforks while others used Boston’s playoff exit as an opportunity to revisit the season-old “Are the Celtics better without Kyrie?” argument.
It’s completely understandable but also misguided and there’s a heavy recency bias. The possibility of losing an All-NBA talent with a championship pedigree should be terrifying for Celtics fans, no matter how infuriating his play was against the Bucks. For all his warts, Irving is still one of the NBA’s elite players at a high-demand position and, maybe most importantly, the Celtics would have almost no immediate means of replacing his talents without completely rebooting the roster.
There'd be no cap space to sign a big-ticket replacement (sorry, Kemba Walker and Kevin Durant are not walking through that door). There wouldn’t be a superstar presence to entice more talent (if Anthony Davis’ camp didn’t want him here before, they certainly won’t now). In the NBA, it’s OK to move on from talent, but unforgivable not to get something in return for that departure.
Call it the Kyrie Conundrum. While we understand all of the reasons why you might want to move on from Irving, it’d be the worst thing that could happen for the Celtics this summer.
It is ironic that, back in September, when Irving first teased us with the suggestion that he planned to stay in Boston long term, the exact phrasing he used was, “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here.” A straw poll of Celtics fans almost certainly would suggest that, at this moment, he is persona non grata.
Of course, if you told these same folks that the best option to replace Irving next season would be overpaying Terry Rozier to stick around, they might change their tune.
Even if Irving declines his $21.3 million player option and alerts the Celtics that he does not plan to re-sign, Boston would remain over the salary cap. This isn’t a situation where, if Irving walks, the Celtics can turn around and use his salary to pursue a big-name free agent such as Walker. Trying to generate any sort of meaningful salary-cap space would require both Irving and Al Horford to both opt out of their deals, and for the team renounce their rights (meaning neither could be re-signed, nor would the team be able to sign-and-trade them for anything).
Bidding farewell to two All-Stars for only the chance to pursue another on the open market seems like bad business.
What about a sign-and-trade, you’re wondering? Good in theory, difficult in execution. Remember that, in a sign-and-trade under the new CBA, the Celtics couldn’t offer Irving the lucrative fifth season that distinguishes their offer. What’s more, sign-and-trades only benefits the receiving team if they didn’t have the space to absorb the contract. It’s likely that any team that Irving would desire to play for would have the available cap room to sign him outright (New York, Brooklyn, Los Angeles) and agreeing to a sign-and-trade would only weaken the roster of the team set to acquire him.
All of which is why the Celtics will be ready to give Irving his five years and $190 million, regardless of whether you’ll have him back or not (there is the chance, too, he might simply want a shorter-term deal in hopes of a bigger payday down the road). Talent is king in the NBA and every superstar has warts. Ultimately, teams do their best to mask those deficiencies and winning goes a long way towards hiding them.
Irving’s return likely means changes to other areas of the roster because this blend simply didn’t work last season. Maybe his return encourages the Celtics to be even more aggressive in the pursuit of Davis.
It will also challenge all involved to morph and grow. Stevens has thrived his entire career with scrappy underdogs but struggled to put the pieces to this uber-talented puzzle together this year. He must learn how to motivate and discipline elite talent, even if those players don’t always want their deficiencies spotlighted.
You can absolutely make the case that, if Irving signs elsewhere, the Celtics might be just fine by bringing back the same core from last season. Or maybe Boston could use its surplus of draft picks to seek a replacement. It’s simply hard to see how they land a player of Irving’s caliber that way. It would seemingly lower their ceiling.
To be fair, the Celtics came nowhere near that ceiling this season. And the team’s failures only accentuated much of what bothered fans most about Irving. It’d be easier for Green Teamers to accept him if he owned his shortcomings, suggested he’s eager to atone and showed a Marcus Smart-like desire to represent what the Celtics stand for.
That might not happen. And maybe you’ll grumble if he ultimately elects to re-sign in Boston. But a second chance might just be the Celtics' best chance to make you forget about all the frustrations of the past season.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.