Celtics

Kyrie Irving's unpredictable future with Celtics makes for fascinating theatre

Kyrie Irving's unpredictable future with Celtics makes for fascinating theatre

Unpredictability. It’s what makes Kyrie Irving so unique on the basketball court. An opposing defender can never be certain what Irving is going to do next and he keeps everyone guessing by dipping into a seemingly endless rolodex of basketball moves.

Unpredictability. It’s what makes Irving so unique off the court. He loves to challenge conventional beliefs, everything from the Earth’s geometry to the type of foods we consume. The all-seeing eye that has become a staple of Irving’s brand is a constant reminder of how he questions everything.

When we expect Kyrie to zig, he zags. It’s part of what makes Irving so fascinating. And maybe frustrating as well.

Celtics fans, on edge after a week of reports speculating about Irving’s future and the possibility that he’s cooled on his preseason declaration to re-sign with Boston after the season, were hoping Irving would strut into Madison Square Garden on Friday morning, reaffirm his love for the organization, and calm the masses with a declaration of dedication.

It didn’t happen. 

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Irving bristled at the rumors swirling around him but didn’t exactly shoot them down. Asked if he still planned to re-sign with Boston, Irving said to “ask me July 1,” and later declared, “At the end of the day, I'm going to do what's best for my career, and that's just where it stands.”

Irving asserted that, “Boston is still at the head of the race,” but, in doing so, essentially admitted that there’s still a competition for his services. If Irving wanted to end all the “unwarranted commentary” about his future, he could have squashed it on Friday.

But when everyone expects Kyrie to zig, he zags.

What’s obvious from Irving’s five-minute session with reporters was that he does not much like others suggesting what he’s thinking. The reports about his future and who he’d like to play for or with have added unnecessary tension to a season that hasn’t gone to script.

Part of what makes covering Irving so fascinating is that, for all his accomplishments, he’s still a 26-year-old trying to figure everything out. He offers genuine emotions in the moment and that sometimes gets him in trouble. Irving so clearly yearns to be a good leader and yet he’s still figuring out how to thrive in that role. It’s a fascinating dichotomy: Basketball comes so easy to him and yet it’s been a challenge to get these Celtics to reach their potential as a team this season, and it all plays into what’s ahead for him.

Irving’s own missteps, while simply the product of those emotions, have complicated matters and maybe contributed to the speculation about his future. Still, it’s noise from the outside that has added noise this week and now we wait to see if his raw reaction Friday pours gasoline on the matter.

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It should be reaffirmed: Nothing that Irving said before this week suggested a player who had changed his outlook on the future. The possibility of a change of heart has always existed but only became a storyline when someone other than Irving suggested he might be having a change of heart.

It’s important to remember that Irving’s preseason declaration was made out of a combination of 1) Excitement about the prospects of the year ahead and 2) To limit the amount of questions about his future so that it wouldn’t hover like a cloud over Boston’s season. Heck, that Irving even made public his declaration stunned many in the Celtics organization, but they also recognized that a verbal commitment wasn’t exactly binding. It just ensured sunny skies early in the year.

A new cloud hovers now, joining the cumulus that gathered while the Celtics endured more turbulence than expected in the first few months. It’s somewhat ironic that the cloud about Irving’s future arrives just as the Celtics seemingly start to play some of their most consistent basketball of the season.

Maybe that’s contributing to Irving’s frustrations. These reports have put him in an uncomfortable spot just as the Celtics seem poised to gain some momentum. Irving chastised reporters Friday when he said, “It’s crazy how stories and storylines can seep into a locker room. [The media is] part of the destruction of locker rooms.” Later he added, “This is an entertainment industry. I don’t live for this entertainment.”

Part of what endeared Boston to Irving was that the focus was often on basketball and not the drama that he loathed during his time in Cleveland. Is he handling this current situation the right way by pushing back on Friday? Again, Irving is simply saying how he feels and offering genuine emotion. Maybe it’d be easier to just reaffirm his dedication to Boston but that wouldn’t be true to himself.

Irving has already learned this season that he needs to be careful with his words. His heart is usually in the right place but his public criticism of younger players caused unnecessary tension before his own future came into the spotlight.

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The wildcard here is what Irving is saying behind the scenes. In much the same way that he revealed his desires to re-sign in Boston to team brass a few days before his public declaration, there is always the chance that Irving has communicated what he’s feeling and where he stands to both the Celtics’ front office and his teammates. If they know where he’s at, then the noise is less likely to permeate the walls.

Through it all, we’re left to speculate from the outside. And, in the rush to suggest that Irving might have one foot out the door, let’s remember that he so often does the exact opposite of what you are expecting.

One thing is certain: This is fascinating theatre. It’s Super Bowl week and the NBA is dominating the sports landscape, much of the focus on topics that might not have resolutions until five months out. As the Celtics navigate the peaks and valleys, so does their star, who's learning just how difficult it can be in the spotlight. 

This won’t be the final twists and turns in the Irving saga. How the Celtics finish out the 2018-19 season could play a big role in what exactly he decides about his future. If Boston makes a sustained postseason run, Irving is more likely to stay. If the Celtics hook another big fish at the start of the offseason, Irving has increased motivation to stick around.

For now, it’s probably best to just enjoy the show. Whether Irving has 30 games left in a Boston jersey or if his No. 11 eventually ends up in the rafters at TD Garden like he’s publicly yearned for, just enjoy the ride. 

Because it’s too hard trying to guess how it’ll all play out. Irving is much too unpredictable.

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Habershow Podcast: Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Luka Doncic, politics

Habershow Podcast: Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Luka Doncic, politics

When did Mark Cuban know Luka Doncic could be a franchise player?

The Dallas Mavericks owner sat down with Tom Haberstroh in a hotel lounge at NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago to discuss scouting, drafting and building around the 20-year-old All-Star.

Plus Cuban revealed what he learned talking basketball with Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as well as his own political aspirations. 

2:22 — When Cuban knew Luka could be a franchise player

8:53 — Why Cuban follows certain players on social media

11:34 — The need to monetize NBA highlights

24:12 — Will Mark Cuban run for president?

25:22 — Talking basketball with Obama and Trump

LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE HERE:

 

Celtics' post-All-Star break storylines: Health, help, and Timelord

Celtics' post-All-Star break storylines: Health, help, and Timelord

The Celtics reconvene in Boston on Wednesday night for their first post-All-Star practice before heading out west for a four-game trip.

Two-thirds of the 2019-20 regular season is already in the rear-view mirror but there’s a lot for this team to figure out in the final 28 games.

Here are eight things we’ll have our eyes on over the final eight weeks of Boston’s 82-game schedule:

1. Can the Celtics get — and stay — healthy?

Boston’s preferred starting five of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Daniel Theis has played a mere 17 games (16 starts) and 188 total minutes together this season. That's an absurdly low number when you consider a team such as Cleveland has had its starting group together in 41 games and 649 total minutes.

The good news for Boston: Among lineups with at least those 188 minutes, Boston’s starters have the seventh-best net rating (plus-12.8) and the best overall offensive rating (121.1). The question is whether those numbers are sustainable, particularly against elite competition. 

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Last we saw the Celtics, Jaylen Brown was out with ankle sprains, Enes Kanter re-aggravated his hip injury and Robert Williams was still out due to his own hip issue (more on him in a bit). The Celtics could really benefit from a sustained run of decent health, especially while trying to assess whether they need to roll the dice and explore the buyout scrap heap. Speaking of which ...

 

2. Can the Celtics find surefire help on the buyout market?

Despite Boston’s 38-16 record amid their health woes, there’s still a lot of fans — and media bloviators — stomping their feet about Danny Ainge’s inactivity at the trade deadline. Don’t try reasoning with them about how there weren’t any moves that made sense for Boston; they’d prefer Ainge spend recklessly for a marginal upgrade.

They might still get their wish for an addition.

Ainge and his staff will comb through the bargain buyout bin to see if there’s a veteran piece capable of helping this team down the stretch and into the playoffs. Boston desires size but that’s not necessarily a center (though there will certainly be interest if the changes in Cleveland lead to Tristan Thompson shaking free). If healthy — a big “if" with this team — the Celtics are well-stocked on the perimeter but additional frontcourt size would help considering the sort of big-man talent they will almost certainly encounter in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Ainge said last week that there wasn’t anything available at the moment that Boston was lusting after but the team will have to think harder about what’s available as the March 1 deadline for playoff-eligible additions approaches. Adding a player would force Boston to waive someone on its 15-man roster, but the team is willing to swallow a contract for the right addition.

3. What becomes of Robert Williams?

Williams, the second-year big man out since early December with a lingering hip issue, is scheduled to engage in his first full-team practice activities on Wednesday night. Ainge has said the team is eyeing a return to game action around March 1.

Especially if Kanter’s hip soreness lingers with the recent aggravation, the Celtics have an obvious need for Williams. Even at full strength, Kanter has noted the Voltron-like possibilities for Boston’s diverse group of centers including starter Theis and rookie depth option Vincent Poirier. "If you combine us all together like Power Rangers we can go out there and pretty much do offense, defense, rebound, everything,” said Kanter.

Williams, though, gives the team an athleticism it simply can’t get elsewhere. He can run the floor, throw down lobs, and use his springiness to protect the rim. The question is how much rust is there after a two-plus month layoff? And can Williams shore up some of the inconsistencies that existed even before his injury?

If Williams can carve out a rotation role again, it limits Boston’s need for a potential buyout addition. And it gives coach Brad Stevens the chance to trot out mix-and-match lineups that could potentially aid matchups where Theis and Kanter might struggle. 

4. Will Kyrie Irving ever play against the Celtics?

Two weeks before the Nets' last visit to Boston, old friend Kyrie Irving has already been ruled out indefinitely with shoulder concerns.

Anyone taking bets on whether he’ll play March 21 when Boston makes its final regular-season visit to Brooklyn? It will be fascinating to see if Irving shuts it down, particularly with the possibility of a Celtics-Nets matchup in the playoffs.

Speaking of potential postseason pairings… 

5. Will Boston make a run at the No. 2 seed?

With 28 games remaining, Boston sits 1.5 games behind the Toronto Raptors for the No. 2 seed in the East. Being the first runner-up to the conference-leading Bucks means two things: 1) A likely more favorable first-round pairing and 2) homecourt advantage in the East semifinals. 

If the season ended today, Boston would earn the No. 3 seed and would draw sixth-seeded Indiana, a team that’s nine games over .500 and just getting back one of its best players in Victor Oladipo. A first-round victory would likely send Boston to Toronto for the East semis. 

Shimmying up to that second spot would likely mean a first-round pairing with a team such as Brooklyn (three games under .500 and possibly Kyrie-less) or Orlando. It would also mean potentially having homecourt in Round 2.

A trip to Toronto on March 20 should go a long way towards helping shake out the top of the East seedings, with Miami lingering behind Boston. It could also be a reminder of just how valuable that No. 2 spot could be.

The Celtics weren’t able to make up any ground on Toronto as it ripped off a 15-game winning streak before the break. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects Toronto to finish a game ahead of Boston, the Celtics hindered by the tenth-most difficult remaining schedule in the NBA per BPI (the Raptors have the 19th most difficult).

On the flip side, will the Celtics prioritize late-season rest if their seeding comes into focus before the finish line?

6. What is Boston’s closing time lineup?

Which five players are the Celtics going to lean on in close games? Boston’s most-used fourth-quarter lineup this season has featured Walker, Brown, Tatum, Theis, and Marcus Smart. Alas, that group has only played 22 minutes together. 

Boston’s so-called “best five” lineup — sub Hayward in place of Theis — has played only 15 minutes together in the final quarter in six games this season (and has a minus-0.8 net rating in that tiny sample).

Can the Celtics go super small and get away with it? Better health will be needed to find out over the final 28 regular-season games. 

7. Which rookies show progress?

The end of Boston’s bench is filled with first-year players, many of whom have played bountiful minutes with the team’s depth thinned by injury this year. The question is whether Stevens can trust any of those rookies when the postseason arrives.

Grant Williams has made encouraging progress, including some solid overtime minutes in the first-half finale against the Clippers. His playoff role could hinge on just how much confidence Stevens has in him by the end of the regular season.

If the Celtics are not at full health when the postseason arrives, Williams could see a good chunk of minutes on a big stage.

8. Can Jayson Tatum maintain his march to stardom?

Fresh off his first All-Star appearance, Tatum’s challenge is maintaining his two-way impact through the finish line of the season. Praise has come from all corners and Tatum has undeniably earned it with a recent impact that goes far beyond an increased scoring output. 

The question is whether Tatum can be the sort of player to take over late in a game on the playoff stage. He certainly showed himself capable of big moments in the postseason run in his rookie season, but it’s clear that even with all of the Celtics’ current talent, much of what this team accomplishes hinges on Tatum’s ability to continue to be a go-to option.

This Friday is Jayson Tatum Day here at NBC Sports Boston. Be sure to check out our exclusive content around Tatum throughout the day, both online and on the broadcast of Celtics-Timberwolves, which begins Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 8 p.m. You can also stream it on the MyTeams App.