BOSTON – As the cars whizzed by on the Atlanta streets, Kyrie Irving stared into the distance. He had been spending the day as Uncle Drew, living as an alter ego; not truly himself. It was ironically akin to the situation he just found out he was leaving behind in Cleveland. Irving wanted the freedom to evolve into the man he wants to be, into the leader he believes he is destined to become.
But in that moment, he was basking in the glory of the news that he had finally been traded to the Boston Celtics.
“When I was on set and got the call, I probably cursed twice, and then ran out and took a moment out on the street in Atlanta watching the cars pass by,” Irving said at his introductory press conference with Gordon Hayward Friday. “I took in that moment because it really meant something and it was the start of something new. I knew that I was going to come into contact with some other great individuals and we were going to go after something special.”
This is not the first time Irving has been a part of something special or bigger than himself. He just made three consecutive finals in Cleveland, a feat that does not require further adulation. But from the man who makes garrulous eloquence appear rudimentary, he repeated a simple, yet laborious refrain that defines this drastic shift in his career:
“Being in an environment that is conducive for my potential.”
Over the course of 24 hours, Irving broke his offseason-long silence about his motivations for leaving Cleveland, mimicking nearly verbatim the initial reports of his trade request. His message has been consistent and reflective of the ceiling he smashed his head against repeatedly in Cleveland. It was not his team. LeBron set the tone and controlled the locker room. Everything ran through the King first and foremost before Prince Kyrie could do what he does.
Kyrie made a bold and audacious choice that he wanted to seize his throne, rather than wait to inherit his command. He heard the noise around the league that LeBron was in a California state of mind – a rumor that has become increasingly real with each offseason event -- and elected to set sail on his own before the ship went down. He recognized the institutional flaws emanating from ownership that were exacerbated by the gravity of LeBron’s presence and saw a dead end approaching rapidly. He sought greener pastures, where a system can be built around him and ultimate accountability is thrust onto his shoulders.
“It’ll be an unbelievable experience for something new,” Irving said. “To be in a place like this, where everyone will gravitate not only to us as individuals, but as a collective group and as a team, and they’ve done it the past years before us and will do it years after us, and I just wanted to be a part of that.”
Irving was on a team where LeBron seized control of the most intense moments, for better or for worse. Almost always for better. The team looked to him as he would scream in huddles, barking out orders on both ends as the crowd roars and the pressure builds. Irving was an apprentice for so long, and now feels it’s his time to be that leader.
“Is there ever such a thing as one person carrying a whole team? I don’t think so,” he said. “We’ll be just as elated as if it was the first guy, second guy, third guy. That’s the common knowledge that I have in this game that was given to me and the love that I have for it. Being on a special team like that, with special individuals and looking a man in the eye and telling him, ‘You can depend on me.’ There’s nothing like that.”
This goes beyond the next man up. He has a true captain manning the ship; Russell Crowe in Master and Commander. The ultimate strategist and master chemist. Brad Stevens’ reputation preceded him early in his career, with the plaudits emanating from his locker room and across the hall exceeding the results on the board. But Stevens gradually built up his program until its explosion last year. Now he is the Pop of the east, the man every player in the league is looking to as the next innovator and consensus builder.
Stevens has become the draw for Boston, epitomizing the identity ownership and the front office has always preached and allowing that identity to bear fruit into results. Stevens has instilled a communal culture in a unique way that has empowered players across the roster. The Celtics have become a beacon for players across the league looking for that altruistic culture that has seen the Warriors reach new heights and pushed the Celtics toward contention at a pace greater than their personnel dictated on paper.
“When you have a collection of individuals that are all having one vision and one goal and collectively getting better every single day,” Irving said. “There are a lot of moving parts and you have to depend on those moving parts to do their job and develop an identity that only they will know. It is our job to bring the best out of each other every single day. I think that has been echoed throughout this entire organization as well as the players and that is the tradition here in Boston.”
Kyrie came to Boston in search of egalitarianism as much as his own domain. Stevens is a kingmaker in his own way, creating that environment conducive to growth that makes Kyrie light up. Isaiah Thomas made the leap under Stevens that perhaps only he himself saw possible.
Irving comes from an iso-heavy system, which has its obvious merits when called upon. But its over-simplicity fell short against the best in Golden State, and it’s apparent that Irving and Hayward seek to take the convoluted system Stevens has built and flood it with high-octane jet fuel. The foundation is still in place for Kyrie to trampoline off of Stevens’ offensive philosophies into a new stratosphere.
“The most exciting thing about coaching is the opportunity of putting a team together,” Stevens said. “And it can only happen if your best players are guys who really want to be a part of something special as a group, and appreciate the value of what everybody brings to the table.
“We are starting off with a great foundation. With these guys, and Al, and some of our young players, this is going to be an exciting growth process.”
Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals showed the potential for Stevens’ system as the fulcrum of a championship run. It was a night where the Celtics were finally hitting all their shots, and Stevens pulled out a few curveballs to throw body shots while the Cavs’ gloves were up. It was all of the versatility and efficiency at the core of their program hitting its peak at the same time. Because of the talent gap, it still took an Avery Bradley game-winning three to actually pull it off.
Now the players at the Celtics’ core are supremely talented, even if the rotation has temporarily thinned out during this transition. But they no longer have to scramble when the system doesn’t work every possession. They finally boast the core competency that is the mark of a true contender, with multiple players that can take the offense upon themselves with expected efficacy at any point of the game.
But they will have to feel each other out, as well as the Stevens system flowing through Al Horford, before they can establish those pillars of success.
“A championship caliber team can differ based on the different personalities that you have as a team,” Irving told CSNNE Friday. “Man, it’s just so many moving parts and you just gotta trust the next guy next to you and the guy behind you. Everything that embodies everything on a team and a collectiveness. Getting a collection of individuals to buy into the same mission sounds easy, but it takes a while to build that into something great.”
But there is immense pressure on Irving. He put everything on his back, walking away from perhaps the greatest player ever to try to prove he can get to that level. Irving doesn’t appear to be looking for individual success as some sort of selfish trope, but a collective success that he can call his own. He was thrust into a situation in Cleveland in which he apparently did not feel ownership and now he gets to build something special with a worthy partner in Hayward among the mass of talent already in place in Boston.
Irving poured the gasoline out and dropped the lighter when he asked out of Cleveland. Friday, he sat back and dangled his feet over the blaze. The embers cackling skyward are just around the corner.
As he said to Hayward during their presser, “It’s about to be crazy, G.”