Another loss, another Kyrie Irving post-game presser venting frustration and preaching patience. The broken record has become the soundtrack of the season.
But Irving’s media availability following the loss in Orlando, preceded by a very public display of discord, was different. After spending several moments of self-reflection to himself, his comments had a more thoughtful tone. He talked about the lack of experience, the inevitable timeline of an NBA career, and the importance of legacy. This was Uncle Drew being real.
I understand that for some fans—and maybe even some of Irving’s teammates—his words can fall on deaf ears. This is a team that—without him—in last year’s playoffs, made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. They understand how difficult it is to get there; they did it. His words might come off as the complaints of a petulant young star that didn’t get the ball for the game-winning shot.
Make no mistake, these are the growing pains of a 27-year-old trying to become a leader.
To Irving’s credit, he collected himself in the moment and delivered thoughtful insight into his confidence in his teammates and appreciation for their opportunity.
We can joke about Timelord and how time isn’t relevant to Robert Williams III. In reality, he’s a late round rookie and a project big for the Celtics, who they can afford to bring on slowly and play in short spurts. Irving doesn’t have that luxury of whim or in the least, recognizes the urgency of the moment.
This is a very deep and talented team. We know that. He knows that. But it won’t necessarily always be that way. With the impending free agency of Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier, and the likelihood that neither will be back in Boston next season, this could be a last hurrah of sorts. Danny Ainge has indicated that no trade is on the horizon and more importantly, believes in the ceiling of this roster. So does Irving. It’s not, “If they make a run to The Finals,” it’s, “When they make a run.”
Irving knows the earth isn’t flat and that the NBA landscape isn’t either. In the playoffs, there will be mountains to climb named Antetokounmpo and Embiid and Leonard. Irving understands that this is a league built on stars. They’re catered to and built around.
I can’t help but think that when Irving talks about his “young teammates,” those comments are directed at one person. It’s not a call to arms for all the young Celtics; it’s a direct call to action for Jayson Tatum. Irving is careful with his target. Just like he knows exactly what seed the Celtics are in the standings, he knows not to go after the vets or management. Any with all due respect to Brown and Rozier, Tatum’s potential rise to stardom needs to be accelerated.
Case in point: Marcus Smart. Over the last two weeks, Irving has been very complimentary towards his starting backcourt mate and for good reason. He sets the defensive standard and improved dramatically on the offensive end. He’s made the jump and Irving respects that. Admittedly, Tatum has a steeper climb ahead of him, but if he hits that potential, it raises the ceiling of the entire team.
Irving knows this script well. Before LeBron’s return to Cleveland, Kyrie enjoyed three years alone as a Cavalier and more importantly, he was The Man. By the time James rejoined the team in 2014, Kyrie had already been an All-Star twice and had established himself as one of the league’s best young players. He knows that he played a key role in attracting LeBron back to his hometown because stars want to play with stars. Now, in Boston, he’s trying to reverse engineer that process.
However, Irving’s frustration belies an intrinsic contradiction and impossibility. For all his faith in the roster and the rebuild, so much of it happened when he has away last season rehabbing his knee. It’s an unfortunate catch-22 and now, it’s as if after every loss, he’s begging his teammates to catch up with him. On Saturday, the word he repeated over and over again was “experience.” And as much as he wants to impart wisdom on his teammates, this may just be something they have to learn on their own with him by their side so to speak.
He’s out tonight with a quad contusion, but in today’s media availability, he addressed his comments from Orlando. “When you win, you want to taste it again. I never want to come from a place where I don’t want to sound like or make it feel like I don’t want to win a championship. Sometimes I may come off and say things—never to question my teammates in public again,” Irving said.
“I just want to win so bad. I came from a place where I asked for a trade and now I’m coming here and I believe in this organization. I want these young guys to be successful. In order to do that, we all gotta be on the same page and have that mindset that it’s a championship or nothing. Sometimes, that can get the best of me.”
He’s frustrated and it bubbled over, and my guess is, the team is frustrated, too. The only way to reconcile those feelings is to go through it together. Experience is the best teacher.
Irving knows that, too.