A fully healthy Kyrie Irving was supposed to help lead the Boston Celtics to the NBA finals. Instead, the Milwaukee Bucks exposed them in the second round and his future looks uncertain
It felt like a mercy killing, really. Last night the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Boston Celtics 116-91. The Bucks won the Eastern Conference semi-finals in five games, ending the dreams of a Celtics team that, at the start of the season, many thought would make the NBA finals. While there is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to Bostons second-round exit, much of it will fall squarely on the shoulders of Kyrie Irving, their All-Star point guard who is facing an uncertain future after finally getting his first real opportunity to lead his own team to the playoffs.
While its difficult to know exactly what was going on in Irvings mind when he demanded a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017, its fair to say he was hoping to escape from LeBron Jamess immense shadow. Landing with the Celtics, where he would join All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Al Horford plus a crop of talented young players, seemed to be an ideal situation for him to prove he could be a leader in his own right. Even when Hayward suffered a season-ending leg injury in his first game, that only seemed to give Irving the opportunity to put together one of the most dominant stretches of basketball of his career.
In retrospect, the worst thing that could have happened to Irving was the Celtics nearly making the NBA finals without him, after he too went down with injury. Had Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and company not managed to push James and the Cavaliers all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the expectations might not have been so high this season. Theoretically, adding a healthy Irving and Hayward to the mix should have been enough to push the 2018-19 Celtics over the top, particularly since LeBron had already departed to the Western Conference to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
The first flaw in the plan was that they didnt realize that Giannis Antetokounmpo would immediately jump into the void that James left behind in the East, become the likely MVP and lead the Bucks to the leagues best record. Theres a very good chance that even if these Celtics had lived up to their full potential this season, the Bucks would have still beaten them.
However, they would not have embarrassed them.
Theres a reason that this Celtics team couldnt leapfrog the Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers either: they never managed to play up to their talent. Every time the Cs showed glimmers of dominance, they immediately took a step back and suffered an inexplicable loss. At no point did they truly resemble the juggernaut promised during the preseason.
At the center of it all was Irving. He put up great numbers, but struggled with his media responsibilities. Irving went back on his public preseason promise to re-sign with the team this summer after opting out of his current contract. He publicly criticized his younger teammates, who in turn complained about a toxic locker room. It got to the point where Irving reached out to, of all people, LeBron James to apologize and perhaps seek advice.
By the end of the regular season, Irving was saying all the right things about how the team would reveal its true identity in the playoffs. That sounded good after the Celtics won their first five playoff games, sweeping the Pacers and then putting together a Game 1 performance that was just enough to bring the skeptics back into the fold. Maybe they did indeed have a switch they could flip.
Perhaps not. In Game 3, Irving went eight-for-22 from the floor. The next night he went seven-for-22. With the Celtics facing elimination, Irving went six-for-21 and managed to score a mere 15 points. However sparkly his stats looked during the regular season, theres no doubt that his volume shooting ended up hurting the team at the worst possible time. He had more total shots than points during the series.
Now comes the summer, where Irving will certainly opt out of his contract and enter unrestricted free agency. Before this ignoble playoff exit, the Celtics Plan A was re-signing Irving and trading for New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis. While Boston can offer Irving the most money, and have the best collection of assets when it comes to getting Davis, there is a real worry that Irving is the wrong fit in Boston.
Where else could he go? Recent Vegas odds had the Brooklyn Nets listed as the most likely destination for Irving. It makes sense: there he could have a second chance at becoming a leader, although if he had problems with the Boston spotlight its unlikely that New York will go any easier on him. Theres again the possibility of him joining Kevin Durant at the New York Knicks which would, oddly enough, be one of the few situations where he would unquestionably have to play the sidekick role. Would he be able to accept that role?