Three months into the season and just one month from the All-Star break, the Boston Celtics sit just fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. For a team that was hyped to have a 60-plus win season and dominate the conference, the Celtics have had a disappointing season to say the least.
Two summers ago, Danny Ainge cashed in plenty of his (seemingly endless) chips and brought two all-stars to Boston in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. As fate would have it, both those stars would miss significant time due to injury. Young guys stepped up, developed and shined. By season’s end, it looked like the stage was set for an all-time great Celtics season in 2018-19. No player was expected to pave the way to the Finals more so than Kyrie Irving. At the beginning of the year, he excitedly announced his intention to resign with Boston at the end of the season. All looked good in the TD Garden.
But at just 27-18 by nearly the end of January, Irving has done anything but lead his team to victory. To be fair, he can’t shoulder the burden for all of Boston’s wins and losses. Gordon Hayward has, uhh, taken his time in catching up to speed since his injury, and nobody’s sure if he ever actually will. Jaylen Brown’s game has been off for months now, still shooting a meager 31 percent from beyond the arc. To top it off, starting center Al Horford and second-string Aron Baynes have each been sidelined at various points of the season. The team seemed to be in a bit of an identity crisis, with too many mouths to feed on offense and an uncertainty as to who their second option should be.
At moments, the frustrations have gotten the better of the Celtics; much to the pleasure of hot-take pundits and analysts. Trade rumors started swirling (and almost always included Jaylen Brown) and tensions looked like they were rising in the locker room. During their Jan. 10 game against the Miami Heat, tempers flared between Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown during a timeout, and the two had to be separated. The next day, Morris spoke to the media on the incident and explained that it was water under the bridge.
Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris had to get separated during a timeout…
(via ahubbtho/IG) pic.twitter.com/1EyBZyzvUn
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 11, 2019
“I feel as though I’m one of the leaders on this team so if I have an engagement with any of my teammates, we all know that it’s basketball related and it goes nothing past the court,” Morris said. “Just two guys that both care about the game and that’s all it was.”
But Kyrie Irving? He’s taken a more outspoken approach to leadership this season.
Memorably, after a very disappointing loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Irving told the media that the team was close to hitting “rock bottom,” which is not the most effective language at diffusing public concerns. More recently, Irving even started speaking publicly on the performances of his younger teammates. After a loss to the Orlando Magic last Saturday, in which Irving expressed frustration on how Hayward ran the final play of the game, he once again dished on his teammates to the media.
“The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team,” he told reporters. “What it takes every day. And if they think it is hard now, what do they think it will be like when we’re trying to get to the Finals?”
After Saturday’s contest, Irving later disclosed, he also phoned former teammate LeBron James. “I apologized for being that young player that wanted everything at his fingertips, and I wanted everything at my threshold” according to Irving. “I wanted to be all that and the responsibility of being the best in the world, and leading your team is something that is not meant for many people.”
So, really, he’s apologizing for the being the same type of player that he’s been trying to lead for the past three months? The same type of player as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum?
Whatever happened to the days when the most controversial thing Kyrie ever said was that the Earth was flat? Now, after every frustrating loss he’s taken the opportunity to throw teammates under the bus and call them out on their performances. Yes, they do need to step up and close out games. But calling them out publicly is no way to light their fires at the right temperature.
Leadership is why Kyrie left the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first place. He wanted out from LeBron’s shadow and a shot to lead his own team to a championship. At just 26 years old, he’s still learning what it means to be the guy. His leadership need not be outspoken, as it has been. He’s too dominant not to lead by example on a nightly basis.
The maturation of Kyrie Irving has been a slow boil this season. But finally, after two consecutive dominating performances, he might truly be the leader he’s been hoping to be. In Wednesday’s matchup against the conference-leading Toronto Raptors, Kyrie put up a tour de force on offense. He recorded 27 points, 18 assists and five rebounds on the night, but he capped it all off with the most impressive (and ballsy) play of the game. Up by two with 1:30 left on the clock, he pulled up from deep and drilled the dagger over the outstretched wingspan of Kawhi Leonard. Boston went on to win the game 117-108.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 17, 2019
It was a return to form for the Celtics, but it was an especially important night for Irving. He demonstrated what the team can be when he chooses to dominate and lead by example on the court. In his postgame comments, Irving acknowledged his tendency to speak on his teammates to the media.
“I want to see them well, and in order to do that, I’ve gotta empower them. You know, [Jaylen Brown] was right, I’ve got to do the right things and not point fingers at individuals and realize what we can do as a group.”
So it seems as if he might finally get it. If actions truly speak louder than words, then no player might be louder than Kyrie Irving on a basketball court. He made plenty of noise Friday night in the team’s win against Memphis, scoring 20 of his 38 points in the third quarter alone. He finished with 38, 11 assists and seven rebounds; once again illustrating his conscious decision to simply dominate.
Maybe he’s been overthinking this whole leadership thing all along? Perhaps it’s much simpler for Kyrie to lead by example, step out on the court and get to the basket like only he can. Everything else will fall into place. This may be his best and only choice for the rest of season — to put his head down and let his teammates follow in step behind him.