Kyrie Irving learned from LeBron James not to lead comfortably

LOS ANGELES — It is mid-January in Boston, and the Boston Celtics have just pulled off a dramatic overtime victory against their East rivals, the Toronto Raptors. Kyrie Irving led Boston to the win, scoring 27 points and dishing out 18 assists, including 10 points and six assists in the fourth quarter alone.

But any talk about Boston’s big win inside the locker room instantly ended when Irving stepped in front of the cameras.

“Obviously, this was a big deal for me, because I had to call [LeBron James] and tell him I apologized for being that young player that wanted everything at his fingertips, and I wanted everything at my threshold,” Irving said to a shocked audience. “I wanted to be the guy that led us to a championship. I wanted to be the leader. 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.

“[LeBron] was one of those guys who came to Cleveland and tried to show us how to win a championship, and it was hard for him, and sometimes getting the most out of the group is not the easiest thing in the world.”

Everyone’s focus shifted immediately to the act of calling James. But what Irving was doing was even bigger. Not only was he admitting he was wrong about James — he was, for the latest time this season, creating the kind of tumult James has around his teams for years.

After escaping the Cleveland Cavaliers to chart his own course, and avoid the chaos that swirled around James and the Cavaliers, Irving’s Celtics have fallen into a familiar pattern of veering from one moment of crisis to another — all of which has overwhelmed what is happening on the court.

The Celtics, by any objective measure, are having a very good season. They are on pace to win 50 games, have the league’s third-best net rating and are one of four teams (along with the Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors) to sit inside the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating — one of the basic tenets of championship contention status.

So why, then, has it felt like an arduous slog for the Celtics to simply survive this season — even as they’ve crafted a compelling case for a deep playoff run? Because they find themselves in the eye of their star’s hurricane.

There have been two guiding principles to teams LeBron James has been part of for more than a decade (up until this season, anyway): greatness on the court, and constant turmoil off of it.

“I’m all about being uncomfortable,” James said last month. “I love being uncomfortable. I fall in love with being uncomfortable. This is another uncomfortable thing for me, and I love it.”

That certainly should ring true to anyone associated with the Celtics, as the past several months could be defined by one word: uncomfortable. And it is not a coincidence that Irving finds himself at the center of all of it. It’s also something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by James, who — in addition to being as surprised as anyone by Irving’s initial phone call — has acknowledged privately that he sees the parallel in Irving’s behavior and his own.

Since James ascended to his throne atop the sport — a place he has remarkably held for a decade, even if this season might finally be the one that sees him lose the title of “best player on Earth” — he can best be described as being the eye of a never-ending hurricane, with the chaos he creates both on and off the court being as singular as his talent itself.

That, after all, is the role Irving sought when he left Cleveland: the chance to lead his own team.

“I’m ready to move, and I’m ready to be on my own,” Irving said on ESPN’s First Take in 2017 in discussing what led to his decision to ask to leave the Cavaliers. “I’m ready to try out a new situation and be in an environment where I felt like I can be happy.”

It’s also a role that, as he admitted to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan earlier this season, has been more difficult to take on than he ever would’ve anticipated, and one he often takes to saying he’d rather not have at all.

“I get tired of all this just like everybody else,” Irving told reporters earlier this week. “I mean, it’s a constant battle, because media has gotten just outrageous.

“I just saw something the other day where even — [LeBron] is the greatest player playing our game right now, but even seeing something questioning like Bron’s body of work, my body of work, KD’s [Kevin Durant] body of work,” Irving continued. “The team’s success falls on the best player and whether you call it fair or unfair, nobody should ever question the type of winner those guys are, you know?”

Still, whether Irving likes it or not, he is at the heart of everything that has made this bizarre Celtics season what it has been.

On the court, he’s playing as well as he ever has, putting in more effort defensively while playing efficiently on offense for Boston — including being the main reliable option late in games, a formula that has led the Celtics to several big wins in close games over elite opponents.

Off the court, though, the Celtics have been seemingly mired in one controversy after another — virtually all of which have involved Irving, and have made their season feel as if it has lasted about five years, rather than five months. Those include:

  • His repeated wars of words with the team’s talented young players — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier — that prompted him to make the call to James in the first place.

  • His blowup at both coach Brad Stevens and teammate Gordon Hayward on the court following a loss in Orlando in which he didn’t get the final shot, and then scolding the young players again.

  • His public declaration at a season-ticket holder event in October that, “If you’ll have me,” he’ll be re-signing with the Celtics. He then reversed course and declared “Ask me July 1” during a morning shootaround at Madison Square Garden last month (the very place he’s rumored to potentially play next season) when asked to reaffirm that commitment.

  • His ups-and-downs over the past two weeks alone, from him declaring the Celtics will be fine in the playoffs because “I’m here” after a loss to the lowly Chicago Bulls to saying roughly three words per answer in a brief media conference after Sunday’s loss to the Houston Rockets to declaring that the team had fully righted itself thanks to a cross-country flight to this West Coast trip this week.

All of it has led to a dizzying season that, despite the success from a statistical standpoint, has felt like something less.

“I wouldn’t say the most difficult [season of my career], I would say it’s the most challenging in different aspects,” Irving said earlier this week. “Most importantly just where I am in my career.

“When you come into a situation where you’re heading into free agency, you have to answer every single question about the team, you have to answer about the mood, the attitude … it just gets overwhelming at times.”

The same could be said, at many times over the past decade, of playing alongside James. But, when the crucible of the playoffs arrived each spring, James dragged his teams to the top of the mountain time and again. Irving, who hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history to win Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, is more than comfortable playing in that environment. And it was exactly that experience, and his ability to thrive within it, that made Boston pursue him to begin with.

This spring will mark the first time Irving will play in a playoff game without James by his side. This summer, too, will mark another first: his foray into unrestricted free agency, and the chance to chart his own course. Irving, like James before him, holds his future in his hands.

The uncertainty around whether that future will be in Boston is the one thing that could keep Boston from consummating a trade for Anthony Davis this summer, creating a partnership with Irving that would have the Celtics positioned to be going to the NBA Finals for years to come.

For this entire decade, being on James’ team in the Eastern Conference playoffs meant guaranteed passage to the NBA Finals each June. It has always been, in the end, what made living in the daily hurricane that comes with playing alongside James worth it.

After all the Celtics have gone through alongside Irving so far this season, they’ll hope the comparisons between James and Irving extend to that level, too. If they do, they’ll happily live with everything else.

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