Kyrie Irving’s failed leadership tells the story of the Celtics’ failed season

At first, it seemed like things were going to be just fine.

When the Boston Celtics convened for media day back in September, they were the heavy favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in this season’s NBA Finals, and arguably no team in the league had a brighter road ahead.

Brad Stevens saw something different.

“I knew going in that it was going to be super challenging, but October screamed it,” the Celtics coach told ESPN recently. “I knew after the first two exhibition games, it was going to be really, really hard.”

It turned out to be harder than he could have imagined. And in the end, it was too difficult to overcome, as Boston suffered a fourth consecutive loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday to crash out of the second round of the playoffs.

This was not what was supposed to happen to a team that made the conference finals the past two years — and then added a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the mix.

There are plenty of reasons to explain why this season was so hard, and why these Celtics were so disappointing. At the root of all of them, though, is Irving — and, more specifically, his leadership through words and actions on and off the court.

Those comments became the guideposts of this long, strange trip of a season in Boston, the things that — in retrospect — were signaling to the world how hard this was turning out to be for the Celtics.

Irving’s words not only defined the Celtics’ disappointing season; they help to explain how a season that was supposed to mark Boston’s return to the top of the sport instead left all involved searching for answers.

‘We had nothing to lose last year’

It was an otherwise meaningless Saturday night in mid-January in Orlando, Florida.

Boston’s sporting attention was focused on the AFC divisional playoff game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Chargers the next day. However, 1,100 miles south, the tensions that existed behind the scenes within the Celtics’ organization came into focus.

With 2.9 seconds to go and the Celtics trailing the Magic by two, Stevens drew up a play in the huddle. Irving didn’t like what he saw. He made his feelings known to Stevens before even coming out onto the court.

Hayward, who took the ball out of bounds, passed to an open Jayson Tatum on the baseline. Tatum’s fadeaway jumper hit the far side of the rim as the buzzer sounded, and the Orlando fans celebrated a victory.

Irving, though, was only getting started.

Clearly unhappy with how the play unfolded, Irving unloaded on Al Horford and Hayward on the court. Then it continued in front of a whiteboard in the locker room.

“I mean, we had nothing to lose last year,” Irving told reporters. “We had nothing to lose and everybody could play free, and do whatever they wanted and nobody had any expectations. What we were supposed to be, at a certain point, we surpassed that. Young guys were supposed to be at a certain point, they surpassed that.

“We come into this season, expectations, and it’s real. Everyone from the coaching staff to the players, it’s very much real every single day, so that’s new. It’s tough. It’s hard.”

That moment came to symbolize the ongoing tensions within the team — the same ones Stevens was referring to when he saw what lay ahead during the preseason.

Irving repeatedly would poke at the team’s young players — specifically Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier — through the media. He wouldn’t explicitly call them out, just as he didn’t in Orlando. But it was clear whom he was referring to.

Take, for example, when Brown sat out with back spasms in New Orleans on Nov. 26. The Celtics, at the time, were 10-10 and floundering. Hayward, who was struggling mightily in his return to game action after a year off, had already been replaced in the starting lineup by Marcus Morris. Now, with Brown sidelined, Marcus Smart stepped into the lineup for him.

And, after the Celtics won handily, Irving was effusive in his praise for his new backcourt mate.

“There’s a reason why he’s very instrumental for our team being successful,” Irving said. “Because he’s a veteran now — not in terms of years, but he’s played high-level basketball for the Celtics for a few years now. So we expect him to be in the right spots and doing the right things.”

The message behind the words Irving spoke inside the Smoothie King Center locker room was loud and clear to all who heard it: If it was up to him, Smart would remain in the starting lineup.

Irving got his wish. It was the right move, too — Boston rattled off eight straight wins with Smart starting, and he was arguably the best defensive guard in the league this season. But the criticisms of the young players didn’t let up. The Orlando game proved to be a tipping point.

‘I wanted to be the guy that led us to a championship’

Two days after the Celtics lost to the Magic, they lost again — this time at Brooklyn, where they trailed by 26 entering the fourth quarter before a furious comeback made the final score more respectable.

Irving’s comments in Orlando still hung over the team.

“We’ve just got to have each other’s backs at the end of the day,” Brown said after the loss. “We can’t make comments, we can’t point fingers, we just have to continue to empower each other and have each other’s backs. If we don’t, if we start pointing fingers, everybody’s going to go into their own little shells. We’ve got to continue to play basketball. It starts from the top to the bottom. Not from the bottom to the top, but the top to the bottom.”

It was a big moment — and the most visible sign that the young players were bristling under Irving’s form of leadership. However, their seasons weren’t without their own struggles, separate from Irving’s criticisms.

Rozier had gone from “Scary Terry” — playoff star and pal of former Patriot Drew Bledsoe — to backup role player. Brown spent the first several weeks of the season looking uncomfortable in the starting lineup, often forcing things. After working out with Kobe Bryant during the summer, Tatum came back far too happy settling for long 2-point jumpers. Tatum’s 0.69 points per direct isolation was the worst mark among 95 players with 100 such plays this season, per Second Spectrum data. The combination earned him a seat on the bench next to Stevens on more than one occasion.

But the young players weren’t the only ones affected by the Celtics surplus of capable players. There is an old saying in basketball that a team can have too many guys. There needs to be a clear hierarchy within a team, where everyone understands their roles and accepts them. For things to work, it requires balance, collaboration and trust. The Celtics lacked those things all season.

“You could just see,” Stevens told ESPN. “When the games happen, it’s harder, because you just don’t get a chance to do what you really love to do. That’s a hard thing to stomach because these guys all want to win.”

Brown, Rozier and Tatum had all been major contributors during the team’s run to the conference finals in 2018. Now they were being asked to make room for Irving, who repeatedly spoke condescendingly to them publicly, and Hayward, who understandably hadn’t returned to All-Star form yet.

“You never know how it’s going to go,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told ESPN earlier this season. “But I knew these issues existed, and how they’re going to impact [the team] is another thing. But I’m not frustrated, or impatient, or angry about any of it. You wish it would go better. You wish guys would accept a role, sort of their role, whatever the coach chooses their role to be.”

All of it left the Celtics as very much a work in progress — including Irving himself, who had previously told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan that he was learning how to be a leader on the fly.

In the wake of Brown’s comments, Irving apologized following a win over the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 16.

But then, in the glow of one of Boston’s best victories of the season, Irving made a stunning admission that made everyone completely forget about what had happened for the prior 48 minutes. In the wake of his blowup in Orlando, Irving had called LeBron James — the player he’d demanded to be traded away from 18 months earlier — to apologize for how he dealt with James’ leadership and criticism while they were teammates.

“Obviously, this was a big deal for me, because I had to call [LeBron] 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. “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.”

The Raptors victory kicked off Boston’s best stretch of the season, as the Celtics won 10 of their next 11 games.

Trouble, though, lurked around the corner — and the Celtics could do absolutely nothing about it.

‘I don’t owe anybody s—‘

Through Boston’s fits and starts, there was one thing that didn’t appear to be an issue: Irving’s commitment to the Celtics.

At a season-ticket holder event at TD Garden in early October, Irving pledged to re-sign with the Celtics the following summer.

“I’ve shared it with some of my teammates as well as the organization as well as everyone else in Boston. If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next year,” Irving said.

Despite his public utterances, it was often hard for anyone — including the Celtics themselves — to get a proper read on Irving’s mood or thinking. It often left people in the organization walking on eggshells around him.

When Anthony Davis requested a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans, however, Irving had no issue letting the world know how he was feeling.

Davis’ trade request not only caught the entire league by surprise, but it also left Boston in an impossible spot. Because of a rule in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, the Celtics were unable to trade for Davis until this summer with Irving still on his current deal. That quirk wasn’t an issue when it seemed Davis wouldn’t be on the market until the summer, when Boston could put together the strongest collection of assets.

But, once Davis put in his request, Boston was stuck. While the league was overwhelmed by trade rumors, the Celtics could only sit and wait to see if Davis was still a Pelican by the time the deadline passed.

Meanwhile, the rest of the league kept moving — most notably the New York Knicks, who traded Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 31, allowing them to have enough cap space this summer to sign two max free agents. As soon as the trade was announced, the Knicks were instantly linked to landing both Irving and Kevin Durant.

The talk was only exacerbated by Irving and the Celtics arriving in New York to face the Knicks the next day. Despite saying nothing about his future, Irving had seen his name become a constant topic of discussion around the league, and it left him incensed.

So, when he sat down at shootaround at Madison Square Garden the morning of Feb. 1, he let loose.

When directly asked about his prior commitment to re-sign with the Celtics, and if it still held, Irving had only this to say: “Ask me July 1.”

And while Irving made it clear he still believed in what Boston could accomplish, he said that his October commitment had been an example of getting caught up in the excitement of the moment.

“I’ve spent the last eight years trying to do what everybody else wanted me to do in terms [of] making my decisions and trying to validate through the media, through other personnel, managers, anybody in this business,” Irving said, “and I don’t owe anybody s—.”

Ultimately, nothing happened, but the AD and Kyrie noise lingered. The rumors about Irving and Durant teaming up were further (and absurdly) fueled by a video that went viral of them talking in a hallway in Charlotte, North Carolina, during All-Star Weekend, and the two of them spending time together in Miami after that.

Meanwhile, as the Celtics held their ammunition to pursue Davis, the other teams atop the East loaded up. And while Boston didn’t implode following Irving’s blowup, it didn’t exactly succeed, either.

Over the final 28 games of the season, the Celtics were exactly .500 — just as they had been over the first 20 games of the season. Over 82 games, they were mediocre far more often than they were good.

And yet, the question remained: Could the best version of this team finally show up in the playoffs?

‘This is what I signed up for’

As Irving sat at the podium inside Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum after Game 2 last week, it looked like the version of the Celtics everyone had anticipated back in October had finally arrived. Brown and Hayward found a groove, giving the team an impressive scoring punch off the bench. The Celtics reached the playoffs in relative health (outside of losing Smart). The issues with playing time subsided. And coming off a first-round sweep, they dominated the Bucks in Game 1.

So even though Milwaukee reciprocated with a blowout win in Game 2, Irving was clearly confident.

“There’s no extra burden,” Irving said after going 4-for-18 from the field and scoring just nine points in what was arguably the worst game of his playoff career. “This is what I signed up for. This is what Boston traded for me for.

Only now, Boston folded against its greatest test. The Celtics lost Game 3, as Irving threw up another clunker of a game, with his repeated settling for jumpers setting the tone for a passive game overall by the rest of the team.

“It’s really just about being efficient, especially the rest of this series,” Irving said. “From this point on I don’t think you’ll see another 8-for-22.”

Irving was right. In a crucial Game 4, he shot 7-for-22. His 43 missed field goals to that point were the most he’d ever accumulated across three playoff games in his career. And after the loss, Irving was defiant.

“Who cares?” Irving said when asked about dealing with shooting struggles. “I’m a basketball player. Prepare the right way. Like I said, it’s a little different when your rhythm is challenged every play down. You’re being picked up full court. They’re doing things to test you.

“The expectations on me are going to be sky high. … I’m trying to do it all. For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter.”

Irving didn’t shoot 30 times in Game 5. He did, however, go 6-for-21 — including one absurd airball on a first half 3-pointer from the wing that didn’t come close to touching the rim. He made just one 3-pointer all night, one fewer than little-used Bucks reserve Tim Frazier, who didn’t check into the game until garbage time.

Irving’s performance left him a dismal 25-for-83 over the final four games of the series — all Boston losses. His 58 missed shots were the most he’s had in a four-game span in his playoff career.

His teammates didn’t do much better. The Celtics remained below 30 percent shooting for much of the game. Only Milwaukee’s own shooting issues allowed the Celtics to remain in the game for as long as they did. As the second half wore on, though, the inevitable became reality.

With 8:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Bucks had the game fully in hand. Irving checked out for the final time, slowly trudging to the bench and messing with his shorts on the way. He spent the rest of the game watching from the bench in a warm up shirt as the Milwaukee fans celebrated the team’s first trip to the conference finals in almost two decades.

‘Ah, man, what better place?’

A single thing didn’t derail this Celtics season. Across the roster, players failed to completely buy into their roles. Some of that falls on Stevens, whose job it is to manage stars and expectations. Hayward’s recovery was never assured of taking a linear path. And the Davis situation was a stunner.

But nothing contributed to Boston’s season unraveling more than Irving. As he said, this is what he signed up for. Without him a year ago, the Celtics simply were not good enough to get out of a significantly weaker Eastern Conference. Having him back was supposed to push Boston over the top.

Instead, the sheer weight of his personality helped sink a team many thought would challenge for a title.

The question now is what will Irving do when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.

If he stays, a Davis trade remains very much in play, and Boston will likely be a contender for years. If he doesn’t, the Celtics have difficult choices to make.

Horford, who remains one of the league’s most valuable and versatile big men, can also become a free agent this summer. Boston needs him to stick around no matter what if it wants to be a contending team. And, if Irving leaves, the Celtics will have to decide whether it makes sense to pursue Davis, who could end up being a one-year rental, or instead focus on growing and developing the young talent on its roster, while adding three first round picks they have in this year’s draft.

At the start of this season, it would’ve been hard to predict any of this would happen. Not long after his October announcement that he planned to return, Irving filmed a Nike commercial in an empty TD Garden.

In it, Kyrie and his father, Drederick, go back-and-forth in a 1-on-1 game without another soul in sight. At one point, Irving marvels at the sight, asking, “Ah, man, what better place?”

As the camera shifts to the Garden rafters, Irving says he wants to be the reason no one else will wear his No. 11. Months later, that looks less certain than ever.

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