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Blame Kyrie? It's not that simple, Boston

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What's next for Kyrie? (2:28)

After two rocky seasons in Boston, Kyrie Irving appears ready to move on. ESPN NBA writer Tim Bontemps examines what's next for the six-time All-Star. (2:28)

AS THE PUBLIC flogging commences, and the piling on ensues, Kyrie Irving assumes a yoga pose in Japan with the accompanying cryptic message: "Freedom from greed ensures a peaceful life."

It's too simplistic to put all the blame of Boston's lost 2018-19 season at the feet of this basketball supernova, who declared as recently as early May, "I'm an actual genius when it comes to the game."

Don't snicker too loudly -- he's not entirely wrong. The talent is unmistakable, the work ethic indisputable and the courage to take a shot in the biggest moment is what drew the Celtics to him in the first place. Yet Kyrie's awkward attempts at providing forceful leadership proved to be flawed, and ultimately destructive. His journey began as an earnest attempt to fulfill his dream of leading his own team to the pinnacle, but he failed spectacularly, with help from a disjointed collection of talented individuals who simply could not figure out how to collaborate in unison.

This debacle was no solo act.

If people actually believe Boston's implosion was all Kyrie Irving's fault, they weren't paying attention.

"It wasn't just him," says former Celtic Cedric Maxwell, the team's radio analyst. "This group was the most dysfunctional team I've seen since 1983, when we had four Hall of Famers on our roster and got swept by the Milwaukee Bucks. These guys never found a way to be on the same page."

In fact, it didn't take long for Boston's coaching staff to grow concerned about the team's vibe. They peeked in on the preseason pickup games and discovered young players who experienced exhilarating results the previous season by making the extra pass, but were now jacking up shots and running isolation plays. Ironically, it was Irving who implored his teammates to share the ball in the infancy of the season. And yet, by season's end, it was Kyrie who had hijacked the offense.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens says he knew from the beginning it would be a challenging season for Boston.

"The bottom line," Stevens told ESPN, "is that we had seven perimeter guys who were all very good players, and all of them brought something different and unique to the table. If you ask any one of them, I'm sure they'll tell you it was hard to find all that they wanted this season.

"I don't lose any sleep over that. They were all extremely competitive, well-intentioned guys. The pieces just didn't fit."


THE PIECES INCLUDED Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier thirsting for more shots and a bigger role; Gordon Hayward struggling to recover both mentally and physically from a catastrophic injury; and Al Horford, the model of decorum and professionalism, choosing not to challenge Irving when the point guard's emotions disrupted the team.

After a November loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the team's fourth in five games, Irving opined that the team needed a 14- or 15-year veteran on the roster to add levity to their group. By January, he was wondering aloud if his younger teammates understood what it took to play at a championship level. Brown pushed back, saying, "It's not the young guys', old guys' fault. It's everybody."

On Jan. 9, the Celtics blitzed the Indiana Pacers in Boston, then flew out that night to Miami, arriving at the team hotel after 2 a.m. on Thursday. Boston was set to play the Miami Heat that night, but, team sources said, that didn't stop some of the young players from heading to South Beach, where the clubs stay open well past 5 a.m. It's not uncommon for NBA players to go out when they're on the road, but Irving was irked teammates decided to do it in the middle of back-to-back games.

The Celtics ended up submitting a lackluster effort in a 115-99 drubbing at the hands of the Heat.

During a timeout in that game, a testy exchange between Brown and veteran Marcus Morris, who was angered that Brown didn't hustle back on the defensive end, was captured on video. Morris admonished Brown to "play harder" and shoved him before Marcus Smart quickly intervened.

Reporters clamored to ask Irving about it after the game, but he had disappeared. After nearly 30 minutes, he was found shooting baskets on Miami's practice court, hoping some of his teammates who had played so poorly might join him.

None of them did.

By the time Irving returned to answer media questions, most of his teammates were gone. Asked to explain why he felt compelled to engage in the postgame session, Irving said, "I just wanted to feel good going into the next game. We're staying over in Miami, so I'd rather be in here than be out in Miami right now."

Two nights later, the Celtics lost by two points to the Orlando Magic. As Stevens drew up the final play in the huddle, an animated Irving objected to where he was slated to receive the ball. Irving was a primary option on the play, but when Hayward saw Tatum open in the corner, he threw him the ball instead. Tatum missed. Irving's incredulous reaction, including jawing at Hayward and raising his arms in disbelief, quickly went viral.

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Kyrie on frustrations vs. Magic: 'I just want to win so bad'

Kyrie Irving says the Celtics need to have a "championship or nothing" mindset after appearing frustrated at the end of Boston's loss to the Magic.

Kyrie's postgame comments included yet another reference to his team's lack of experience. He would later apologize for his reaction to the final play, but the damage was done, both in his locker room and in the public court of opinion.

Stevens had regular discussions with Irving throughout the season, and Kyrie once praised Stevens as "a great basketball mind." By season's end, Irving had publicly questioned his coach's tactics and management of the roster. "Kyrie really put Brad through the ringer," one Celtics staffer noted. Stevens repeatedly blamed himself for his team's mounting losses, vowing to do better, while his coaches became increasingly concerned about the toll it was exacting on their head coach.

"He really beat himself up for how things went," says Micah Shrewsberry, who left the Celtics to become Purdue's associate head coach. "I know right now Brad's watching every game 10 times over trying to figure out what he can do better."


ONE OF STEVENS' biggest challenges proved to be reacclimating Hayward back into the mix. His mental and physical recovery was initially painstakingly slow, and though his teammates were sympathetic to his plight, they also chafed at the minutes he was given. By late November, Stevens had moved Hayward to the bench, but the narrative lingered that he was favoring his former Butler star.

"I could see how people could perceive favoritism, but it just wasn't there," Shrewsberry says. "It was never, 'Hey, we need to get Gordon X amount of shots' or 'we need to get Gordon X amount of points.' It was always how Brad could put us in the best position to win, and sometimes that included a hard decision to put Gordon on the bench."

Hayward averaged just 29 minutes and 7.8 shots a game in the postseason, leaving him discouraged about his reduced role. The statistics say the Celtics were 4.9 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when Hayward was out there, according to NBA.com, and when he was paired with Horford and Irving (1,022 possessions), the team posted a net rating of plus-12.1, which ranked in the 97th percentile of all NBA three-man lineup combinations, per Cleaning the Glass. In a postseason meeting with Hayward, Stevens assured him that he values his skill set, including his superb passing.

"If you ask the guys, they tell you they liked playing with Gordon," Stevens says. "He's a really good player who makes people better. People can have whatever perceptions they want to have. I'm glad he's here. It's not been an easy two years for him."

If Hayward can return to All-Star form, it will go a long way toward easing the pain of losing both Irving and Horford. The Celtics also need more from Tatum, who had an electric rookie season in 2017-18, culminating with a dunk over his childhood idol LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals.

But Tatum did not build on that success, appearing, at times, curiously passive in 2018-19 and exhibiting occasional defensive indifference.

"He's a really talented player," Maxwell says, "but he needs to take some ownership of what happened this season. They all do."

In the meantime, Irving is probably embarking on a new start in Brooklyn, and, following the blueprint of LeBron James, has hired his longtime friend Alex Jones to help manage his career.

Could the Celtics have salvaged their relationship with their point guard? They afforded him several perks of stardom, including assigning a security guard to his table during team charity functions and allowing him to occasionally fly separately from the team when he had outside commitments. Much like the Cleveland Cavaliers, who still aren't clear on all the reasons why Irving soured on them, the Celtics remain puzzled about exactly how their prized player became so disenchanted so quickly.

At the completion of the regular season, the team set up 100 balls in a room for their charitable partners. Everyone signed the balls except Irving. When pressed to do it, say team sources, he was neither aggressive nor confrontational. He merely said, "No, I'm not interested in that."

He's no longer interested in Boston either. He earned the right to explore free agency, yet even those close to him wonder what he's searching for. A championship? He had that in Cleveland. League accolades? He was second-team All-NBA this season in Boston. Money? His biggest payday would have come had he stayed put. He leaves more than $49 million on the table once he departs, an accomplished enigma who often defies explanation.

"I want Kyrie to find happiness," Stevens says. "If he does move on, I wish him nothing but good health and success. I saw a lot of great qualities in him."

Those qualities have been muted by the scorn of a jilted fan base that feels duped and betrayed by its point guard and his soon-to-be former teammates, who seemingly were assembled for a memorable title run.

"I really don't think it's anyone's fault," Stevens says. "If you blame anyone, it's me. I'm the guy who couldn't fit the pieces."