Shoot For The King, You Better Not Miss: A Happy Ending For Kyrie Irving Or Just Premature Vindication?
When Kyrie Irving announced his intention to leave LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer, he sparked divorce proceedings that made Paul McCartney’s split with Heather Mills look a smooth, amicable resolution. The saga that dominated the summer was almost as box office as the play-off finals themselves, but few could have predicted the dust settling quite as it has. Leaving the best player in the world for Boston was seen as the equivalent of Jay-Z leaving Beyonce for one of the numerous young popstars he is perennially linked with. Sure they may be young, talented and ambitious, but you’re leaving an all-time great and in Kyrie’s case seemingly tossing away your best chance at another championship in favour of individual glory. Essentially, the choice for all observers was remain as a back-up singer in the Beatles or be the front man in Razorlight – take all the personal accolades you like, but get your holiday booked for June and watch LeBron and the Cavs on TV.
However, in reality the start of the current NBA campaign has proven individual growth and team success are not mutually exclusive and given some early indications that Kyrie’s decision to join Boston could be a smart one, particularly when contrasted with the Cavaliers early season struggles. A 16-game win streak that has encompassed San Antonio, OKC and Golden State among others has fans and pundits alike purring over the Celtics and their potential play-off aspirations. Sitting atop of the NBA with a 16-2 record, the Celtics have already demonstrated they will at least compete for supremacy with the Cavs for the top team in the East and have done so with a brand of basketball that has everyone sitting up and taking notice. A young, athletic team that has both the physical and mental ability to defend like dogs, (look away Cavs fans), the numbers indicate they are by far the most accomplished team defensively within the league. In terms of defensive efficiency they are in fact ranked 1st in the NBA, while the Cavs, although picking up sharply in recent weeks, at one point sat in 30th – a chasm that few would have believed to be so wide in pre-season.
Kyrie himself has sat in the top 15 in terms of individual defensive efficiency for much of the season – not bad for a player previously viewed as an offensive weapon who could explode on any game, but a defensive liability as a result; a luxury only a team like the Cavs could carry. The 2016 finals demonstrated the defensive tenacity he could display when required, but rarely did he replicate this in a Cavs jersey. That he has been able to do so regularly as a Celtic is testament to a change in mindset that has been central to the early success of his move and also in demonstrating that his desire to grow as an individual was more than just a soundbite for the media. This increased dedication to the defensive side of his game has been mirrored by a shift in style that has seen him become more of a ‘playmaking’ Point Guard that shares the ball more regularly and sets the offense from the start, rather than just the pure scoring, isolation player that he had come to be viewed as when played alongside LeBron James. It is for this reason that we have seen only a few ‘Uncle Drew’ games and in general a more balanced approach that has allowed his teammates to thrive, as well as still providing the viewing public with the jaw-dropping handles and ice-cold clutch moments we are so used to seeing. This desire to step out from under LeBron’s shadow to lead his own team was widely seen as being at the core of Irving’s wish to leave Cleveland and these developments in his game demonstrate a growth as a player and a leader that would have been impossible to replicate while playing second fiddle in Cleveland.
An important feature within the Celtics early success and the leading role Kyrie has been able to establish within his new team is the youthful exuberance of the roster. The average age of the Celtics roster is 25.1 in comparison to the Cavs, who hold comfortably the oldest average in the league at 30.1. The oldest player on the court for the Celtics will never be over 31, while the Cavs could legitimately field a team where most positions are filled by a player over 30. In basketball terms the Cavs are as close to withdrawing their pension as the Celtics are to needing ID to buy a lottery ticket. The intensity with which the Celtics are playing, particularly defensively, would be almost impossible without the young fresh legs they possess. This was perhaps always likely to be demonstrated most clearly early in the season before injury and fatigue naturally set in, but the momentum shows little sign of stopping, particularly with their ability to rotate almost seamlessly with important contributions from the bench. This is arguably the most surprising element of the Celtics success when considering the negative effect the loss of two of their most effective defensive players (Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder) was expected to have. Meanwhile, Crowder’s influence has been unable to rescue a Cavs team that has seemingly got progressively worse on the defensive end year on year, as they have looked sluggish and every bit the oldest team in the NBA at times. When making his decision over the summer did Kyrie recognise the direction the Cavs were going in? As much as he wanted to lead his own team, was this ultimately a wish to lead a younger team that could play the game as he wanted, both now and crucially in the future?
Equally, the Celtics have been arguably the best-coached team in the NBA this year, to the extent that many are already pencilling in Brad Stevens for Coach of the Season. Consensus amongst many NBA analysts is that Irving had grown tired of playing FOR LeBron rather than WITH LeBron and his trust in Tyronn Lue to aid his development had seemingly eroded. In going to Boston, he has joined not only a thriving young team, but a bright young coach that many see as above all others (outside of Greg Popovich) already. In post-match interviews, Irving has repeatedly spoken of the plays that the team works on and the attention to detail Stevens pays in devising these and creating a shape that allows the team to be so defensively solid. In leaving Cleveland, Kyrie has found himself in an environment where he can grow alongside a team and such willingness to listen and learn from his coach squashes the perception that his desire to move was borne purely out of ego and indicates those quotes about his ‘constant development’ over the summer were genuine motivations. He is benefitting from the energy and innovation of young players like Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown, who in turn have also thrived under Stevens’ stewardship and each seems to be bouncing of the other and constantly striving to improve. If the immediate success of Kyrie’s move will be summarised at the end of the season, the future beyond this seems almost unavoidably bright and a long-term period of dominance attainable should the organisation continue as it is going both on and off court.
And here we arrive at the crux of the issue – the season is still young. If Kyrie Irving feels happy at the deal he has left with, LeBron isn’t about to sit at home like the divorcee crying because he’s been left with nothing but the dog and the Oasis albums. As poor as the Cavaliers have looked at times, this is nothing new. The regular season has been a mere formality for them for a number of seasons now and though complacency and even boredom may have creeped into their game as a result, the ability to ‘flip the switch’ has never been more applicable to a team than the Cavs. In the second half of last season their form could be described as average at best and yet come play-off time they had swept their way into the finals like a tsunami savaging all within its wake. With age comes experience and though the negative impacts of having an older team outlined above have been evident so far in the season, we are likely to see the benefits of this come crunch time. Wins over the Celtics and the Bucks within what is widely seen as a poor start to the season already indicates an ability to get the job done when needed and this is in a team that is still clicking after some summer upheaval. On top of the Kyrie saga, Kevin Love has been moved in and out of position like a chess piece, LeBron has had to work his way back from an injury and they are still to welcome Isaiah Thomas into the fold. While he will do little to aid their defensive woes, adding a pure scorer to the team will automatically install a greater offensive threat, more points on the board and go some way to replacing Kyrie’s influence. Equally, within the last few games their defense has improved and began to post numbers that belong within the top ten of the NBA rather than the bottom ten. They are unlikely to ever be a defensive machine, but this steady improvement should not be overlooked. The Celtics win streak will not last forever and their form is bound to dip at some point, particularly as injuries and fatigue set in over the season, (the negative element of having a young roster to contrast the positive features outlined above). And of utmost importance…the King is still the King. In his 15th year LeBron is still playing at an astoundingly high level that elevates any team he is playing on to serious contenders, regardless of external factors. Career highs in assists and rebounds have been mirrored by an increasing appreciation for his ball-handling and free throw abilities – an area always attacked by LeBron ‘haters’. Death, taxes and LeBron in the Finals is how the mantra goes and if winning titles is what you desire, being on his team remains the most reliable route.
As a result, what we are seeing is immediate justification for Kyrie in the eyes of many, such is the quality displayed by this Celtics side and the developments we have seen in him as a player already. For others, only triumph over the Cavs and the forceful removal of their stranglehold over the East will vindicate Kyrie’s big move. The truth, as ever, lies in a grey area in amongst these views. For all of the reasons shown above, the Celtics undoubtedly provide the Cavs with the stiffest competition they have seen in the East for years – and being a legitimate contender is a big stride forward that should not be underestimated. Indeed, if the Finals were being played tomorrow the Celtics may even enter as favourites. But as long as the finals are in June and LeBron is playing like he is, the Cavs should be written off at your own peril. As long as LeBron is in Cleveland they are likely to remain Kings of the East while he is playing at this level and for this reason any talk of Kyrie’s move being vindicated should be put on ice – for now, (unless we are talking about his own personal vindication, which is impossible for us to objectively judge as outsiders, but seems to have already been achieved somewhat). In the short-term we have seen Kyrie’s motivations for leaving illustrated in front of our very eyes and the cold, hard logic behind what initially appeared to be an egotistical decision has been plain to see for all of us. This may not be enough to topple the Cavs in the immediate future, but looking long-term Kyrie will benefit from a bright young coach, one of the most underrated big men in the league in Al Horford, two outstanding young talents in Brown and Tatum, as well as a deep bench and a returning star in Gordon Hayward – on top of future business the Celtics will undoubtedly be conducting. We should be careful not to get too carried away with a good start to a season in proclaiming immediate vindication for Kyrie’s big move, but the long-term prospects of the Celtics, with Kyrie at the centre of it all, hint at an ultimately happy ending for the protagonist of the story that dominated our summer.