BOSTON (CBS) — Kyrie Irving leaving Boston to play in Brooklyn was one of the worst kept secrets of the NBA offseason. And while Irving is as unpredictable as they come, the Celtics had an idea he would be shipping out of Boston late in the regular season.
Irving famously told Celtics season ticket holders that he intended on signing a long-term deal with the team back in October, and then he released a commercial saying he wanted his No. 11 to hang in the TD Garden rafters next to the jersey numbers of other Celtics greats. But throughout a tumultuous season that ended in disappointing and frustrating fashion, Irving had a change of heart — or rather, a few changes of heart.
Celtics president of basketball ops. Danny Ainge said Wednesday that he had an inkling that Irving would depart Boston as early as March. He expanded on that during a Thursday morning interview with 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich.
“Kyrie and I talked often. He was always respectful and open with me about what was going on in his mind and his heart. I just had a feeling,” said Ainge. “At the same time, Kyie, on his own merit, came out in training camp and announced he would re-sign. That wasn’t me pushing him or me suggesting he even do that. He wrote his commercial in September about wanting to come back to Boston and finishing, retiring his number and so forth. That was all Kyrie.”
Ainge said the chemistry issues that plagued Boston all season, plus some disagreements with head coach Brad Stevens, added to Irving’s desire to play elsewhere. But ultimately, the New Jersey native wanted to play closer to home, and there isn’t much the Celtics could do about that.
“Then he had a change of heart — or just had some frustration, I would say is the best description — and had less certainty about that. Then he rallied again and felt like things were going better. We won 10 of 11 games going into All-Star break and I felt like his and Brad’s relationship was getting better,” said Ainge. “But he did express to me on a couple of occasions between March and the end [of the season] that he really wanted to go home. I got the impression at that point that he wanted to go play in Brooklyn more than he wanted to play in New York or Boston.”
While Ainge had a feeling that Irving was leaving, he said that Irving did not tell him he would be signing with Brooklyn at that point (which he called back to clarify about an hour after his first interview). That left the chance that Irving could return to Boston, which he told Ainge was a possibility.
But when Irving was able to convince Kevin Durant to join him on the Nets, there was nothing the Celtics could do to bring him back.
“He never closed the door. He left the opportunity open. Because he had changed his mind over the course of the season, he left that option open if things changed or things got better,” said Ainge. “We had the sweep in Round 1 [against the Pacers] and won Game 1 in Milwaukee, things were still hopeful from there. Then things went in a spiral and we played worse basketball from that point on.
“He didn’t inform me that he was gone or that he didn’t like Boston, that he was for sure gone. That’s where his heart was and he was going to look into that,” said Ainge. “He wanted to take some time and decompress and figure it all out.”
The Celtics quickly replaced Irving by giving point guard Kemba Walker a max contract. Ainge said he didn’t make a full-court press to try to convince Irving to stay, but he respects his decision.
“I’m not trying to sell him to stay, I’m trying to give him space to make his decision. I’m not begging any player to come play; I want them to be here. I’m not trying to sell anything and Kyrie knows who we are and what we are,” said Ainge. “He’s more than a basketball player. Father is in New Jersey, he has a family. There are a lot more things going on with him. He’s a complicated, deeper guy than some. I respect his decision.”
As he did throughout Boston’s struggles this season and in the immediate aftermath of their postseason ousting, Ainge did not put all the blame for the Celtics failures on Irving’s shoulders.
“I don’t think our chemistry was good. It’s not just Kyrie. There are a lot of people involved who form the chemistry of the team. I know from Day 1 a lot of people put the heat on Kyrie to be a great leader and it was his responsibility to lead everybody. I continually tried to remove that pressure from Kyrie and told him to be himself,” said Ainge. “Forget about all this nonsense that you have to get other people involved, you have to be the leader of this team, you have to be Superman to our team. He didn’t need to do that but I do think he felt that burden to do too much, and he wasn’t able to do that.”