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NBA Daily: What’s Next for Kyrie Irving?

Shane Rhodes breaks down the situation surrounding Kyrie Irving’s free agency and the factors that could motivate his ultimate decision.

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“If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here.”

Things seemed much simpler back in October 2018, as a seemingly happier Kyrie Irving made his proclamation to a packed TD Garden crowd — not only of his intention to remain with the Boston Celtics, but his commitment to the fans and the opportunity to build something that would last.

Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan since then.

A tumultuous regular season, one filled with interpersonal friction and teamwide strife rocked the Celtics’ foundations from the start. There was the occasional glimpse of what could be, but all too often Boston would fall into bad habits. Compounded by a lack of trust, or, perhaps, a lack of respect for one another and the Celtics found themselves far from the heights that both they, and everyone around the league, had expected.

Despite the hardships, Irving remained “optimistic,” if you could call it that. Even in the constant spotlight, his message remained the same: just get to the postseason.

“We’ll be fine,” Irving said, “because I’m here.”

Well, Boston got to the postseason, but the Celtics still couldn’t flip the switch. After a quick but hard-fought sweep against the undermanned Indiana Pacers, Irving and the Celtics floundered after a dominant Game 1 win against the Milwaukee Bucks. Irving closed out the final four games shooting just 25-83.

Now, with everything behind them, the waters seem muddied for Irving, Boston and their respective futures. Things are complicated enough for Danny Ainge and the Celtics; Irving’s decision, to stay or to go, could branch out into a number of different pathways, each with their own positives and negatives. Boston could find themselves in the thick of a run at Anthony Davis, or a timeline readjustment, with the focus on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

But for Irving, it is somehow even more complicated than that. Beyond finding a new home for himself and his family (should he chose to leave Boston), one where they are comfortable and happy, there are the contract dealings and everything else involved with the free agent process.

But, perhaps the biggest hurdle for Irving will be determining what this means for himself as a player and his future.

Irving, like most other athletes, is almost certainly conscious of his legacy in the NBA. He is known for the flash and the excitement he can bring to the game but, beyond that, Irving’s career is defined by his time before and after LeBron James — specifically, his ability, or inability, to lead a team to greatness. It was a major part of the reason why Irving decided to set out on his own and requested a trade two seasons ago.

Since he was drafted, Irving has been followed by negativity. He was pegged as moody, immature or difficult to work with. He was questioned, not only on his ability as a leader, but his ability to represent a franchise at the highest level. Despite his successes, Irving always seemed to have been saddled by those perceived deficiencies. It wore on him, as it would with most fresh faces in the NBA.

Then, James returned to Cleveland and things changed. While some of the attitude questions may have remained, the leadership questions faded; Irving wasn’t the leader anymore, James was, and those questions fell to him. Irving’s load lightened, and it allowed him to blossom into the player he is today, but he wasn’t satisfied.

And, of course, the winning ensued.

Perhaps that complicated matters more for Irving. He wanted another chance to be that leader, not only to rectify his past faults and to show that he could be that leader as well. The trade request and drama ensued and Irving got what he wanted. But with that opportunity came creeping back those negative observations and questions, especially after these last seven-odd months of ambiguity and tension.

For better or worse, this is what Irving wanted: the bigger spotlight, a team of his own and all the came with it, good and bad. But, as the season wore on, it seemed as if he wasn’t up to the task, or at least not prepared for what it entailed. Boston failed to reach the skyscraper-high standards set for themselves by themselves and the media. While he can’t shoulder all the blame, a large portion of it falls to Irving as the Celtics best player and their self-proclaimed leader.

Questions will certainly arise in the coming days and weeks about his ability to be the best player on a championship team and whether or not Irving is capable of leading a team to an NBA Finals. But Irving said he wanted to be the leader, to raise his team up and bring them to the Promised Land. Now, his commitment to his own word will be put to the test.

Rumors have swirled around Irving, Kevin Durant, and the New York Knicks for much of the season. Should he decide to flee Boston for New York, or anywhere else with Durant or another player of his caliber (of which, there are few), how would that be any different than his time with James and the Cavaliers? Not only would it have a lasting effect on his legacy, but it would seemingly affirm many of those doubts in his ability as well.

So, what will Irving do? Will he dig his feet in, pull it together and lead the team like he believes he can? Or, will he turn and run from the questions that have plagued him, his character and his legacy since he stepped onto the NBA floor? Only time will tell.

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