Leadership history concerns
Over the years, fans and media alike have had questions and concerns about Kyrie Irving’s leadership skills. He struggled to establish himself as one with the Cleveland Cavaliers before LeBron James returned and took over the helm.
That team was full of a lot of young players dying to establish themselves though, Kyrie being one of them. Between that, the constant losing and the toxic losing culture that had been established in that organization with the absence of LeBron, can you rest all the blame on him?
It would be hard for most any new kid on the block to be a great leader in such a situation, especially with no one to show him the ropes. It also doesn’t help that Kyrie would be injured for stretches and is a quiet guy who as gotten a label for being moody.
With the return of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving finally got someone who could truly play the big brother and mentor role. James returned to his hometown Cavs as arguably the world’s best player and a veteran winner with championship experience.
He spent his whole career being a leader and having to deal with multiple types of personalities as well as skill levels in his teammates. Who better to learn from? Kyrie would even try some of James’ methods during his tenure in Boston.
But as Kyrie would learn first hand, LeBron’s leadership methods can wear you out. Just ask Mario Chalmers. It’s a lot being demanded of you and a lot of having to bite the bullet of a gun you didn’t fire.
You have to deal with an overbearing demeanor one second and then a passive-aggressive attitude the next. LeBron’s greatness, as well as him being good friends with most his teammates, allows him to be able to operate like this, but it still can be a drain.
Kyrie Irving felt that drain and strain on the relationship and it would eventually cause him to request a trade.
Fast forward in Boston with the Celtics, everything seemed to be great with his new team. It could truly be called his team as he was clearly the best player. He was surrounded by a bunch of young guys. He would be in early MVP talks. The honeymoon phase was great, but it didn’t last.
Injuries would rear their ugly head again. This time in his absence, the young Boston Celtics team would just lose a hard-fought Game 7 to Kyrie’s old Cavs team, finishing just one game away from making the Finals without so much as a dribble from Kyrie in the postseason.
After this Kyrie seemed to lose the reins and got much of the blame for it. People pointed at his lack of leadership skills. Kyrie would try everything he could to be the leader he was expected to be.
He employed LeBron’s passive-aggressiveness (and then later apologized to him, realizing leading isn’t easy). He would try to lead by example. He tried sending vague shots during interviews. Nothing seemed to work and the world was convinced that it was solely Kyrie’s fault.
And in some respect it is his fault. Instead of immediately trying to take back the team when he got healthy, he should have tried to more peacefully assimilate. And as the star getting paid millions, you have to find a way to deal with the personnel you’re given.
But to place all the blame at his feet is unfair. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said multiple times the team just had too much talent. Stevens placed a lot of the blame on himself for not being able to quite figure out how to put everything together and make the team mesh.
That is part of the coach’s job. He has to be able to get personalities to work and respect one another. Phil Jackson was great at this. Brad Stevens, being relatively young in the NBA just like most of the players he coached, hasn’t figured out how to do this.
And then we have to look at the players being led themselves. Jackie McMullen of ESPN recently detailed that it isn’t as simple as just blaming Kyrie Irving for what transpired in Boston. She writes:
"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.”"
So that’s a former Celtic who has more incentive to side with his old team rather than the player who seemed like he couldn’t wait to get out of Boston. He was close to the team and got to watch them pretty much all year so his words hold some weight. McMullen continues:
"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."
But I think the most telling part of McMullen article comes where she speaks on how Celtics practices changed after their near Finals visit. It specifically focused on the younger players who helped lead Boston to success just the season prior.
They did it with team play, being unselfish, and making the extra pass. Boston’s coaching staff was worried that now in practices passes came slower and sometimes not at all and isolation plays had increased.
It was Kyrie Irving, ironically enough, who tried to get them back to playing how they had the year prior.