Kyrie Irving is facing the toughest task of his professional life: learning how to lead.
Scoring around, over and through defenders looks easy for Kyrie. He’s built for Game 7 game-winners. But leadership is based on character. Can Irving connect with, inspire and elevate the Boston Celtics in these playoffs? The answer will set a new narrative for his career.
Irving has always been different. From his love of singing and Broadway show tunes to his infamous flat-Earth rabbit hole, the 27-year-old point guard is not your conventional NBA superstar. But he does fit one cliché: The best players want their own teams.
That’s what the game whispers in the ears of the greats. It’s why Kobe Bryant chased Shaquille O’Neal out of Los Angeles, why James Harden Eurostepped away from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and why Irving left LeBron James in Cleveland.
There’s nothing worse for a hooper than when a player who’s not on your level tries to take control. The best need the ball in their hands to control their own fate — and they deserve to have it. Basketball is the most individualistic of team sports. As Michael Jordan famously responded when Chicago Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter told him there was no “I” in team: “There’s an ‘i’ in win.”
But if the Boston franchise belongs to Irving, what’s that like for the rest of the Celtics?
“When we play with him, it’s more like a show,” said Terry Rozier, the backup point guard with starter talent. “We sit back and watch — watch him go crazy.”
When Irving missed the playoffs last year after season-ending surgery, Rozier stepped up and showed out, helping Boston make a run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals.
But when Irving returned to the court this season, he saw Rozier as competition. Many picked Boston to win the East, but they regressed and finished fourth. Irving had one of the finest individual seasons of his career, but as losses to bottom-tier teams mounted, teammates chafed under his public criticism. Irving blamed the “young guys,” questioned coach Brad Stevens’ strategy, seemed disengaged at times and chewed out Gordon Hayward on the sideline after Hayward didn’t pass him the ball at the end of a close loss. Several Celtics said basketball was no longer fun.
This is the season Irving’s career collided with the idea that the best player is supposed to be the leader of the team.
On the one hand it makes sense: The team wins more games if the best player sets a winning tone on and off the court. How can a player truly be great if he doesn’t want to lead?
However, putting the ball in the basket and leading a team require different skills. One is physical; the other is emotional. And leadership sometimes entails putting the needs of others first, which can run counter to the mentality that made a player great in the first place.
Irving’s difficulties are reminiscent of the struggles that Bryant, one of Irving’s mentors, had early in his career. “Kobe had a tough time. I think his teammates really got down on him. He tried too hard to be a leader,” Winter, who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles with head coach Phil Jackson, said in Roland Lazenby’s book Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant.
“He didn’t know how to lead the way his teammates wanted to be led. … He just wasn’t sure how to go about it,” former equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas said in Showboat. “He was always in competition with them for being the marquee player, being the leader, and he wanted to be the scorer all the time.”
In December, Irving acknowledged some of his shortcomings in an interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. “I realized I had no idea what I was doing to begin this season, in terms of what we looked like, the plays we’d be calling, my relationship with coach Stevens, my relationship with every guy on this team. It’s going to be unique with each one of them.”
“I’m accountable for these guys to play at a certain level every single night and demand that out of them,” Irving said. “If that comes with being in some guys’ faces and making them feel uncomfortable and not being well-received or not well-liked, that’s just what it comes down to. … You can’t be soft or fragile on the way to that championship because guys will be coming after you. So why not challenge our guys during the season to prepare them for that?”
That’s also reminiscent of Jordan, whose teammates took years to consider him their leader. “Michael is a challenging type of guy,” Jackson said in the book The Jordan Rules. “He’s not the type of guy to commiserate or put his arm around someone’s shoulder. He’s going to say, ‘Step up, chump, and make some shots.’ ”
Chumping dudes isn’t wise on a team like the Celtics. Irving’s talk about guys being fragile probably doesn’t go over well with Marcus Morris, who grew up in a North Philadelphia neighborhood where eye contact with the wrong person could get you shot. Jaylen Brown accurately pointed out that when Irving talked about accountability, it did not apply to Irving himself. Then there’s Jayson Tatum, who emerged as a star in last year’s playoffs and must be wondering why Irving would monopolize the ball in Boston after James did the same thing to Irving in Cleveland.
James’ leadership style with the Cavaliers included setting an example with his preparation and organizing off-court bonding activities. During games, James controlled the ball but was a willing passer. In the 2016 Finals, after losing the first two games to Golden State, James told his team in the pregame tunnel huddle: “Follow my lead. Follow my lead from start to finish.” The Cavs won that game, lost the next one to go down 3-1, then took it to Game 7 — where Irving’s 3-point tiebreaker finished Golden State.
Now Irving is in Boston. He has a chance to figure out his problems and lead the Celtics to a championship. Or maybe he’ll try with another team, since he was conspicuously noncommittal about re-signing this offseason, another questionable leadership decision.
Leadership can be learned. Great players are constantly working to improve their games, adding new shots and new counters to beat the defense. They can do the same thing with the intangible skills that elevate teams to a championship level.
That’s what Bryant did. After the Lakers lost in the 2008 Finals, Bryant changed and led the Lakers to two more titles. “The area he has grown the most has been his leadership and his trust of the other players on the team now,” teammate Brian Shaw said in Showboat. “He manned up.”
And Bryant got that message from Jordan, who early in his career regularly insulted his “supporting cast” in the locker room and never advised them about their performance.
Bryant said Jordan told him: “Listen, you have all the individual tools. Now you have to figure out how to connect with each one of those guys and bring the best out of those guys. It’s not about just passing them the ball and saying that’s what makes guys better. That’s not it. You have to figure out how to touch the right buttons to make them want to be the best versions of themselves.”
That only happens when a superstar becomes a leader — when a superstar becomes the best version of himself. These playoffs will show whether the best Irving is yet to come.