Although Kyrie Irving will not make his return to Boston, the narrative surrounding the Nets point guard’s difficult time on the Celtics will still be present even if he is not.
The Celtics, who take on the Nets on Wednesday, seem to have moved past the frustrations and lack of leadership that ensued when Irving was on the team. They are now boasting a 12-4 record, a top ranking in the Eastern Conference so far this season, and “happy” has become their new identity. The matchup, it seems, was the the perfect opportunity to see just how far the Celtics have come without him.
Still, one person thinks he is to blame — not Irving — for the team’s issues last season: Danny Ainge.
In a sit-down interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations said he feels “at fault” for creating a team that lacked cohesion in the first place.
"I do think it was my fault."
1-on-1 with Danny Ainge on what went wrong last year with Kyrie, how the front office pivoted to find an even better fit in Kemba Walker, and how his time with Larry Bird & Kevin McHale affected his reaction to Gordon Hayward's latest injury. pic.twitter.com/uw3gz5viVx
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) November 26, 2019
“Kyrie for his first year and half was terrific for us, and I really was hopeful that it was going to be a good marriage going forward,” Ainge admitted. “But he really wanted to go home and that’s his choice. I don’t know why he gets all the blame, I’m the one who should be blamed for last year. We put a team together that just didn’t have the pieces that didn’t fit – we had a lot of talent, a lot of expectations but it’s certainly not Kyrie’s fault.”
“I do think it was my fault. I think that in hindsight we should have cleaned out the roster a little bit to make it easier for Brad [Stevens]. We had a deep roster, we were built for a longer run but we had a lot of young guys that had a lot of success without Gordon [Hayward] and Kyrie. The guys that had success without those two guys [and] felt like it was their time for the spotlight and it just didn’t mesh.”
Celtics guard Marcus Smart also came to Irving’s defense and told ESPN’s Zach Lowe that everyone on the team, including himself, struggled with expressing their emotions.
“I think last year just opened our eyes to the outcome of holding all that pent-up aggression or whatever you’re going through inside…[Irving] didn’t know how to deal with it. It was his first time having his own team, not being with LeBron [James], not having somebody who’s been bombarded with those things and knows what to say, what to do and how to do it. He had to deal with it on his own, just like everybody else, and that affected him as well.”
While Ainge wouldn’t throw Irving under the bus. he said that new Celtics guard Walker brings a sense of “joy” back to the Celtics that they were lacking.
“Well, we had a long list of point guards that are coming out in the Draft, point guards that are in free agency, players on our own roster and Kemba was a guy that became available to us,” he said.”Now, he has a chance to win. He’s winning games at a higher rate than he ever has and you can see the joy. We didn’t have that last year, even when we were playing well we didn’t really find the happiness in playing and the joy with playing with one another. Kemba was a great fit for us.”
With Gordon Hayward out for six weeks with a hand injury, he said other members of the team can step up as well.
“The thing that was interesting about that is these guys [Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum] that now get a chance to play and step up their game, like they did on Gordon’s first injury, they will get an opportunity to do a little bit more if we can just hold down the fort and give some guys good experience in his absence. That would be great.”
Given what the Celtics have gone through in the past year, Ainge said he’s learned a thing or two about what it takes to build a team. He used the Lakers, despite their historic rivalry with Boston, as an example of how to find a balance with All-Stars are on the roster.
“I learned some things last year, yeah, I think we all learned things. I think that I’d be a little bit more careful going into building another team that had such equal depth. The Lakers have really good depth, in my opinion right now, but they have two stars. There’s no questions, if, ands or buts about it.”
“Last year we had eight or nine guys that all thought they were equal to each other and nobody just took the job and won it. But, that certainly is not going to happen with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, it makes it much easier for people to accept roles when there is a clear hierarchy.”