When tempestuous point guard Kyrie Irving almost left the Boston Celtics completely high and dry in the summer, ‘addition by subtraction’ was forecast by some fans who were glad to see the back of a season that most considered a major let down. When GM Danny Ainge managed to acquire three-time All-Star Kemba Walker to fill the void, it was assumed that we’d see the value of fit in full effect – it was an accurate assumption.
Irving is inarguably one of the most breathtakingly talented players in the league. As an individual, he possesses a once-in-a-generation skillset that is quite the joy to watch. However, after winning a championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, alongside the GOAT-in-waiting, he wanted out, and stories of infighting rose to the surface over time. When he was traded to the Boston Celtics, they became supposed contenders, due to their apparent mix of leadership and youthful vigour, yet, over time, it became clear that he played a large part in creating a frosty internal atmosphere that stunted the growth that he should have been nourishing.
Kyrie’s personality didn’t fit and he has found a new home in Brooklyn, where his Kevin Durant-less Brooklyn Nets team possesses a losing record, as it tries to find its feet. Double Clutch and USA Today’s Justin Quinn believes that it boiled down to his inability to lead the roster around him.
“I think it has become clearer that Kyrie needs a very specific sort of roster to feel comfortable in his game, and Boston was never going to be that place with so many mouths in need of feeding. He’s better suited paired with one or two supernovae – players of Durant’s or LeBron’s ilk – and an assemblage of role players who expect to take a back seat to the stars.”
Celtics fan and NBA Twitter behemoth James Holas outlined, in more detail, the reasons why it didn’t pan out for Uncle Drew.
“Kyrie is a true blue superstar who undoubtedly came to Boston with the best intentions; the organization bent over backwards to accommodate Irving, and it somehow still blew up in their collective faces. Here’s what we can learn from an autopsy of the Kyrie Irving Celtic saga: the best talent isn’t always the best fit.
“His time in Boston was a tragic perfect storm of 1) an eccentric scorer trying to find his way as a leader, 2) a collection of young talents (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and to a lesser extent, Terry Rozier, all showed sky-high potential with Kyrie out the season prior, and had to try to navigate the narrow margin for error his mercurial personality and high usage game afforded them), 3) Gordon Hayward’s mental and physical struggles to return to his pre-injury form, and outsized expectations based on the sheer amount of talent collected on the roster.”
Without even considering his on-court productivity, Kemba Walker has had a remarkable effect on his teammates thus far in Kyrie’s wake, as the team has raged through a 9-1 month to begin the season, boasting the best record in the league in an albeit small sample size. In the absence of any major disruption, the youthful, optimistic Boston stars have unfurled like lotus flowers, showcasing their offseason improvement and playing with unbridled freedom. So, why not explore this further, through the prism of Oxford art-rock legends, Radiohead?
As your bad day disappears
No longer wound up like a spring
While it’s understood that Irving may have a more overwhelmingly impressive offensive repertoire, Walker actually put together performances last year with a mostly sub-standard Charlotte Hornets that rival – if not usurp – most Irving career performances. Dropping 47 on Washington and Utah was only bettered by handing Philadelphia 60 points, at an efficient 61 percent clip. Any claims of a significant drop-off in backcourt quality were ill-advised. However, his role in the cultural shift in Boston has been his most notable contribution.
The unspoken spectre of tension no longer lurks over the team, if this season’s all-for-one performances are to anything to go by. Cameron Tabatabaie of Celtics Hub told me that the measures were already in place for positive change; Kemba has just served as the perfect component.
“Replacing Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker did alleviate a fair chunk of malaise in the Celtics locker room. But at the same time, the coaches and players have seemingly worked hard to address the chemistry woes from last year. Walker’s arrival coincides with a culture shift as much as he represents one. That said, it’s easy enough to be happy-go-lucky when you win 89 percent of your games; until the Celtics hit a patch of real adversity, the jury is still technically out on any definitive culture shift.”
Quinn on the other hand, has seen this movie before as a Connecticut native and believes that Walker’s influence on those around him should not be underestimated.
“I think Kemba has always been a natural leader who knows he makes things the best for himself by empowering those around him. Even back in his days at Rice in Harlem, he made sure his classmates were doing as well at academics as he did making sure his teammates were in practice. It’s just who he is, even though his relatively short stature has underlined that importance since graduating to the NBA.
“As a lifelong UConn Huskies supporter, I’ve seen Walker grow into the player he is today, but most of that growth has been finding small ways to make his own game better. He’s always had the ability to transform teams into something more than the sum of their parts, perhaps Michael Jordan’s biggest miss is focusing on the person more so than valuing his broader impact, at least when it comes to free agency offers. And I don’t mind one bit, obviously.”
During Isaiah Thomas’ fond tenure with the Celtics, the team of overachievers made a habit of grinding out games, even making spirited playoff runs fuelled on a sense of spirit and a relentless thirst to disprove the naysayers. The local faithful adored that team and their leader, which was blatantly evident in his recent return to The Garden.
Isaiah gets a loud ovation at the Garden. Is it just me or is it dusty in here :’) pic.twitter.com/2Q0asYCRXl
— Casey Baker (@CaseyBake16) November 14, 2019
Over the span of last season, Boston fans’ adoration of the team was tested and they longed for a team they could root for, as before. It became clear that the 2018-19 Celtics weren’t completely together and ultimately weren’t willing to sacrifice as a unit to achieve a common goal. Even with all the public statements of unity, the negativity seeps through to the stands and the burning passion starts to temper. In Kemba, they can see that willingness to adapt and occasionally forgo personal plaudits, just like his old team clearly did.
Warm welcome in Kemba’s return to Charlotte 👏 pic.twitter.com/HWrvgahS5b
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) November 8, 2019
They’ve got a Cheshire Cat grin
When talking to the media, Celtics players are jumping at every chance to gush about the improvement in morale.
Jaylen Brown on Kemba Walker: “He’s a great dude, man. He really is.”
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) November 13, 2019
Voting is open now. Kemba. For 1st Team All Defense.
LGI tonight! 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/RL3ckjLRyp
— marcus smart (@smart_MS3) October 26, 2019
Kemba Walker on Tatum’s bounce back performance: “Yeah that was important. … Especially for a guy of his age and caliber. I’m excited how he handled tonight’s game.”
— Tom Westerholm (@Tom_NBA) November 14, 2019
Holas presents perhaps the most powerful comparison, highlighting a massive mind-set change in the team, free of finger-pointing and reductive debate.
“One has to only look at Kyrie Irving’s response to Jayson Tatum missing a potential game winner in a bad mid-season loss to Orlando. The image of a visibly irate Irving shouting at Gordon Hayward for not getting him the ball has come to be symbolic of that lost season.”
“Then listen to Jackie MacMullan and Rachel Nichols detail how Kemba implored Tatum to ‘Keep shooting! Keep shooting!’ as Tatum was in the midst of a 1-18 nightmare against the Mavericks.”
“The difference in both Kemba’s and Kyrie’s disposition and approach to teammates is stark.”
Doubling down on his praise, Quinn came to a similar conclusion.
“It’s hard not to be inspired to work harder, to defer to teammates when the moment is right to do so, to be humble, yet aggressive,” he said. “I always feel like a commercial when describing the impact he has on his teammates, but having lived through that bonkers NCAA title run – almost jumping through the screen at times – I cannot emphasize just how much he can change a culture.”
“That UConn team wouldn’t have made the NIT without his leadership, never mind the chip. The Hornets, better though they have been than at any time in a decade before his exit, was maybe an even better example. Kemba helped masked just how poorly Charlotte had team-built in the last decade, and when presented with young, talented players that populate Boston’s roster, it’s really no surprise at all to hear and see the polar opposite of what we witnessed during Irving’s time in Boston.”
Of course, Kemba is not the only player to influence change. It was regularly suggested that a logjam at the wing position was a problem last year. While Hayward was working on a return to health, Tatum and Brown struggled to make leaps in the way anticipated. This year, Hayward has flirted with prime Utah-level performance before picking up a hand injury. There can be no doubt that the younger pair appear visibly reinvigorated, having rediscovered their reckless freedom and improved over the summer.
“I think the encouraging early returns for the likes of Tatum, Brown, and Hayward must be attributed to their respective individual growth,” Tabatabaie told me. “The Jays are still making their bones in the NBA, while Hayward’s devastating leg injury wasn’t fully in the rear-view last year.
“At the same time, we know that Brown and Tatum both had some dark personal stretches during the 2018-19 season. This attributed to and was made worse by the Celtics’ notoriously toxic environment. That Marcus Smart and others have worked to alleviate some of these problems will only benefit them.”
Smart is a beloved Celtic at this point and remains a seemingly incredible teammate. He is the people’s captain, the glue guy who wears his heart on his sleeve in the most intense and occasionally controversial fashion. He has been a suffocating defender since he came into the league, but his offensive game has really started to bloom to start this season.
“Simply put, Marcus Smart might be the most unique player in the NBA, both on the court and for how much he means to his team,” claimed Holas. “At 25 years old, he’s the longest tenured Celtic. He averages about only 12-3-3, but he arguably makes the most winning plays of anyone on the squad.
“He’s a career 31 percent three-point shooter who’s currently the team’s most fearless long range bomber, letting fly almost 7 treys a night this season, making 38.8 percent of them. At 6’3, Smart’s ability to guard all but the burliest centers and power forwards is nothing short of amazing. More than just stats and play on the court, Smart imbues an element of toughness that can’t be defined. Smart’s ability to make plays allows Kemba to focus on putting the ball in the hole, and his defensive prowess means that Walker won’t have the added responsibility of high-level defensive assignments. When Smart is coming off the bench, his ball handling and ability to find teammates from the perimeter and the post keeps the offense afloat when Walker needs a break.”
Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards have been provided with major opportunities since the opening of their rookie seasons and appeared to integrate into their roles seamlessly. This can also be attributed to the surrounding atmosphere and complimentary pieces.
Listen to Double Clutch’s Tom Hall chat about the Boston Celtics with NBC’s Kyle Draper
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
The point guard handover in Boston could be used as a case study in basketball texts books going forward, as it clearly outlines the importance of chemistry and perhaps more crucially, the willingness to fit within a system. Holas took me through the ways in which Brad Stevens’ team potential was not maximised and proved an unpleasant watch with Irving at the helm, before mirroring that to what we’ve seen from Walker.
“Kyrie is a masterful offensive weapon, he prefers to dribble his way into rhythm and can chew up whole possessions probing and pounding the rock. When called upon to operate off ball in Boston, he lingered around the perimeter waiting to get the ball back instead of careening through thickets of screens to shift defenses. Kyrie seemed to exist in uneasy alliance alongside the offense, not function as an integral part of it.
“As a result, the Celtics offense was inconsistent and at times near unwatchable. Jaylen Brown would score 10 quick points and then not really see the ball again when Kyrie decided he needed to eat. The cascading effect of this was players hunting their own offense when they touched the ball, either subconsciously or with stubborn purpose.
“Kemba is similar, yet very different from Kyrie. Both are devastating scorers in their own right – if Kyrie’s scoring forays are elegant, verbose flowery prose finger rolling in a layup over two defenders, Kemba is clean, terse dialogue that can provide poignant impact with minimal wasted character. Kyrie flows into his stepback three with staccato crossovers and hesitation dribbles; Kemba explodes into his pogo stick jumper off of swift jab steps, pullback dribbles, or in the sliver of space off screens. Kyrie gives the ball up and is immediately looking for the return pass, while Kemba is proving adept and zipping along the baseline or back-screening or popping into pockets of open space.”
Young, gifted professional basketball players were starved of opportunity, now they can eat, due to a willing and selfless feeder. Sometimes team sport can be that simple.
The Celtics have beaten the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, an Eastern Conference favourite in the Milwaukee Bucks and the dynamic, up-and-coming Dallas Mavericks so far. As always, expectations could creep in as they extend their opening tear, but we won’t know if their array of talent can contend until the postseason comes around. For now, with everything in its right place, fans have good reason for positivity.
Featured photo – Rex / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington