Before we go any further let’s just get one thing out the way, Kyrie did not play well at all in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He got bottled up by Milwaukee’s defense and wasn’t able to provide the offensive jolt he normally gives his team and couldn’t make things easier for his teammates either. Now that that’s out the way, PLEASE stop blaming Kyrie for this dumpster fire of a season. This was not the Celtics team we saw last season. They did not defend like they did last year and the hunger just didn’t seem to be there. Stick around and I’ll tell you why this team wasn’t able to maximize their potential.
The first thing I want to address is people saying the Celtics were better without Kyrie. That’s idiotic. NOBODY is better without Kyrie. He’s arguably the best point guard on the planet. There are 60 games of evidence people conveniently overlook in order to justify their criticism and push their narrative. Gordon Hayward snapped his leg in half in spectacular fashion within the first 5 minutes of their season and it was supposed to be a severely damaging blow. How did Kyrie respond? He led the Celtics to 16 straight wins. He steadied the ship and led those young guys and they were receptive and followed his lead. There weren’t any egos at this point. Just a bunch of hungry youngsters and a couple of savvy vets that wanted to win.
Kyrie gave the young guys confidence and allowed them to flourish and play their game and he took over when needed. There were no whispers of selfishness and no one complaining about what they sacrificed. He put them in a position to win games and when he went down for the season, the culture that was established allowed them to continue to perform at a high level. Everyone stepped up and they went as far as they could until they found themselves in a Game 7 with a chance to go to the NBA Finals on the line where it appeared that they were missing Kyrie’s poise and steady handedness in the waning moments of the game. Who knows how that turns out if he played? So to say they were better without him isn’t accurate. Sure they experienced success in his absence but we have to acknowledge what he was able to bring to the franchise throughout the course of the season.
When I look back at this season and how things played out for the Celtics, I honestly feel like their success last year doomed them. Before when Kyrie was still new to the team and they lost their second best player for the season, they felt like they needed Kyrie and they looked to him to navigate them through this maze. And he delivered on their expectations. Then he goes down. At that point, I’m sure his conversations still rang out in their heads and those guys played like they had a chip on their shoulders. It almost felt like they were playing for Kyrie and Gordon Hayward. And as previously mentioned, they came within minutes of a Finals berth. Now fast forward to this season. This is the social media age. Those guys heard all the “Should they trade Kyrie?” talk. And instead of rallying with the guys in their locker room and looking at things from the standpoint of “Ok, let’s run it back now that we’re back to full strength” they subscribed to the notion that they were good enough as is.
So Kyrie comes back and he’s ready to reassume his leadership role and he’s met with resistance. That clash led to dysfunction. Pretty sure Kyrie didn’t expect to walk back into a full scale mutiny. Those guys bought into the hype and it ultimately cost them their season. You could tell in the way they played. There was much more iso this year. The ball wasn’t moving and the offense wasn’t as deliberate and free flowing. Then the body language, communication and chemistry was off. They had all the looks of a team that was not on one accord. I really think that they were on a quest to validate the “We were better without Kyrie” claims. But that becomes a serious problem when you’re trying to prove you’re better without Kyrie while simultaneously playing with Kyrie. What you get is inconsistent play and a second round exit. Many people, myself included, felt that Boston was the odds on favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals this year. For them not to make it is a failure.
Another thing that goes understated in this whole situation is that the Celtics went from hunters last season to being the hunted this season. Things change when you are the game every team is circling on their calendar. Playing with lofty expectations and increased pressure is much different than going out there, giving it your best shot and hoping for the best. When you have that bullseye on your back, things get just a whole lot tougher. That added pressure in addition to all the inner turmoil did not bode well for the Celtics this year. In addition to all of this, it took Brad Stevens a while to figure out rotations and how guys fit together. I can definitely understand him going with Hayward initially as he was originally a big part of the plan with the team moving forward but Stevens eventually came to the realization that he would be of better use in a reserve role.
Now that we’ve covered everything that was out of his control, we have to talk about what Kyrie could have done to possibly salvage the season. I think Kyrie’s biggest mistake this season was his reluctance to change his leadership approach. He was coming back into a situation he did not expect. He did not expect to have to regain these guys’ trust. They felt like “We got to the Eastern Conference Finals without you.” His focus should have been “Let me show you how to get to the Finals with me.” But in his mind, this should have been understood. You can’t lead everybody the same way and in some instances you can’t lead the same people the way you lead them before. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, the situation had changed. He was still the best player and was their best chance for success. He just needed a way to get them to realize that.
Also, he terribly mishandled his impending free agency. This is always a tricky ordeal regardless but with his comments becoming increasingly contradictory as the season went on amidst all the issues they were already having did nothing to draw the team closer together. It would be hard for anyone to embrace leadership from someone who they felt had one foot out of the door already. I’m sure this is a conversation he will have with his mentor, Kobe Bryant. Kobe went through a similar experience with the Lakers where he had to change his approach to leadership and the result was back to back championships. I have no doubt in my mind this will be a learning experience for Kyrie and he will be prepared for the challenge should it arise again. In a perfect world, I’d like to see him return to Boston and get this team to maximize its potential but only time will tell if he will give us that chance.
Boston underachieved this season, that is indisputable. But I really have a problem with people placing the blame solely at Kyrie’s feet. At the end of the day, he was their best player and he helped them to be the best version possible of themselves as long as he was physically able to do so. Even after his injury, he was still on the bench being vocal and making his presence felt in huddles and throughout the game. He wasn’t present during their Game 7 loss because he couldn’t fly due to recently having surgery for a sinus injury from earlier in the season. It definitely looked like his veteran wisdom was missed during that game. None of them had ever experienced that type of game before and I’m sure they were at a loss. That’s a perfect example of why they weren’t better without him, even when he wasn’t playing.