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Kyrie Irving, Finding His Balance

One of the greatest scorers of his generation has been thrust into a leadership role on an underwhelming Celtics team still trying to make its many pieces fit. Can Kyrie be the organizing principle Boston needs?

Kyrie Irving smiling Elias Stein/Getty Images

Kyrie Irving turns 27 in two months, which is hard to process. He’s already run the gamut of highs in his eight-year NBA career, from an epic third-quarter takeover in an Eastern Conference finals to a championship-clinching 3-pointer within the final minute of a Game 7. Literally the stuff of legends. He was just two months into his 25th year on earth for the former feat; he was only 24 for the latter.

At his best, Irving takes the stylistic markers of the 1996 draft class honor roll—Allen Iverson’s solitary ballet with Kobe Bryant’s footwork and balance, Ray Allen’s accuracy from behind the arc and Steve Nash’s near-perfect off-kilter midrange pull-up—and stuffs them all into the body of a 6-foot-3 trapeze artist. He is one of the best soloists of the past decade; in an era that tried to reject the notion of heroball, Kyrie’s best performances obliterated math with art. As a result, he seesawed between overrated and underrated, ironically, because his best skills have always been well defined and fully formed. Irving’s statistical profile has seen little variance as he’s navigated through his first few seasons in the wilderness, his years as LeBron’s incendiary sidekick, and now as the Celtics’ leading man. But, if we are to heed the precedents of NBA history, we’re expected to believe that Irving is only now rounding into prime form, that his past is merely prologue. But how, exactly, does one follow such a compelling opening act? What is Prime Kyrie supposed to look like?

The Celtics won’t say when they hit rock bottom early on in the season, perhaps because they never hit it. There have been ups and downs, though: a 10-10 start to the season, an eight-game winning streak immediately followed by a three-game losing streak. Yet, Boston, for all the consternation, never dipped below .500, and wasn’t dealing with the same kind of crisis of faith that, say, the Rockets faced before James Harden decided to set history on fire. Both teams have rebounded from calamity, leaning fully on their biggest strengths. And their strengths could not be more different. In Houston, Harden has become a one-man artillery, with his teammates serving as humble cannon-feeders. The Rockets are going all in on Harden’s historic barrage because he is the only player they can trust. Boston’s situation, on the other hand, has allowed Kyrie to occasionally do less. It has one of the two deepest rosters in the league, but as a result, spent the final months of 2018 bedridden by what Pat Riley once dubbed the “disease of more.” New year, new C’s?

Things had started to change before the turning of the calendar year, at least according to Kyrie. After Wednesday’s convincing 27-point win over the third-seeded Pacers (who were, to be fair, on the second night of a back-to-back and without defensive anchor Myles Turner), Irving identified the turning point in the season: a team meeting after the Celtics’ 13-point loss to the Bucks on December 21, in which everyone on the roster was allowed to express their unmet expectations of themselves and the team as a whole. Since that night, the Celtics are 7-3, outscoring teams by 7.7 points per 100 possessions over the past 10 games. Irving noted the uplift in the locker room after the Pacers win. “You want to see that,” Irving said of the atmosphere around the team Wednesday. “You want to see that translate into situations where we’re in a tight game and we all still feel good. No one goes their own ways, and that’s how you build a team, and that’s how you build a championship culture.”

This type of forward-facing leadership is a new look for Kyrie, who, not too long ago, forced his way out of LeBron James’s orbit as a result of the disease of more. His words read like a levelheaded assessment of the team’s overall mood, but the inclusion of an invented adversity felt pointed—a barbed subtweet beneath the smiles. Less than 24 hours later, after the Celtics slept through Thursday’s 16-point loss to the Heat in Miami, a fan-recorded video of Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris entangled in a dispute (and needing to be separated by Marcus Smart) went up on various social media platforms. Irving stands on the side, more or less emotionless. Two steps forward, one step back.

Kyrie is still figuring out the balance of leadership: when to put his foot down and hope everyone falls in line under his example, and when to empower those around him (and what the unintended consequences of that might be). For a player with such a defined skill set, Irving has been surprisingly malleable as the team works out its kinks. He is a historically high-usage player, ranking eighth in career usage rate among active players and 16th all time. But over the past 10 games, Kyrie has been more in the flow of things, sublimating his ego and doing things Cavaliers-era Kyrie might not have: setting off-ball screens; taking charges; and defending much bigger players in the post on switches, trusting that his help will be there to offer weakside help.

Irving has been doing the little things lately in the team’s best interest. He can afford to suck in defenses as a decoy for Boston’s cadre of wings because he’ll need them to have enough confidence to cover him on an off night down the road. He can afford to let playmakers like Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart set up the offense while he camps out in the corner because both players are commanding defensive attention by shooting roughly 37 percent from 3 apiece over the past 20 games—yes, even Smart, one of the worst shooters in modern NBA history. Last season, we saw Irving perfect the Celtics’ patented in-motion 3-pointer off a dribble handoff that made Isaiah Thomas an MVP candidate in 2016-17; this season, the way Kyrie has played off his teammates has even further diversified. Perhaps for the first time in Irving’s career—but certainly at least since 2013-14, the first season that Second Spectrum began tracking shot data—he is shooting more catch-and-shoot 3s than pull-up 3s. For someone whose most identifiable traits as a basketball player are his handle and ability to shoot off the dribble, being willing to switch into a more complementary option on any given possession seems like a significant development.

In essence, the Celtics have been playing a bit more like the Raptors, taking full advantage of their depth, which in turn has allowed Irving to conserve himself similar to the way that Kyle Lowry has over the past two seasons with Toronto. Over the past 10 games, the Celtics have assisted on 69 percent of their made field goals, the best in the league over that span; no one on the team is going it alone. “When I don’t have to go out there and score 30, it’s cool with me,” Irving said Wednesday. “I probably won’t have to score 30 for us until we play one of the best teams in the league—or, if any—until the playoffs. So I’m happy about that.” Boston is undefeated (5-0) this season when Irving scores 13 points or fewer in a game—and that includes a late October game against the Detroit Pistons in which Irving scored three points, one of the five lowest totals of his career.

Of course, the Celtics are also 5-1 this season when Irving scores at least 30 points, and while his willingness to defer has allowed the rest of the rotation to break out of their individual slumps, Kyrie’s singular scoring gifts will always be the no. 1 item on any Celtics scouting report. Knowing when to take over a game and when to encourage production from the supporting cast seems like NBA Star 101, but the Celtics that he led last season didn’t have the same pressure of adversity, and all the years in Cleveland playing within the insulation that LeBron provides is its own unique situation. Irving is receiving a reeducation on the fly.

It’s funny that this is all more or less about balance—one of the most remarkable things about Kyrie on an individual level. There is an extrasensory element to how Irving breaks down a defense, a level of balance and control that few players possess, and even fewer master. It’s no wonder a video of Kyrie’s antigravitational leaning went viral earlier this season—its inexplicability only confirmed our (lack of) understanding of Irving’s talent. Kyrie has built a brand based on challenging traditional notions, but as he gets older he could wind up conforming more to the conventions that have eluded him his entire NBA career. The prime years are often when perceptions are firmly set, when what’s left of a player’s potential—an inherently amorphous concept—begins to calcify into something more readily identifiable. Irving has always been depicted as a “shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body,” and the arrival of LeBron James in 2014 did nothing to dissuade that characterization. If anything, James’s presence as an all-time playmaker fostered Irving’s development in a self-contained chrysalis—all Irving needed to do was what he did best, and nothing else. For some (myself included), his obvious desire to break from that convenient holding pattern seemed irresponsible. Yes, you’re on an island, but why break from paradise?

Well, because of the brand he’s built for himself. Because of the youth he still had on his side. Because it’s always better to find out. As a result, for the first time in his career, Kyrie has adopted the look of a classic floor general. It wasn’t an identity shift that required a new set of skills, but a new sense of purpose. The Celtics need their leader. As Irving leans into his prime, perhaps the biggest question he has left to answer is how much of one he can become.