If there’s anything we’ve learned over the course of this NBA season—and really, in the years preceding it—it’s that Kyrie Irving always has something to say. Whether it’s comments about the shape of the Earth, thoughts on player movement in the league, or examples of his version of leadership, the subject doesn’t matter. He’s become known for eluding clichés like defenders in the paint, and he doesn’t hold back when he gets on a roll. The result isn’t always ideal, and this season in particular, as Irving has leaned into what he thinks a vocal leader for a team with heavy expectations should do, it’s backfired more than it’s helped.
At Celtics practice on Wednesday, Irving was asked about a video from All-Star Weekend that showed him and Kevin Durant talking in one of the arena’s tunnels before Sunday’s game. In the clip, which has been circulating on Twitter, Irving is far more emotive than Durant, pointing at himself, pointing at Durant, and at one point, holding up two fingers. It didn’t take Basketball Internet long to start speculating about the meaning of the number. Two max slots, perhaps? Back in July, on The Bill Simmons Podcast, Irving said himself that the offseason starts “on the All-Star break.” It makes sense: What better time to recruit players and talk future plans than when all the stars are in one place?
But when reporters pressed him on the exchange this week, Irving went off. “It’s a video of me and one of my best friends talking,” he responded. “And then it turns out to be a dissection of a free-agency meeting? ... And then I’m asked questions about that? That’s what disconnects me from all that shit.”
Here’s the full exchange:
Being in the news for his quotes—both positive and negative—isn’t new for Kyrie. He began this season by standing up at a season-ticket holder event in Boston and declaring that he planned to re-sign with the Celtics when his contract expires this summer. But when he was asked again about free agency earlier this month, his response had changed. “Ask me July 1,” he said, before later stating: “I don’t owe anybody shit.” Irving is right, and he’s certainly allowed to change his mind. But once those comments are out there, it’s unreasonable to expect the rumor train—one Irving launched—to be reined back in.
“This is the stuff that just doesn’t make the league fun,” Irving said on Wednesday. “Nobody helps promote the league even more by doing bullshit like that.” When he was asked if he wanted to “pour water” on the video because the internet was talking about it, Irving recoiled: “Is the internet real for you in your life? It’s my life right? It’s two people talking, having a conversation.
“Anybody’s stories or social media, like I’m completely off it,” he said. “I just don’t have the care for it. It ruins locker rooms. It ruins confidence in people. And it’s just a fictitious way of feeling validated in the world.”
Irving’s points about the internet and social media are salient to an extent, but he’s wrong about the promotional impact the online conversation has on the league. Nobody can stop outlets from making jokes about the video. And though the lip-reading and Zaprudering of tape like the Irving-Durant exchange isn’t necessary, it isn’t going to stop anytime soon, either. The league is at a point that transaction and free-agency rumors are the fuel on which it runs. It could be the purest form of it—like Anthony Davis actually asking the Pelicans for a trade—or a more diluted version, like Irving and Durant having lunch in Miami. But it all elicits a similar frenzied reaction. When the Warriors can trump any contender on the court, there’s a thirst for the unknown off the court.
And in this case, the fodder isn’t unfounded. When the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks ahead of the deadline, they offloaded two bad contracts in order to free up two max slots this summer. It was a move that reeked of insider knowledge about this coming free-agency period. You don’t let go of a unicorn unless you’re planning to get a superstar or two, and it just so happens that two have recently been linked to the Knicks: One just moved his company’s headquarters to New York City; the other happens to be one of the first’s closest friends. So while Irving and Durant talking at All-Star Weekend is probably nothing, the two also shouldn’t be surprised that people made it “a thing.”
Back before the season began, Irving could have established a centered approach about dealing with the media. He could have said that he wouldn’t talk about free agency until the summer, similar to how LeBron James handled his second stint in Cleveland, or deflected questions and given a stock, “I’m focused on this team and this season and trying to win” response. Instead, he fed the flames. And it’s tough to criticize the feedback loop when you’ve been one of its main contributors.
Irving also gave another interview on Wednesday, though it was quickly overshadowed by his comments about the Durant video. Speaking with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Irving talked about the Celtics’ up-and-down season, and said of his teammates: “We have a bunch of young men in our locker room who feel they’re capable of doing a lot more than they’re doing.”
Free agency aside, Irving embarked on this season with a goal to be Boston’s leader. In practice, his approach has been a weird combination of tough love and needlessly public shots at Boston’s young players. The Celtics have a 7-3 record over the past 10 games and a top-three net rating in the league, but their season has felt like a roller coaster. They haven’t jelled quite as well as the team that took LeBron James to seven games in last season’s Eastern Conference finals. And compared to preseason expectations that they would be the best team in the East, they’ve underachieved.
Irving has put himself, and his team, in an impossible position. How do you expect to lead a team that many believe you don’t even want to play for next year? And how do you expect people to not talk about free agency when you can’t stop giving them things to talk about?