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Kyrie Irving on Kawhi Leonard, the J.R. Smith Finals Flub, and Player Empowerment in the NBA

The Boston star joined ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’ to discuss that and more

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Celtics star Kyrie Irving had a busy year. In August he was traded to Boston from the Cavaliers, joining a team that had just added Gordon Hayward a month before. With those additions, the Celtics were expected to make a run through the East, but after a gruesome injury to Hayward in the first game of the year and a knee injury to Irving that kept him out the last month of the season and the playoffs, the team was stopped short. Now, Irving joins The Bill Simmons Podcast to talk about his recovery, his expectations for his team next year, player equity in the NBA, J.R. Smith’s Finals flub, and the latest Kawhi Leonard news.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

On the Kawhi Situation and NBA Free Agency

Simmons: The Lakers climbed to 6–1 [odds to win the Finals] this week just because of the rumors that LeBron was [in L.A.] looking for schools with his kids. So that’s happening. And now the Kawhi [Leonard] thing as well.

Irving: [Exhales.] Man. This is going to be intense.

Simmons: LeBron, Kawhi, blank. That’s a contender.

Irving: We’re also forgetting about Paul George.

Simmons: Well, that’s what I mean — Paul George or maybe somebody we’re not thinking about yet. That’s something you never know. Nobody knew you were available in mid-June last year, you know? And then all of a sudden you were available. The biggest thing is the shorter contracts. I think that’s why there’s more movement.

Irving: Mhmm.

Simmons: You think about 15–20 years ago, Jalen Rose, he signed like a seven-year, $100 million deal in Indiana. He’s there for seven years or they’re in control of trading him. But the way you guys have rigged it now, it’s basically like LeBron has been the smartest of all. He’s just constantly running it back, one year, one year, one year, one year, so he has more cap.

Irving: Us as players have really, really just figured out, like, we know where we add value, we know kind of how great we are as players, and how do you work with management to win a championship or win multiple championships?

Simmons: It’s an amazing generation of players. I’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but when I was growing up, especially the younger guys were really hit or miss, and some of them couldn’t handle either their first big contract, or the attention, or just the pressure of playing. And then you went through the ’80s and drugs were a big issue, then you went to the ’90s and guys are 19 [years old and] getting $80 million contracts. Then the LeBron generation comes in, and now everybody handles their business well. Like, I was talking to Donovan Mitchell at the Finals. The guy [acts] like he’s 35 years old, and he’s 22. [Jayson] Tatum’s the same way. Tatum already knows how to be boring in interviews. He’s not going to say anything.

Irving: No.

Simmons: But it’s this whole generation. I think they learned from the LeBron-Wade-Bosh generation kind of how to handle their business. That’s my theory.

Irving: Mhmm, yeah.

Simmons: So you agree with it?

Irving: I agree with it, I agree with it. I think that we all try to be a trailblazer one way or another in terms of how we view our business, the opportunities that we’re afforded. How do we take advantage of that? … People are looking for equity — like, we actually want to be part of this if we’re gonna try to grow this business for you. You can use my likeness, you can use who I am. You know, it comes with a lot, but the value I’m adding to this is just a lot more. … But now it’s like, on the back end, what am I actually getting from it? What are we getting from each other?

Player Empowerment in the NBA

Simmons: Could you identify with some of the stuff [Kevin Durant] was going through this year? Because he was definitely up and down, and it did seem like the season wore on him a couple times.

Irving: Yeah, I call it being on top of Mount Everest — that steady climb that starts in the summertime and goes throughout the season. Once you get on top of Mount Everest and you’re standing there, you’re enamored with your personality. People are just loving [you]. Finals MVP, NBA champion, and after that it’s like, “So, what’s next?” And then it’s just like, “We have to do it all over again, and I have to now go through games 1 through 82 as if it holds a certain value to me.” After you get there, you’re like “Whew, OK.” I mean, that’s what he was after — he was after winning a championship, being the best player on the floor, and he accomplished that. Now it’s like, “OK, what’s next?”

Simmons: And I think he thought when they won the title it was going to relieve some of the shit he took, and it didn’t. People were like, “Oh, you chased the title.” And then he was like, “Really? I’m the Finals MVP, and I’m still taking shit?” And I do think it affected him. I thought it affected him during the season.

Irving: But I think that he does an incredible job of kind of willing himself to those moments, of showcasing why he is that great. And it’s great to see as a fan of basketball. I love playing against him, but I also love watching him. He has a presence about him that is really unassuming, but he dominates games. Thirty-plus [points] is easy for him, but then you get 10 assists [from him] some games, eight assists, or 14 rebounds he had in the Finals, or Game 4 where he had the triple-double, and he’s just working on his craft. I think that in itself was like, “OK, I got the championship, now I just want to work on my craft.” And now, of course … everyone just starts attacking, like, “Oh, you’re not enough, you’re not this, you’re not that.” And it’s just, bro, give it a break. Like, seriously, give it a break. Let it go, man. Yes, he’s on an incredible team, but he’s also the best player on that team.

Simmons: Were you OK when he switched to them? What was your feeling?

Irving: Yeah, I was happy for him. I was happy for him. At the end of the day, if you can control your experience, he wanted that. So I’m not the one to be opposing in any way of someone making a decision for their life. Which is kind of why I was an advocate of when I came out with my trade, like, “No, I’m just trying to be in my own truth, I’m trying to figure out my life.” No disrespect to anyone else, but this was the decision I had to make for me. And some people understand it, some people don’t, but at the end of the day it just really doesn’t matter.

Simmons: You mentioned at the top of the podcast, you were talking about your generation. And I think it started with The Decision in 2010 when LeBron went to Miami, and it’s led to this decade of player empowerment and players being in control. And we’re seeing it this weekend with Kawhi. He’s not a free agent yet — I call it a pre-agent.

Irving: [Laughs.] A pre-agent?

Simmons: Yeah, he’s celebrating his pre-agency right now.

Irving: Well, I was talking to my best friend, Alex, about this earlier, and I was saying that, when LeBron did that in 2010, I think as a free agent to do what he did is incredible in terms of player empowerment. And then now you look at where players are now, realizing their own value within the organization and what they bring to other teams, and now they’re controlling it as best you can. Not being disrespectful to the team, but now we’re just open and honest about how we feel about our life outside of basketball. … And now you see it, like, “No, I don’t want to be in this situation anymore. I actually want to be somewhere else, and I’m going to communicate that with you, and I know my value, and I know that if this is going to work, I have to part ways.” And you just go about it. And now you don’t have to wait until free agency to do that anymore. The team doesn’t have to trade you, but now you can communicate it. You want your team to be happy, so you want your star player to be happy, and if he’s not then what are you going to do to fix it? Are you going to trade him away?

The J.R. Smith Finals Flub

Simmons: Did you watch the NBA Finals? Did you watch it like a fan?

Irving: I watched it as a critic, and then as well as a fan of kind of both teams. It was an interesting Finals to say the least.

Simmons: What was your reaction when J.R. [Smith] forgot the score, having played with him for years, and LeBron as well?

Irving: I mean, like, shit happens. In that type of environment, of course it was going to be like the biggest thing ever, like, “Yo, what could’ve happened in those four seconds,” you know? You start putting all these scenarios and all the pressure on, like, “What if? What if?” Like people love doing that shit all day.

Simmons: That’s one of my favorite things to do.

Irving: That’s what I’m saying, bro, and then you draw emotion to that, and then people just start having their own perception of it. But at the end of the day, shit happens, bro.

Simmons: The clip didn’t help of LeBron on the bench reacting and then sagging back with the hands over his head.

Irving: No, no.

Simmons: It did seem like that killed them going into the OT. I went to the game and … it just felt like it took LeBron out. I’ve never seen LeBron angrier. Because he was so mad about the call, he’s mad about J.R. and then he pinned the Steph shot at the end on the backboard and then was talking shit to him, which he usually doesn’t do.

Irving: Mhmm. Yeah, emotionally, the Finals is just — it’s the biggest stage, so you make one mistake out there, you say one missed quote out there, they’re killing you for it. They’re just killing you for it.

Simmons: Do you like the press conferences? Are you amused by them? Because it’s basically nine out of every 10 questions are gonna be awful. And you have to sit there and pretend and just not be sarcastic and pick them apart.

Irving: [Sighs.]

Simmons: No comment?

Irving: I’m glad the NBA does a great job of showcasing us.

Simmons: Oh, that’s a great answer! You’re really good at this.

Irving: [Laughs.] Redirect. No, but I think it just becomes entertainment. “Draymond said this about Tristan, Tristan said this about Draymond.” It’s just like, give it a break. It’s just the Finals.