Tomase: Ominous signs leave Kyrie Irving's future with Celtics in doubt at pivotal moment for franchise

John Tomase
June 11, 2018 - 11:38 am

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

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Listening to Kyrie Irving can be as challenging as watching him dribble. He employs the same feints, dekes, and changes of direction, and we experience the same wonder at how he got from Point A to B, the same disbelief that he could even conceive of what he just created.

One tends to be more entertaining than the other, however.

And so we come to an odd week for the All-Star point guard. First Yahoo NBA insider Chris Mannix reported that the Celtics are "scared" Irving could pack up Uncle Drew's sweat suit to join his hometown Knicks in free agency next summer. Then came a long, inscrutable interview with the New York Times in advance of the movie about Irving's aforementioned avuncular alter ego.

Most of said interview was spent in a frustrating boomerang of circumlocution arguing Irving's thoroughly tired assertion (joke? performance art?) that the Earth is flat. What once felt like a meta-commentary on our discouraging age of alternative facts now feels as warmed over as a Keith Olbermann rant on behalf of The Resistance.

A sample response:

"Because when you think something completely different, science has proven it, everyone has thought and believed this to be true, and then you say something on the opposing side, and it gets a reaction that's not necessarily authentic at all," Irving said. "There's just a 'Hey, let's get this preconceived notion about who he is as a person,' you have no idea. I really wanted to put that on the biggest stage of 'now it becomes your side vs. my side.' At the end of the day, does it really matter?"

At the risk of sounding unenlightened . . . owww. My brain.

But this has been Irving's public face almost since he arrived in Boston. His introductory press conference included references to being part of a reality-based world, and the humane things that make us human, and living a very authentic life. He can sound like a Tom vs. Time voiceover.

He's very big on the concept of being "present," which is great for the here and now, but doesn't exactly provide comfort if you're, say, a Celtics fan who just dropped 70 bucks on a No. 11 jersey -- to say nothing of Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens and Wyc Grousbeck wondering if their five-year title window will include one of the most creative point guards in NBA history.

There's a fine line between thought-provoking and self-absorbed, and Irving sometimes blurs it. An outtake from that Times interview provided peak Irving when asked if he considered the Celtics a part of his long-term future.

"Well, I mean I know that question is going to come up a lot over the next year, just based upon where my deal is," Irving responded. "And, you know, that time will arise and when it does, I think I'll have a better, clear, concise answer for a lot of people that are going to ask. Yeah, I just have to take it as being present with the Boston Celtics. You know, and just going into this year with the mindset of trying to win a championship."

Nowhere in that quote did he offer the perfunctory, reassuring, "I want to be here for a long time," but the problem with interpreting Irving is that he's frequently sly and noncommittal. He has saluted the Celtics experience, though not with the fervor of prior transplants like Kevin Garnett. If anything, Irving comes off more as Ray Allen -- driven and dedicated while he's here, but confident and comfortable taking his talents elsewhere, too.

The point is that we don't know, which is concerning in and of itself, because Irving's future represents the single biggest variable on the current roster. There's no questioning the swagger he brought to a young team as its certified alpha. There's also no missing the fact that he's one of the most popular players in the league, the guy exchanging hugs and daps with marquee opponents after virtually every game. It was easy to view those exchanges as proof that Irving could convince anyone to play here, but perhaps we had it backwards. Maybe the actual takeaway was that he'd be welcomed anywhere if he decided to leave.

With LeBron James possibly on the table this summer, it's fair to ask how such a courtship would land in Irving's camp, since James is the reason he's here in the first place. Escaping the shadow of the King motivated Irving to seek greener pastures; would a royal dalliance hasten his departure?

James may be the best player in the world, but he turns 34 in December and is more than seven years Irving's senior. Irving fits this young Celtics squad in terms of both leadership and style, whereas James could trample the development of burgeoning stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Irving's arrival transformed the Celtics into legitimate title contenders. Acquiring James would feel like a mercenary shortcut by comparison.

These questions become infinitely more vexing if the Celtics begin to doubt Irving's long-term commitment. As elusive and evasive as he is on the court, he's equally so off it, which leaves the C's in the difficult position of pondering a future without Irving's presence.

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