Kyrie Irving didn’t officially leave the Celtics until July, but he started withdrawing from his teammates long before then, Marcus Smart tells Jay King of The Athletic. Smart offers a look inside what was frequently portrayed as a dysfunctional locker room last season as Boston failed to meet lofty expectations.
“It’s not that we didn’t know how to act (around him),” Smart said. “It’s that we didn’t know how he was going to act. We didn’t know what his moods were and we didn’t know what Kyrie was going through. And that made it tough on us because if somebody’s going through something in their life and you don’t really know what it is, it’s kind of hard to see what’s wrong with him, it’s kind of hard to (provide) some help. It’s not against Kyrie, it’s just a defense mechanism as a human being you have. And he wasn’t here long enough to really be able to open up the way he probably wanted to, and it probably got to him a little bit.”
Smart’s comments come before Irving and the Nets are scheduled to make their first trip of the season to Boston tomorrow night. Irving, who is sidelined with a shoulder impingement, won’t play and may not be in the building, but King notes that the memory of his two years with the Celtics will affect the franchise for years to come.
The toxic atmosphere played a role in Al Horford‘s decision to opt out of his contract and sign with the Sixers. The loss of Irving and Horford cost the Celtics any chance to make a play for Anthony Davis after years of building up assets. Davis can opt out of his current deal next summer and wouldn’t consider re-signing in Boston unless he was surrounded by star power.
The height of Irving’s popularity with Celtics fans came at an event for season ticket holders last October when he promised to re-sign with the team. But he slowly walked back those comments throughout the year as the Celtics underachieved and he was frequently seen as the cause.
Boston entered last season as heavy favorites to win the East based on the strong playoff performance of young players like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, who reached the conference finals the previous year while Irving and Gordon Hayward were sidelined with injuries. But there was an uneasy balance as those players weren’t always willing to take a back seat with the two stars returning.
Irving didn’t help matters with comments to the press about the difficulty of managing “the young guys.” He admitted during Brooklyn’s media day in September that he failed the Celtics as a leader and said the death of his grandfather last October affected him emotionally.
“A lot of basketball and the joy I had from it was sucked away from me,” Irving said. “There was a facial expression that I carried around with me throughout the year. Didn’t allow anyone to get close to me in that instance, and it really bothered me.”
A pivotal part of the year came after the Celtics took a 1-0 lead over the Bucks in the Eastern semifinals after sweeping the Pacers in the first round. A witness tells King that Irving “disconnected” from the team at a voluntary practice the next day, sitting by himself in the stands while his teammates worked on the court. He shot 30.1% for the rest of the series as Boston was eliminated in five games.
The Celtics moved on quickly from Irving once he made his free agent decision. They reached a deal with Kemba Walker and started to rebuild the team-first culture that coach Brad Stevens has always emphasized. The result, according to sources inside the organization, is a much more positive and relaxed atmosphere.
“We don’t have to worry about doing stuff on our own,” Smart said. “We don’t have to worry about being in our own minds and just think it. We can actually talk. Last year, everybody didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know if they could speak, if they could speak to anybody, or somebody, or a group, and they didn’t know how the reaction would go. It was just different. This year is different. Everybody’s not holding anything in. If we have anything to say, we’re saying it and we’re moving on from it.”