The Celtics have come out of the gates with their best record to start a season under head coach Brad Stevens. After dropping the opener to the Philadelphia 76ers, the team has won five straight, including victories against eastern conference contenders Milwaukee and Toronto. The team has battled back from rough starts in all six games so far, a trait that was desperately missing last season. As fans develop renewed faith, hope and enjoyment in the current Celtics roster, it all points to one source of the previous team’s woes: Kyrie Irving.
Someone Else's Problem
Celtics fans spent the summer of 2019 pointing fingers for their disappointment. A lot of that blame was immediately placed on Irving due to his surly attitude with the media prior to his official departure from Boston. All warranted, as stories trickled out about his mood swings and strange antics that led to discourse in the Celtics locker room. As former Celtic Terry Rozier had stated in an interview: “The team went as Kyrie went.”
Now just two weeks into the new season, stories from Brooklyn Nets camp were exposed in a story by Jackie MacMullen. Irving was noticeably absent from media availability during a trip the Nets took to China. He took part in a team photo in which he refused to remove a hat. He told team officials to “photoshop it out.” Additionally, the Nets brass had admitted to being worrisome about his behavior while Kevin Durant rehabs from his Achilles injury. All in all, Irving’s behavior that tortured the Celtics has continued in his new home in Brooklyn.
Addition by Subtraction
While Irving has been brilliant on the floor for the Nets, the Celtics have thrived in his absence. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward have been excellent to start the season on both the offensive and defensive ends. Kemba Walker has taken Irving’s place and produced better numbers in his first six games than Irving did in both his seasons in Boston. Above all else, it is abundantly clear that this 2019-2020 version of the Celtics have made it a point to build team chemistry and camaraderie in spite of last year’s woes.
The benefits of Irving’s departure are not only reflected in the Celtics 5-1 record. The team passes “the eye test.” In watching the Celtics, regardless of the score at any point in the game, it feels like the team has the heart and the talent to battle back from any deficit. The team came back from as much as 19 down against reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. It’s apparent that without Irving, the team’s identity of effort and heart was restored.
Additionally, returning players are clearly more comfortable without Irving’s presence. Jayson Tatum made a game winner against the Knicks on a play run by Stevens previously. The play was run in an infamous tight loss to Orlando last year in which Hayward inbounded the ball to Tatum instead of Irving as time expired. Tatum missed the shot, Irving berated Hayward, and after the game admitted he had called Lebron for advice in dealing with young players. Without the pressure of Irving, Stevens ran the same play and Tatum had the confidence to finish this time.
While Irving in a great talent, the effects of his departure are showing loud and clear for the Celtics. It could not have been more a blessing in disguise for him to leave the team for Brooklyn.