Keidel: Kyrie Irving Is As Enigmatic As Ever With Nets

Jason Keidel
January 09, 2020 - 1:32 pm

He crept up like a cat, jabbed left, slid right, then launched the shot over the defender's fingertips. The ball sailed toward the hoop, thudded against the back of the rim, then nestled into the net. It gave his team a 3-point lead with 52 seconds left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. 

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On June 19, 2016, Kyrie Irving hit that shot over Steph Curry, all but sealing the NBA Finals, and capping a comeback for the archives. The Warriors, who stacked an astonishing 73 wins during the regular season, lost the game, the series they once led 3-to-1, and the crown as greatest team in NBA history. And for all the physical splendor of LeBron James, it could not have happened without Kyrie Irving. 

He was just 24 years old, clutch, rich, a champion, and the world was his personal hardwood. Surely Kyrie and LeBron would be the dominant NBA duo for years to come. Until they didn't. 

Kyrie bolted, preemptively leaving LeBron before LeBron could leave him. He was dealt to the Celtics, a team on the come with a flowering nucleus, a young, brilliant head coach, and the glittering history of the Celtics. Even if you scratched your scalp when he fled Cleveland and King James, you could still see him building this budding empire in Boston. Until he didn't. 

Irving played two seasons in Boston. The year before he arrived, they won 53 games and went to the Eastern Conference Finals. They won 55 games his first year, and lost to LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals, though Irving missed the playoffs due to injury. His second year in Boston, they failed to reach the conference finals, losing to the Bucks, this time with Irving in the lineup. 

Kyrie Irving
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

With each year in the NBA, more rumors and reports of injury and indifference hounded Irving. He was increasingly branded a "different dude," a polite euphemism for someone who is detached from the team beyond those ephemeral moments on the court.

Yet he's still a six-time All-Star, regarded as a top-ten player and a coveted free agent this past offseason, with a conga line of execs pining for his services. The Brooklyn Nets, a few three pointers from his childhood home in NJ, signed Irving to a megabuck deal, worth $141 million over four years. At 27, with a blinding future before him, and Kevin Durant in the bullpen until next year, Irving could shoulder the Nets into the playoffs. 

But it seems more and more evident that Irving plays for the name on the front of his jersey, but is mostly about the name on the back. Not even a month into his Brooklyn career, ESPN ran a piece about Irving's "mood swings" being an "unspoken concern" for the club. He refused a simple request for help in getting the performance team gain information on biometric data. Then there was the bizarre incident in China, where Irving refused to peel off his hat for a team photo, and ordered the photographer to photoshop the hat from the pic. 

With the Nets, Irving is as enigmatic as ever. He's played just 11 of the team's 36 games, and is gazing from the bench as the Nets plunge down a seven-game losing streak, staining their record at 16-20. There's been diagnostic chaos over what to do with Irving's injured shoulder, with conflicting solutions from cortisone shots to season-ending surgery.

Oct 25, 2019; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving (11) controls the ball against the New York Knicks during the fourth quarter at Barclays Center
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe the Nets bungled Irving's medical situation. Maybe Irving peaked on that night in 2016, when he hit the biggest bucket of his career. Since then, there's been little to suggest Irving's game is getting better or that teams get better when he's on them. But he's still young and his talent is so seductive that the Nets - desperate to leapfrog the Knicks as the Big Apple's team of record - had to bite when Irving and Kevin Durant dangled their services. 

The Nets asked Durant - one of the very few more gifted and accomplished players  - to chat with Irving about his aloofness and sudden mood shifts. Instead, Durant demurred, and waxed rhapsodic about Irving as an "artist" and, as someone supremely gifted, needs the latitude to be himself. Meanwhile, the Nets paid for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, yet all they have today from their free-agent splurge is Jordan...DeAndre Jordan.

Maybe Irving returns someday with a renewed meaning and mojo. Maybe he pairs-up with Durant and they become bosses of the Eastern Conference. Or maybe Kyrie Irving, the kid from New Jersey, peaked in Cleveland.