Perhaps you too are straining to be taken seriously. That’s the impression I get whenever Kyrie Irving holds court in a post-game presser or pecks out another maundering dispatch from Beyond The Mindveil. The speech, off-prompter by the third clause and under-researched in the first place, veers and veers—through Bret Easton Ellis-style indictments of society, microwaved hippie sentiment, highly conspiratorial uses of the word they, frayed anticapitalist theory from a guy who once starred in a feature-length Pepsi commercial—and the veering is itself the key to the argument, meant to convey a certain illimitable expansiveness of the mind, as if Kyrie can’t express himself correctly within a conventional sentence structure, or accept criticism without fully contextualizing himself and his place in the universe, and now that we’ve traveled, baffled the whole time, from what happened on that out-of-bounds set in the fourth quarter all the way to the very geist of his being (he is about world peace these days), you can clearly see that he’s considered the situation from every angle and determined that actually, he hasn’t done anything wrong.
And he really hasn’t, in the grand scheme. Kyrie Irving is more annoyance than malignancy, but he is a volume annoyer, impressed with his Wikipedian knowledge of philosophy and art, confusing personality defects with genius, or at any rate believing that one thing cancels out the other. Celtics fans are a miserable cult and there’s definitely a troubling We Got One Of The Good Ones Now element to their Kemba over Kyrie love affair, but to play the mental health card (among a scattered deck of other ones) when they derisively chant your name for a few minutes—when you’re not even in the building—is loathsomely disingenuous. The stresses professional athletes face are to be taken seriously, but the pinnacle of Kyrie’s career was a Finals-tilting three over a two-time MVP. He can handle a few lusty boos from Charlestown’s drunkest.
Kyrie’s been doing something like every few months since leaving Cleveland three summers ago, and it’s impossible at this point not to let his bothersome public persona seep into our ideas about him as a player, especially because the two seem to match. He cuts a solitary and selfish figure, both on the court and away from it. His most impressive skills—an otherworldly handle, a jumper he can square up from anywhere, lay-ins that threaten to kiss the shot clock as they die on the backboard and fall through the rim—are all elements of your game that you can improve by yourself, and though Kyrie has become quite a good playmaker over the years, he’s not a purely collaborative one. His assists come the same way his buckets do: on his terms, with his teammates standing behind the three-point line as he feints and slaloms into the lane. He is one of the sport’s great monologists. Conversation isn’t his thing.
There’s been some debate lately, because he’s been sidelined with a niggling shoulder injury and the Nets have been thriving, about the utility of this approach. This isn’t some small sample size nonsense. (The Ewing Theory shouts now go up every time a team enjoys a brief hot streak while their star is hurt.) The Celtics were pretty good, 35-and-15, over two seasons when Kyrie was in street clothes. They made an improbable Kyrie-free run, albeit in a abysmally weak East, to the Conference Finals in 2018. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown usually appeared more comfortable without him, and that’s continued to be the case this season.
You could argue that the Nets’ offense functions better with Spencer Dinwiddie initiating possessions. Dinwiddie, who it should be noted is Kyrie’s friend, has offered a mechanical explanation for this: defenses are blitzing him in ways they wouldn’t dare with Kyrie, so he’s been readily giving up the ball, which speeds up possessions as Dinwiddie’s teammates scramble to take advantage of a momentary 4-on-3 opportunity. “This isn’t... a Kyrie or Spencer thing or whatever, because I know people try to make that one,” he claimed last week, and he’s right, because Kyrie is obviously a better player who plays differently due to his unique talents, but there remains a sense that having Kyrie Irving on your team is a lot, and he requires a degree of nerves-testing toleration that doesn’t totally match up with what he provides. In short, Kyrie might be more trouble than he’s worth.
This was always going to be a strange interregnum of a year for the Nets. The hypothesis that Kyrie isn’t a franchise player was confirmed over two seasons with Boston. For reasons relating to his disposition and his production, he can’t lead a team to a title. But that’s not what he’s being asked to do now. The plan is that he’ll put up numbers, the Nets will be respectable, and then he’ll be the vice-superstar on a squad headlined by a fully healthy Kevin Durant in 2020-21. In the meantime, anything short of a locker room-obliterating disaster is acceptable. These questions about Kyrie’s role in the offense and persistent grumbling about how he’s a handful behind the scenes aren’t helpful, but for now they’re not a major issue. As ever with Kyrie, he’s not altogether wrong or destructive. He’s just… troubling.
For all the Kobe Bryant comparisons, Kyrie isn’t a dour outcast. He has good relationships around the league—as well as detractors, enemies, former and current teammates who respect his craft while also being confounded as to what his entire deal is. To expect him to change, nine years into a successful career, the slightly lesser pillar of a project the franchise very much wants to see flourish, would be foolish. Kyrie’s going to be himself, in ways both wonderful and aggravatingly counterproductive, and everyone around him, Kevin Durant included, is going to have to figure out how to work with him. This isn’t as difficult as it seems when Kyrie is giving a quarter-baked TED Talk and it’s not as easy as it seems like it should be, given his ability. But what’s happening at the moment doesn’t constitute a genuine problem. This is standard Kyrie Stuff, and the Nets only need to endure it. Next season is when they might discover some trouble worth sweating about. They can look forward to that with equal parts excitement and dread.