Of all the people involved in the periphery of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, there is one person who has some measure of control: Kyrie Irving. The All-Star guard will be a free agent when he opts out of his contract July 1, and Irving can pretty much call his shot.
If Davis gets traded to the Celtics this summer, the foundation is already set to form a dynamic duo. If the Knicks come up with the right pieces, there’s a reason those Irving to New York rumors never seem to die.
And if Davis gets sent to Los Angeles to play with LeBron James and the Lakers, well, Irving has the wherewithal to implode the whole freaking league if he so chooses. Sure, it would be financially difficult and there are a dozen other possible reasons why Irving would pass on a reunion with James. But he could do it.
If Irving’s not feeling the West Coast vibes, New York now has two max slots waiting for him and Kevin Durant. Or, Irving could simply stay put in Boston, as he said he would before the season, to play on a perennial playoff team with a roster full of young talent, a strong front office, and an excellent coach.
His pointed comments on Friday morning in New York only further underscore the reality that his options are open.
The reason the Celtics can’t trade for Davis now is because they already traded for one player with a designated rookie maximum contract extension on their books in Irving and can’t deal for a second. That’s a quirk of the collective bargaining agreement that’ll expire by this summer. Yet, Irving’s very presence on the roster is also the C’s greatest inducement in convincing Davis to stay long-term should they be able to acquire his services.
Still, that’s not the Irving conundrum. The conundrum is that the Celtics aren’t just trying to be great in the future, they’re trying to do it now with a team that’s full of players who could all be part of a mega-trade for Davis. With the exception of Irving and free agent-to-be Marcus Morris, every single player, from Jayson Tatum to Robert Williams III, has or will have their name thrown into the trade mix.
Whether that’s through actual reporting, deductive reasoning, or merely idle speculation is beside the point. To play for the Celtics is to understand that all things are possible, and that includes having your name plastered all over HoopsHype whenever a superstar becomes available.
The twist is that the better the Celtics play, the more their player’s value goes up in a deal for Davis. If they fail to make good on their potential, and if Davis finds another home between now and this summer, what does that say for Irving’s future in Boston?
After years of operating in the blissful Shangri La of open-ended possibilities without the pressure of expectations, the Celtics are finally facing the realities of being an NBA contender. With that comes all the internal obstacles associated with trying to be great: contracts, roles, shots, pride, ego, rumors, and uncertainty.
Irving is the central figure in all of it because while he alone has ultimate control over his future, no one can say with any kind of assurance what that entails.
The Celtics feel like they are in a solid position to retain his services regardless of what happens. They’d obviously feel a lot better about their chances with Davis on the roster, or with the ability to trade for Davis before July 1. Still, they don’t know for sure whether they’ll be able to keep Irving, and no one else does either.
Hardly a game goes by without some visitor to Boston whispering that Irving is thinking about leaving. At this point, it’s hard to tell whether those whispers represent fresh intel or if they’re just amplifying the echo chamber of a league that runs on rumors as much as high pick-and-rolls. If there’s one thing that everyone does know, it’s that January truths aren’t always relevant in July.
The Celtics knew there were no guarantees when they traded for Irving in the summer of 2017 and they did so with the belief that they’ve created an atmosphere that would make the grass greenest on their side of the parquet. They further believe that Irving is not only a great player, but the kind of magnetic personality who would attract players like Davis that would help them win championships.
It says something about their belief in a long-term relationship with Irving, and a possible pairing with Davis, that they backed off a similar scenario with Kawhi Leonard last summer, in part because the flight risk was deemed too great. Of course, they also did so because they had a roster they expected would make a viable run to the Finals.
That belief has been shaken during an odd season in which the C’s started the year with a .500 record through the first 20 games. They’ve played much better since, but most of those victories have come at home against less than stellar competition. Since that 10-10 start, they’ve gone 16-3 at home, but only 6-6 on the road.
Through the ups and downs, Irving has been far and away their most impactful player. He’s played his best against the best, notching huge games against the Bucks and Raptors while performing at an elite level in a recent agonizing loss to the Warriors. Irving is the main reason why the C’s remain confident they can pull it all together when it counts.
At the same time, they’ve also proven they can win without him. This is the same young core that came within a game of reaching the NBA Finals while Irving was recuperating from knee surgery last spring. Speaking to reporters after a blowout victory over the Hornets with Irving out due to a hip injury, his replacement, Terry Rozier, put it this way:
“When we play with [Kyrie], it’s more like a show. We sit back and watch — watch him go crazy,” Rozier said. “And, without him, obviously we don’t know who the scoring’s really going to come from so somebody’s got to step up. And we just try to find our way.”
The Celtics are still trying to find their way in a season that’s become as much about proving to Irving they have what it takes as it is about establishing market value for Davis. It’s made for an awkward dynamic, and next week’s trade deadline isn’t likely to provide much resolution.
The Irving show, meanwhile, will only get crazier between now and July. He’s playing the best basketball of his career and in total control of his future. It’s only a question of what he intends to do with it.