It was a tumultuous season for the Boston Celtics in 2018-19, one that ended with a whiff and a thud, and that may not apply to a single player more than it does to Kyrie Irving.
The six-time All-Star point guard put up huge numbers, to be sure, averaging 23.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.9 assists per contest on tidy 48.7/40.1/87.3 shooting splits for the campaign.
But when things got bad for the Celtics at different points throughout the season, including near the end of their brief playoff run, Irving was never able to step up, not with his on-court performance nor with his off-court leadership.
If anything, Irving proved to get even more difficult when faced with adversity this season…
Kyrie on his shooting woes (19-62 the past three games): “Who cares? I’m a basketball player. Prepare the right way. … The expectations on me are going to by sky high … for me, the 22 shots? I should’ve shot 30.“
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) May 7, 2019
…instead of becoming a true leader for Boston.
Nevertheless, not many players league-wide can match Irving’s finishing prowess near the rim, his ability to knock down difficult shots in short-clock situations or his wizardry as a ball-handler.
And because of that, teams will still be lining up to offer him a max contract this summer despite some of the optics regarding his 2018-19 season.
Below, we break down five potential free-agent destinations for the enigmatic Irving.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Los Angeles Lakers lack a second surefire star to place alongside LeBron James, and have a lot of cap space to use this summer.
What’s more, although their tenure together ended in a pretty ugly – and public – fashion, James and Irving seemed to mend fences during the season after a phone call which was placed to the former by the latter, as reported on by The Athletic.
And although many believe the Lakers will use their cap space to try and acquire Anthony Davis’ max contract via trade this offseason, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll just be done there. At least that’s what New York Times reporter Marc Stein was hearing a few months ago:
“There are some people around the league who watched the events of last week when Kyrie said what he said and have watched all month as Kyrie and LeBron have seemingly lobbed Valentine’s back and forth to each other about how much they miss each other. Now, there is a sense that what if the Lakers could land Anthony Davis AND Kyrie? And they’re the ones who steal Kyrie Irving away from the Celtics and not the Knicks … There are people who believe that is the grand Laker plan.’”
A Big Three featuring James, Irving and Davis may sound like a piece of Laker fan-fiction, but it wouldn’t take that much financial maneuvering, especially if Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are included in the deal for Davis.
At the same time, though, this seems more like hopeful thinking for the Lakers, whose front office looks a good bit different today than it did when Stein discussed those plans, than anything else.
Regardless, who knows? Maybe Irving realizes things were better when he and LeBron shared the floor together. Perhaps the allure of joining the league’s biggest market is too much to deny. Maybe the league’s next super team featuring Davis, James and Irving really is forming.
Or maybe those rumors were hogwash all along and Irving won’t even grant the Lakers a free-agent meeting. Either way, we’ll learn more over the comings weeks as rumor season starts to heat up again.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
There hasn’t been anything tying Irving to the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency this offseason.
Nevertheless, we decided to include them on this list anyway because they’re the far more stable of the two L.A. franchises, because they’re set to have over $52 million in cap space this offseason and could open up even more by trading Danilo Gallinari, enough to have two max slots, and because the team’s brass appears confident in their chances of landing a big fish this summer.
As far as who the Clippers could go after to pair with Irving, the big name they have been heavily connected to heading into the offseason is Kawhi Leonard. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard, who is absolutely tearing it up these playoffs, will likely decide between re-signing with the Toronto Raptors or joining the black-blue-and-white Los Angeles franchise.
A tandem of Leonard and Irving would be deadly together, one running the duties of lead ball-handler, the other terrorizing opponents on the wing, and both with the ability to knock down triples and play off of each other. Those two, along with the team’s outstanding young core – including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet – would be instantly enough to transform the Clippers from plucky upstarts to one of the West’s elite teams.
Let’s see if the buzz the Clippers have heading into the summer actually carries over into free agency, and if they can use it to get into the Irving sweepstakes.
Another team in a very similar position to the Clippers heading into the offseason – i.e., the second-most popular team in a huge market, but the far more stable of the franchises in that city – are the Brooklyn Nets, who will also enough room to add a max contract to their books this summer.
According to one gambling outlet, Brooklyn actually has the highest odds, as of May 7, to land Irving in the offseason:
The Nets have the best odds to land Kyrie
(via @br_betting) pic.twitter.com/gQnoWxoDzV
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 7, 2019
Whether that’s founded in reports from the New York Daily News…
One NBA source tells @SBondyNYDN that Kyrie Irving prefers the Nets to the Knicks: https://t.co/Fxa7QkV8Z2 pic.twitter.com/zxv0zEuUZn
— NY Daily News Sports (@NYDNSports) May 4, 2019
…or inside info coming out of Vegas, we can’t be sure. But it’s definitely noteworthy that the Nets have some buzz in the Irving race, when many thought they’d play second-fiddle to the team coming up next on our list in the sweepstakes.
Irving would give Brooklyn a proven All-Star, and a nasty complement to D’Angelo Russell, their current lead ball-handler. Even if Russell walks in free agency this summer, though, that, along with dumping Allen Crabbe’s contract, would give the Nets enough room to chase another max-level player to pair with Irving.
Perhaps landing Irving could even make a certain superstar small forward out west consider Brooklyn in free agency, and give the Nets an elite 1-2 punch.
That would complete what has been an insane turnaround for a franchise so lambasted following the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade that should have sank them for longer than it did.
NEW YORK KNICKS
The one team that has been consistently mentioned as the likeliest outside free-agent suitor for Irving have been the New York Knicks. Makes sense, too, as the 27-year-old grew up in New Jersey, so the Knicks are (sort of) the hometown team in his eyes, and, more importantly, New York will have over $70 million to spend in free agency this offseason – enough for two max players.
The Knicks’ plan all along has been to convince Irving to join Kevin Durant in signing with them. That may seem pretty hopeful, but various league execs believe it’s going to happen. Consider the following, from The Athletic’s Frank Isola:
“The belief is that Durant will only join the Knicks if another high-level free agent agrees to sign with the Knicks as well. The most likely candidate is the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, who coincidentally won a championship in Cleveland as Robin to LeBron’s Batman. He could fill that same role at MSG. So sure are some executives and player agents of a Durant-Irving pairing in New York that one agent told The Athletic that Durant and Irving are debating on who will sign first.”
After nearly 50 years without a championship and nearly two decades without even contending for a title, despite being in one of the sport’s biggest markets, landing Irving and Durant would put the Knicks on another plane entirely – from being an annual laughingstock to being one of the league’s elite teams.
It’ll be fascinating to find out if they can close the deal and pull off the two franchise-changing heists.
Of course, all this speculation might be for naught and Irving could just choose to re-sign with the Celtics on July 1. It probably won’t be that drama-free of a process, but it could happen.
Irving didn’t give much indication of which way he’s leaning in the press conference following Boston’s playoff elimination, but he did say the following:
Kyrie at tail end of multi-part question that ended with “Is Boston in consideration for you this offseason”:
"For me, it’s just moving on to the next thing and seeing where that ends up."
— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 9, 2019
That might be interpreted as a negative for the Celtics, but Irving followed that up by saying he was looking forward to heading “home” to Boston to decompress, so really, it’s impossible to know what he’s actually thinking right now.
Even if Irving is thinking of hightailing it to New York or wherever else, though, the Celtics have plenty of time to change his mind.
One way they may try to do so is by putting on the full-court press to complete a trade for Anthony Davis ahead of free agency, and let Irving see that he’ll A) have a superstar-level teammate again, and B) be able to settle back into the second-fiddle role that he dominated during his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
No matter what, there’s a good chance the Celtics of 2019-20 look far different from the 2018-19 version that disappointed so mightily in the playoffs. Whether that means we’ll see an improved version or a worse one, however, we won’t know for another few months.
Tense times are ahead for Boston.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.