At the moment, it is unclear when or if Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving will play in the NBA again. Irving is currently holding firm on his stance to not get vaccinated for Covid-19 even though it prevents him from playing in New York. Meanwhile, the Nets refuse to deploy him as a part-time player, meaning that we won’t see him in the NBA again until something changes. As they look at this standdown from afar, the Boston Celtics have to be breathing a sigh of relief.
The Celtics, of course, have their own long history with Irving. Back in 2019, then-President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge saw Irving as the final piece of the puzzle to capture Banner 18. It wasn’t a far-fetched scenario. On paper, Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could easily form the nucleus of a championship team.
To put it mildly, that is not what happened. Irving, despite promising to make Boston his long-term home, was apparently planning to form a super-team with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. When he immediately jumped ship after the end of the 2018-19 NBA season, it set off a sea of unexpected changes in Boston: the Celtics replaced their hole at point guard with Kemba Walker but lost Horford to the Philadelphia 76ers. At the end of the next season, Gordon Hayward opted out of his contract and signed with the Charlotte Hornets. His dream permanently deferred, Ainge retired the next summer.
While the latest Irving drama makes his departure and its ripple effects less painful, Boston can’t quite afford to mock Brooklyn. Even without Irving, the Nets can likely lay claim to having a better claim at winning the East than the Celtics next season. The fact is, the pair of Durant and James Harden alone is enough for the Nets to survive Irving’s absence.
There is also every possibility that one side or the other blinks and we see Irving sooner rather than later. This is literally an unprecedented situation so it’s difficult to even guess what the endgame is here. (Honestly, it doesn’t sound like either Irving or the Nets know either.) It’s better for Boston—who lost to the Nets in five games last postseason—for Brooklyn to be as shorthanded as possible, but they would probably still be underdogs when pitted against each other.
Yet, the Celtics have the luxury of not having to deal with Irving and, at this current moment, it feels like Ainge’s replacement, Brad Stevens, should be relieved. While the Celtics themselves aren’t the 100% vaccination level—at last report, Josh Richardson was the most vocal of the dissenters—TD Garden will not be under the same restrictions (curren stadium rules merely require a negative Covid-19 test for entry). Worst case scenario, the Celtics could move on from Richardson without too many headaches, something which the Nets can’t say.
So, the Celtics could and arguably should be thankful for Irving’s “betrayal” (which is what it felt like at the time). In hindsight, Irving may have done them a favor by taking proactive measures to prevent them from locking him up a max contract that could have cost the team $190 million over the course of five years.
The “may” is an important caveat here. It’s possible that Irving would have turned out to be less of a hassle in Boston than he currently is in Brooklyn. Considering his previous conflicts with the Cleveland organization and the reported locker room issues he had in Boston, however, this comes across as a particularly unlikely episode of “Basketball What If?”
Situations in the NBA are fluid. It’s entirely possible that this whole vaccination scuffle will end with both Irving and the Nets on stronger terms than ever before. Heck, Irving could conceivably humiliate his former team in the upcoming postseason, immediately rendering any “the Celtics got lucky” hot takes such as this one bitterly cold. Right now, however, it definitely appears that Boston has dodged a major bullet.