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MacMullan: Kyrie Irving ‘needs to figure out how success works, how teamwork works’

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NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Jackie MacMullan, the Hall of Fame basketball writer, admits she’s “fascinated” by Kyrie Irving and no less so now that he’s moved on from her hometown of Boston. She also admits to liking him and believing that he is, as she said on a podcast this week, a “transcendent talent.”

And because of all that, as MacMullan told Michael Holley of NBC Sports on his podcast, she’s unsure how things will work out in Brooklyn. Unlike many of her colleagues in the Boston media, MacMullan shies away from blaming him for this year’s disappointing season, pointing as well as his younger teammates. But she also sees his faults, noting at one point in the interview that she believes Irving has “a warped view of how success works and how teamwork works.”

For Boston fans, the news out of the interview is that Irving didn’t just have problems with some of his teammates, but also his coach, Brad Stevens and even his GM, Danny Ainge. For Brooklyn fans, the news is that Irving is complicated and a work-in-progress (at best) as a leader.

Asked what what went wrong last season, MacMullan answers “everything”, starting with Gordon Hayward’s painful return from injury to Irving’s lack of optimism. In particular, she believes that if Hayward had come back “healthier and stronger mentally,” things would have been different, better, implying that the pressure wouldn’t have all been on Irving.

“If Hayward would have come back, healthier and stronger mentally, I do think things would have different,” MacMullan told Holley, a former colleague on the Boston Globe. “I think he would have felt more empowered to stand up to Kyrie when some of that stuff was going on in that locker room.

“I think Kyrie would have been more optimistic about what was going on with that team had Gordon been able to flourish because if you go all the way back with that team to preseason --the first preseason they were together (in 2017 before Hayward fractured his tibia on opening night ) -- it was unbelievable the way they were playing. They were both so fired up about it.”

But she notes, “It didn’t happen for him this year. I don’t know if it will happen next year. i think it will, he’s a smart guy. It just takes time.”

MacMullan said with Hayward in a secondary role, Irving was the sole leader and she doesn’t think he knows how to be a leader.

“I just think Kyrie is a very interesting guy. I’m fascinated by him. I enjoyed him while he was here but I do think the highs and lows with him were a problem,” she said. “He wanted to be a leader. He just didn’t know how. He tried various techniques, none of which were particularly successful.”

MacMullan, however, isn’t ready to put all the blame on Irving. As she has in previous interviews, she notes as well that the team’s young cadre of stars, Terry Rozier (now with the Hornets), Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, weren’t always professional. (She noted just before Irving signed with the Nets how the young players were partying at South Beach clubs in Miami when Irving was working out.)

“And by the way, that’s not all his fault,” she said of Irving’s failure to get through. “I do think that the young players on this roster need to share some of the blame guys like Rozier, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, all of them, because they thought they earned something that they hadn’t and they pouted when they didn’t get it and they chafed at the rules they had and it affected their team and it affected Kyrie Irving who was trying to get through to these guys.

“We can argue all day whether he did it the right way or the wrong way but I guess at that point, we’d have to say it was the wrong way because it didn’t work.”

She pointed as well to how the young players reacted when the Celtics tried to “force feed” Hayward back into the lineup when he may not have been physically or mentally ready. Brad Stevens, of course, had been Hayward’s college coach at Butler, adding more complications.

“You’ve got to throw in Hayward who the team decided to try to force feed back into the lineup because they thought he needed minutes. I can understand again why they would think that. But if you’re Jaylen Brown or Rozier or these other guys and you’re on the bench watching this guy struggle, and he’s getting all these minutes and all the benefit of the doubt and you’re being told, ‘no, you have to wait your turn,’ it doesn’t sit well with you.

“Now, Gordon Hayward earned that right. He was a seasoned veteran, an all-Star. who deserved, I thought, that status. That’s not what these young guys thought. So you had a whole bunch of things going on.”

She said she tried to get a good read from Al Horford, now with the 76ers, about the locker room, but he wouldn’t talk.

“So as much as I do love Al and I did ask Al this, when things were going a little haywire in the locker room, how much did you get involved. ‘Were you able to get into Kyrie’s face and say, ‘hey stop trying to pull us apart and pull us together’ and he said, ‘That’s private, that stays in our locker room.’ So, I’ll never know whether Al had those conversations with Kyrie or not.

“Kyrie is a bit of a shock and awe guy, much like LeBron, right, passive-aggressive to some degree. Al likes to kill you with kindness, a velvet hammer, if you will, and I don’t think it registered with Kyrie. So even if he tried, I don’t think it ever registered with Kyrie at all. “

MacMullan said that Irving soured first on Ainge, then Stevens then “everybody.”

“So, I think early on, there were some issues and I really don’t know what they are. He soured on Danny.”

When Holley expressed surprise at that ... and speculated that Irving may have wanted Ainge to trade one or more of the young guys, MacMullan said he didn’t know what the issues were, just that they existed. It could just be the fact that both Ainge and Irving speak bluntly.

“Don’t know. Don’t know why. I was hearing by December, he was frustrated with Danny. Now maybe --i still don’t know what it is, I still don’t have the answer. Kyrie has never told me. It started there. Then, he started second-guessing the coach. Again, passive-aggressive. I don’t think he disliked Brad Stevens at all. I think he just lost faith in him. I think he lost faith in everybody there.”

MacMullan suggested that Irving’s frustration may be a function of how he views himself on the court.

“And he believes, as he told me, ‘I’m an actual genius when it comes to this game.’ That was a quote. And he’s right by the way, he is! He’s a transcendent talent. What Kyrie means by that is that he can do things that no one else can do. With that handle, he’s right. You know what it’s like. You can say, ‘hey I’m a great leader.’ Well, you can’t say that. Someone else is supposed to say that. And he is a great talent and it doesn’t come by accident. He worked harder than anybody else on that team. I will say that till the day I die. Never the issue.”

When Holley interjected and asked, “Even this year?”MacMullan said “absolutely.” The issue is elsewhere.

“I believe that. I absolutely do. Work ethic is not the issue. The issue is a warped view of how success works and how teamwork works. And he hasn’t figured that out yet. And I don’t know what will change in Brooklyn if he doesn’t figure that out. I think his thought is ‘let’s get everyone involved and at the end of the game, give me the ball the rest of you, get out of the way.’ Sometimes that works. Sometimes it didn’t.”

MacMullan also provided an anecdote about Irving’s time in Cleveland when Ty Lue, then his coach, didn’t realize that they a problem.

“For instance, his time in Cleveland: Ty Lue when Kyrie was struggling --and if you remember, before those Finals when he hit the big shot, earlier he was struggling— Ty Lue not only stuck with him. He publicly stuck, he really supported him and gave him the validation that any young player would want from a coach and Ty Lue did that for Kyrie Irving,” she recounted.

“And yet, their relationship fell apart over like the slightest thing. In a practice one day, when Ty Lue said, ‘Hey, we got to get the other guys involved a little more’ and Kyrie said, ‘That’s no. 23’s job.’ It turned into this conversation that Kyrie felt incredibly slighted! Ty Lue didn’t even know it! So there are things that affect Kyrie, that bothered him, that offended him that sometimes the person in question didn’t even know!”

The Nets, being the Nets, are no doubt aware of all of this. They research everything. And the Nets young players seem more grounded than their Celtics counterparts. But there’s always risks with big moves. The bigger the move, the bigger the risk. So we shall see.