Celtics president of basketball ops Danny Ainge spoke to Toucher & Rich on Thursday to discuss the offseason, as well as shed more light on Kyrie Irving's tumultuous season and departure from the team. He even called back in later to clarify a couple of things.
Listen above for Ainge's first call. At one point he details Irving's decision to sign with the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, which became a possibility during the season. Ainge says he thought Irving felt good about the Celtics as recently as sweeping the Pacers in the playoffs, but did indicate to him in March that playing closer to his hometown of West Orange, N.J. was a possibility.
"He had a change of heart, or just had some frustration, I would say would be the best description, and had less certainty about [staying in Boston]," Ainge said. "Then he rallied again and felt like things were going better. We won 10 out of 11 games leading into the All-Star break. It felt like his and [Brad Stevens'] relationship was getting better.
"But he did express to me on a couple of occasions between March and the end of [the season] that he really wanted to go home. I got the impression at that point that he wanted to go play in Brooklyn more than he wanted to play in New York, or Boston."
Asked a follow-up of whether that was the moment he knew Irving was leaving, Ainge said: "[Irving] didn’t inform me that he was gone, he didn’t inform me that he didn’t like Boston, he didn’t inform me that he was for sure gone. He was just like - that’s where his heart was, and I think he was gonna look into that. But he wanted to take some time and decompress and figure it all out."
Ainge later called back in to the show to clarify (listen below at 8:08) that Irving's desire to play in Brooklyn was more about choosing the Nets over the New York Knicks, rather than choosing them over the Celtics. He also said that Irving, despite telling season ticket holders at TD Garden in October that "If you'll have me back, I plan on re-signing here", never said that directly to him - but never told him definitively that he planned to leave, either.
"I asked him point-blank in the conversations that I had with him, ‘Would you consider returning to Boston?’ And he was always [saying] ‘yes’," Ainge said. "He was always in that frame of mind. I don’t think that he was out the door for sure by then. I think that he was contemplating all of his options and just making sure that he ... I was saying that he preferred Brooklyn over New York at that moment."
Ultimately, Ainge's decision to call back stemmed from his desire to make it clear that Irving was not solely responsible for the Celtics' issues last season.
"I’m trying to defend Kyrie here I think he’s been unfairly [given] responsibility for all the things that went wrong this year," Ainge said. "I think he has some responsibility, as I do, as Brad does, as does [everyone else] in that locker room."
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