A Kyrie Irving Media Roundtable To Make Sense Of His Dallas Mavericks Renaissance

The Boston Celtics will host the Dallas Mavericks for Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals on Thursday night, June 6, and as with every NBA Finals, there is no shortage of storylines. Luka Dončić, 25, and Jayson Tatum, 26, will fight for their first NBA title and face-of-the-league rights. Boston has been knocking on the door for five years, while Dallas revamped in one year. Hall Of Famer Jason Kidd could coach the Mavs to their first championship since 2011, which he won as a player in Dallas. Kristaps Porzingis faces his old team, looking to prove his value to a championship squad.

But Kyrie Irving is the most fascinating character in this Finals.

It feels like ages ago that Irving, 32, was LeBron James’ wide-eyed running mate in Cleveland. He sunk that declarative Game 7 three to seal the Cavaliers’ first and only championship in June 2016, and then the following eight years sunk him. Some of it was out of his control, like his grandfather’s death in October 2018. He later explained that grief “sucked away” his joy for basketball and directly influenced his immature behavior in Boston for two tumultuous seasons, beginning with Tatum’s rookie year and ending one year before these Tatum- and Jaylen Brown-centric Celtics made their first of four trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in five years. But most of the muck was self-inflicted, especially his three years as a Brooklyn Net, interrupted by injury and clouded by COVID controversies or conspiracy theories, before requesting a trade to Dallas in February 2023. Irving grew up loving Kidd and the Nets in New Jersey. But Kidd and Mavs general manager Nico Harrison, a former Nike executive whose relationship with Irving dates back 15 years, were in Dallas, so Dallas felt like home.

“I’m at a place in my life where I don’t even consider those past moments,” the three-time All-NBA point guard and eight-time All-Star told Scott Van Pelt after the Mavs ousted Minnesota in the Western Conference Finals. “I was able to unpack them in a healthy way and move forward as person. I had a rough time there when I was in Boston, just dealing with death in my family and dealing with a lot of off-court stuff that I wasn’t ready to handle. Now that I’m in a great place to be able to vocalize how I’m feeling, I’m ready to go back into Boston and have fun with my teammates.”

Dime considered Irving’s past in order to comprehensively evaluate his present by speaking with eight media members with unique perspective and various opinions on the NBA’s most mercurial star.

What interests you the most about this version of Kyrie Irving — or the new narratives around him?

Jemele Hill (The Atlantic): This version of Kyrie has always been there — dynamite offensive talent, thoughtful, and someone steadily growing into the person he wants to be. And yes, he’s certainly made some mistakes on previous teams, but his desire to be great was never in question. I also think he’s in the unique position of understanding how rare and special these opportunities are when it comes to competing for a championship. When he was in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant and James Harden, people had a hard time imagining that team wouldn’t eventually win a championship. That didn’t happen, and so I think it probably inspired him to be more of a leader with this team because he’s had the experience of knowing expectations aren’t promises. He’s playing basketball expertly as always, but what people are picking up on is a different sense of joy.

Michelle Beadle (Run It Back, Beadle And Decker): This version of Kyrie is what a little time, a little growth can do. We all have been through it, [at different] levels, of course. His previous “issues,” while self-inflicted, seemed to follow him from place to place. And it’s not to say that he’s stopped having off-court interests or beliefs, but he’s clearly incorporating them into his life differently. Being in a place that accepts you, and you accept it, can have a calming effect.

Charlotte Wilder (Oddball, The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz, The Wilder Things): I’ve already been yelled at for how I’ve talked about Kyrie on the internet. He’s a lightning rod, no matter what. I saw a tweet the other day saying, “Everybody’s acting as though Kyrie is recovering from cancer. He was just an a**hole for five years.” And so, I don’t want to pretend that Kyrie didn’t give himself this negative image in the first place. He made a bunch of missteps, on and off the court. Mostly off the court, but there were also some questionable ways in which he was a teammate. I’ve been so surprised that I am sympathetic towards him. Maybe it’s that I’m getting older, but I really enjoy seeing people make positive changes in their behavior. Kyrie has bought into the system in Dallas and changed his public demeanor. I don’t know what’s going on in his head because I don’t have a direct line to Kyrie, but publicly, what we’ve seen has been pretty cool because I think it is very rare that somebody appears to change and sustains it. The way he’s been in postgame interviews, where he’s smiling and admitting that he’s emotional, or how he’s visibly supporting his teammates and playing his ass off for them — maybe I’m just tired. And when someone improves, it’s fine to allow them to. I don’t mean forget what he did, but I also think we need to separate the dangerous conspiracy theories from scuffing the Celtics logo and saging [TD] Garden. Honestly, as a Celtics fan and having grown up outside of Boston, I’m very aware of the racism that has come out of Boston and been directed at Black players. So, I’m bracing myself for his return to the Garden because you can’t separate the fact that Kyrie is a Black man. I get that fans don’t like him because of his time there; I just really hope the reception to him isn’t uglier than simply that.

Tim Cato (The Athletic): One thing that stood out to me was the disconnect between how much players love Kyrie Irving, and how many media members dislike him. I know he has been a much more difficult antagonist at times. But there were also times where I sensed slightly too much “players dumb, media smart” from how those narratives were built. Irving has shared ideas I absolutely disagree with. But sometimes I hear media members say, “Well, NBA players just don’t care about political stuff like we do.” That’s true for some but definitely not all. There’s a lot more that they do see from Irving: him leading the players prior to the NBA bubble to potentially sit out unless the league offered more than hollow support for Black Lives Matter; his support of the WNBA; his frequent charitable donations. Especially with Black Lives Matter, he was the rare player speaking beyond the approved corporate talking points that I would argue ultimately neutered some of the potential impact that movement could have had. Players respect him as a player for his skills, but there’s also respect given to him because he’s extremely funny, because he’s a gregarious guy who draws people in when he’s talking, because there is much more than the paragraph summary of his controversies that most media articles include. That doesn’t negate those controversies, and they’re going to be so overwhelming that some people — including people I know and respect — don’t care about the rest. But there’s a lot more nuance to Irving, the person, than he’s always given. And there are reasons for that! It’s just been my impression covering him this closely that he is a hard player to summarize quickly. Who knows, maybe it’s even a lesson that the players we do summarize quickly or fit into certain boxes also may be more than that, too.

Claire De Lune (The Guardian):. It’s always really nice to see someone who is so incredibly talented at what they’re doing be able to have that talent be the focus. That’s been the issue with him the last few years. It’s not like he was ever not the player that he is right now, but the off-court stuff was usurping the talent. As a fan of basketball, it’s so nice to be able to not have him be providing reasons to be distracted from that. He was not a victim. He created the distractions himself. Maybe this is the cynic in me, but I just feel like talented people get so many chances. What athletes run into is they don’t really hear the word no, and they don’t really get consequences, while they’re still at the top of their powers. As soon as they start losing what makes them valuable to teams, then I feel like the punitiveness starts ratcheting up. The cynical truth of it is that, obviously, Kyrie’s talent bought him the opportunity for a second chance. But it’s not like he continues to exhibit the same behavior, and we’re just now okay with it because it’s less of an impedance on his basketball acumen. He has shown true signs of growth and seems to be in a way better place mentally — at least from what he’s showing us. Ultimately, the desired outcome of having someone like Kyrie Irving learn from his mistakes is that people aren’t spreading anti-Semitic videos on the internet, or they’re not telling people dangerous falsehoods about modern medicine or whatever. The desired outcome is not for Kyrie to go sit in a corner and feel bad about himself. Who does that help? To me, the best case scenario is exactly what happened. He had to do some self-reflection. He seems to have genuinely grown from it, and he is in a healthier, happier place because of it, and everybody around him is benefiting from the best version of him.

Natalie Esquire (NBC Sports): I feel like it’s being depicted as he’s made some substantial change, so now, the media can talk nicely about him, and I don’t know that he’s really changed. I want to state clearly that I never thought that he needed to change. I didn’t, as a general matter, have an issue with Kyrie. There are some things that he said that I don’t agree with, but I always felt there was a media witch-hunt with him. Now that seems to not be in place, and I find that interesting because I don’t know what he’s done. What has he done to change besides go to the Mavericks and play well? What has he done that, all of a sudden, people feel that he’s this different person so they can talk about him in a more favorable light?

Anthony Puccio (NetsDaily.com): What sticks out to me the most with Kyrie’s run in Dallas is how happy he looks. He looks happy playing the game of basketball again. He isn’t having outrages with the media after games. He isn’t cussing out fans courtside, among the other off-court issues that he’s had throughout this career. That isn’t happening in Dallas. He’s focusing on basketball, being a leader, and winning. To see him smiling and being who he is — wearing his signature shoes that represent his culture — you can see almost like a new life has been revitalized inside of Kyrie.

Having covered Kyrie Irving’s Nets tenure, is his redemptive arc in Dallas surprising?

Anthony Puccio: One thing that was never in question was his talent. When he steps on that floor, he’s one of the best players if not the best player on that floor. In Brooklyn, the problem was when he would be off the floor. It feels irresponsible if we didn’t discuss the culmination of things that were happening during his tenure in Brooklyn. The societal issues that were going on. COVID-19, Kyrie’s personal beliefs and religion, and things that, to him, were bigger and more important than basketball. In this context, it clashed. To me, it’s irresponsible to blame Kyrie and throw him under the bus when there were other people involved. When COVID happened, Brooklyn and the Knicks were the only teams requiring home-team players to get vaccinated. I’m not saying I agree with Kyrie’s choice, but he’s a grown man who has the right to make that decision. You can argue that he didn’t sacrifice for his team, but that’s his decision, and it clashed with his personal beliefs and religion. I don’t think Kyrie was perfect. I don’t think Joe Tsai was perfect. I don’t think Sean Marks was perfect. It felt like a snowball effect: Things would get good, and then they would hit a standstill. They picked back up, and then Kyrie [sprained his ankle] in the playoffs against the Bucks when the Nets had their biggest opportunity to win a championship. The following year felt like the final chance, and Kyrie puts out a tweet about a book with anti-Semitic rhetoric in it, and that’s completely unacceptable, and that’s where I will point the finger at him. I’m not surprised in the slightest bit that he’s playing well in Dallas [because] he lost a major extension with the Nets, which forced him to ask for a trade, and it also costed him his deal with Nike, which was generational money. He didn’t have much value in the league, despite everybody knowing how good he was. I felt like if he didn’t pick his act up in Dallas, get on that court, and focus on basketball, then he was going to be out of the league by 31. This redemptive arc is a fruit to his labor on the court. It’s a lot different when you have a coach like Jason Kidd, whom he grew up idolizing in New Jersey.

How were you expecting Kyrie’s Dallas tenure to unfold when you first heard he had been traded?

Tim Cato: I had no idea! There was something surreal about Kyrie, a glamour player and a near-household name for his highlights and his role as Uncle Drew, coming to this franchise that was decidedly not known for glamour. This is a franchise that has had superstars and success, but not like this. Nor would they have ever acquired a player like Irving prior to the new front office led by Nico Harrison, which was also jarring to continue adapting after years spent becoming familiar with how Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson operated. I, of course, knew Irving’s backstory. I heard fellow media members, especially East Coast ones, say something like, “Good luck with Kyrie,” with a smirk over and over again. After a month, when I said he’d been not only fine but downright pleasant to cover thus far, I was told he sometimes started like that on other teams, too.

How has what you’ve observed while covering him day in and day out as a Mav squared with those expectations?

Tim Cato: I’ve never once seen that antagonistic version of Irving in Dallas. Actually, there was one post-game press conference after an unremarkable regular season win where he came out and answered his first three questions with atypically short answers. Then he said something to the effect of, “Y’all like my media answers?” But it was amusing, not upsetting. He had been giving thorough, thoughtful answers to questions all season, even when it often turns these things into 15-minute affairs for him. For whatever reason, he didn’t have the time or interest to do it that night. There was possibly one more question asked, but we basically gave him the nod to head out after that. It didn’t bother me, and I think that was a shared feeling in the room.

Why do you think pairing with Luka in Dallas unlocked leadership traits in Kyrie or allowed him to function as a teammate in a different way than what we’ve seen previously?

Jemele Hill: Luka didn’t have the same kind of baggage the other players did. With LeBron, you’re under a constant microscope because you’re playing with the best player of this generation. That microscope doesn’t always feel comfortable. With Durant and Harden, people expected an instant championship. Harden was dogged by these questions about his commitment to basketball, and Durant, there were questions about whether he was capable of being a real team leader. With the Celtics, it’s Kyrie trying to fit in with two dynamic young talents that are seen as the foundational pieces for their future success. Kyrie just never seemed to be comfortable there. The dynamics weren’t as complicated with Luka, and it helped being with a team where there was more pessimism about what they could actually accomplish. Dallas, in some ways, flourished under the assumption of low expectations. They were able to grow into themselves without much outside interference — or at least that’s how it felt. It just felt like Kyrie had more personal and professional space for growth in Dallas.

Michelle Beadle: I think the most glaring thing about this pairing with Luka is that most of us talking heads thought it was doomed to fail. That the particular style of play these two guys bring couldn’t possibly coexist. Oops. Couldn’t have been more wrong. The combination of a few more years under his belt and the acceptance to play alongside Luka has been everything to this team. When Luka trusts a guy like Kyrie and vice versa, you can see a massive change. And this is just as much about Luka trusting someone as anything. We’re seeing the best formula.

Charlotte Wilder: Part of me wonders if it’s an age thing. Kyrie had to get to a place where he could be a leader and was okay supporting another superstar because, in the past, I don’t think he was. Luka is so talented in a generational way, and he’s 25. Durant and Harden were talented in generational ways, and they’re closer to Kyrie’s age. He can play the role of mentor in a way that makes him feel useful, even if he’s not first fiddle. Dallas has a system that works. They went out and got [Daniel] Gafford and PJ Washington at the trade deadline, which is the biggest vote of confidence you can give your existing team, and then it pans out? That’s pretty cool. You’d be pretty dumb not to get on board with that, and I think Kyrie is at a point now where he can probably see the bigger picture better. Expectations are very clear in Dallas about who’s doing what, and I have long believed that for any organization to be successful, people need to know what is expected of them. Also, you know, Kyrie is a contrarian, so maybe the fact that everybody said it wouldn’t work has made him really want it to work. Maybe he’s just like, ‘I’m gonna be such a great leader and having fun, and we’re gonna win the Finals just because you guys said this wouldn’t work.’ But if Kyrie weren’t playing the best basketball he’s played in years, I don’t think anybody would care about his narrative arc.

Claire De Lune: Well, something I haven’t seen pointed out a lot is that the Luka dynamic is similar to what he had in Cleveland with LeBron in the sense of it is a little bit more of a heliocentric offense around Luka like it was around LeBron, and both are really skilled facilitators. It’s maybe not as huge of a departure as people think from what he was used to. I think the difference is that LeBron clearly enjoys being a leadership role, so I don’t think anyone on a team with LeBron is ever going to need to step into a leadership role unless they want to. When he was in Boston, I don’t think he was ready to be a leader. I think that’s what he thought he wanted, stepping out of LeBron’s shadow and having his own team, but I don’t think he was mature enough. In Brooklyn, there was so much chaos and disharmony that it was too toxic of a situation on every level for there to ever be a healthy leadership structure. When he got to Dallas, he did kind of defer to Luka a bit, and maybe that was part of the problem. Kyrie filled the void that was missing there, but I think it took him a bit to identify the void and rehab his own public image before he could really step into that role.

What did you always know about Kyrie, knowing him personally, that the public has seen and come to understand about him during this season?

Eddie Gonzalez (Boardroom): His joy for basketball. Not necessarily the NBA. Not necessarily NBA coverage. Or all of the things that come with that. But his affinity for basketball itself, on the court, and the artistry that that is to him. We’re seeing it again, and it’s being acknowledged. He was painted as this disgruntled curmudgeon for years now, but finally free of (sometimes self-imposed) drama and unwanted attention, he’s been able to showcase that joy for what he does on the court again. I’m happy we’re back to marveling at Kyrie, the savant.