Basketball is, in many ways, the most transparent major sport. Basketball players don't wear helmets, like hockey and football players, and the court is much smaller than a baseball diamond or soccer field.
All 10 players in a basketball game are visible, and it's easy to read their faces or analyze their body language. If a team doesn't get along, they'll often slump shoulders after misses or point at each other after defensive breakdowns.
Despite being favored to reach the NBA finals, the Boston Celtics exhibited that behavior all year, especially as the Milwaukee Bucks eliminated them from the postseason on Wednesday. As fans and experts consider what went wrong, it's obvious to start with Kyrie Irving.
Irving came to Boston as an NBA champion mentored by LeBron James, one of basketball's greatest players. After years of being James' wingman, Irving made it clear what he wanted: to escape James' shadow and lead a team.
Boston gave him that opportunity. However, when the pressure mounted, Irving clearly wasn't up to the task of leadership. While Irving wasn't solely responsible for the Celtics' collapse, his leadership style exacerbated the team's issues.
Here are three lessons to learn from his mistakes:
Lead through adversity
Though Irving's first Celtics season ended prematurely with a knee injury, the year was a success for Boston. The Celtics went 55-27 and nearly reached the NBA Finals, even with Irving injured for the entire playoffs.
Boston's young players, like forward Jayson Tatum, stepped up and performed above expectations during their postseason run and credited Irving's mentorship. "He really leads by example, just how he approaches his craft each and every day," Tatum said of Irving last summer.
But things changed during this more tumultuous season. The Celtics stumbled out of the gate with a 10-10 start and never quite found a groove. Instead of holding Boston together and lifting their performance, Irving grew irritable as the season progressed and often hunted for his own shot.
Those issues intensified in the playoffs. After Irving missed 15 of 22 shots in a crucial game four loss to the Bucks, he sulked at the press conference and deflected blame, saying: "I'm trying to do it all. For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I'm that great of a shooter."
Leaders try to elevate their teams and the performance of others, not do everything themselves. And when something isn't working, they don't double down on it. Irving abandoned his responsibility to elevate his teammates and bet everything on himself, to disastrous results.
Challenge privately, not publicly
The best leaders get the most out of their team by respectfully challenging them. These moments of challenge can be uncomfortable at first, but they're vital to improvement for individuals and the team.
Irving clearly pushed his teammates to be better, but he also criticized them publicly, including during games. In interviews, Irving chided his younger teammates, even saying, "The young guys don't know what it takes to be a championship level team."
This is not what great leaders do. Rather than giving teammates constructive feedback and inspiring them, Irving blamed them publicly. As the Celtics faced adversity, Irving seemed to take less responsibility even as his own performance dipped.
Forward Jaylen Brown hinted as to how this impacted the Celtics, saying, "We just have to continue to empower each other and have each other's backs. If we don't, if we start pointing fingers, everybody's going to go into their own little shells."
People don't improve when they are publicly embarrassed for their mistakes--if anything, they start to tune their leaders out. Irving's leadership fractured the team's trust in him, and in each other.
Be all in
Speculation about Irving's future dominated parts of this season. Irving is a free agent this summer, and though he'd previously expressed intention to re-sign with Boston, midway through the season, he changed his tune.
"Ask me July 1," Irving said in February, when asked if he was committed to Boston.
When Boston's future seemed bright, Irving was excited to stay, but when the team struggled, he searched for an exit. Many experts think Irving's time in Boston is already over.
As a free agent, Irving has a right to play where he wants. But as his Celtics were fighting for their season and needed his leadership, he was stoking rumors about his potential departure.
It's hard to expect a teammate or employee to buy-in when the leader is actively speculating about leaving the organization. Regardless of their private feelings, leaders need to be publicly all in on their organizations if they are asking others to give their all.
Irving got his chance to lead. His performance this season--and especially this postseason--was an airball. It'll be interesting to see what role he takes next.