SALT LAKE CITY — The world is a circus around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, even at NBA All-Star Game media availability, where people should be used to having access to the globe’s greatest basketball players.
Durant was asked if he were in a zombie apocalypse, which of his teammates would he bring with him. He shook his head and said without explanation, “Deandre Ayton.” A meaningless answer for a meaningless question. Irving’s experience was no different. He said he wished he were asked more questions that made him think deeper about the game, and within minutes he was talking about how he would be “one of those people that does hotel reviews” if he were not in the NBA. This is all broadcasted for anyone interested.
You cannot blame them for acting in their own self interest in the face of constant chaos. Is that good for the game? They have thoughts on that, too, and their sentiments about their trade requests seem genuine.
“I don’t think it’s bad for the league,” Durant said of seeking a trade to the Phoenix Suns after Irving’s exit. “It’s bringing more eyes to the league, more people are more excited. The tweets that I get, the news hits that we got from me being traded, Kyrie being traded, it just brings more attention to the league, and really what makes you money is when you get more attention. So, I think it’s great for the league, to be honest.”
Durant removes the facade of loyalty and lays bare the business, or at least his side of it. If you thought a four-year, $200 million contract meant your favorite player was committed to playing for your favorite team, you were mistaken. The pledge was written in pencil, as was any shared investment with the city’s faithful.
Durant seems to be embracing the idea of being a hired gun, so long as he is driving engagement for the NBA, and he rationalizes that by telling himself, “Teams have been trading players and making acquisitions for a long time. Now, when a player can kind of dictate where he wants to go and leave in free agency or demand a trade, that’s part of the game now, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing.” There is a lot of truth in that.
It is also not often teams trade stars against their will. Isaiah Thomas is the one players point to in equating their trade requests with a team’s willingness to discard them. DeMar DeRozan is another one. Both were devastated when news broke that they had been dealt — for two superior players who demanded trades.
“Why doesn’t anyone have the ability to ask for trades? That’s my question,” Irving said on Saturday, two weeks after the Brooklyn Nets granted his trade request and six years after his earlier demand sent Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “When did it become terrible to make great business decisions for yourself and your happiness and your peace of mind? Not every employer you’re going to get along with, so if you have the chance to go somewhere else and you’re doing it legally, I don’t think there’s a problem with it.”
Teams are designed to operate in the best interest of fans, even when it does not always seem that way. They want to get better (or worse with the intent to get better in the long run). Superstars are not always operating under the same parameters, and trade requests make clear when they deviate from them entirely. Where Irving seems to part ways with Durant is the notion that public interest is part of the job description.
“The speculation and narratives are what makes this entertainment kind of seem a little bit more important or more of a priority than it actually is. Like, it’s my life. It’s not just a dream that everybody can gossip about,” Irving added. “I take it very serious, and most of the work that I do doesn’t get seen, so I don’t know if it will ever truly be appreciated, but all in all, when you work as hard as I do or anyone else in a specific profession, I feel like you should have the liberty and the freedom to go where you’re wanted, where you’re celebrated and where you feel comfortable, so I wouldn’t say any of my situations were bad.”
Again, there is truth in this. You want players to feel wanted, celebrated and comfortable. The NBA is also not an ordinary job. Stars are paid nine-figure salaries, largely on the understanding that fans are invested in their success, often with a particular team. If you pay to watch “Creed III” in the theaters, you are going to see Michael B. Jordan, not whoever surprisingly replaces him once he asks off the project.
And if your mortgage lender chooses to leave one branch for another across the country, it is not like the other branch is forcing one of its employees to move in the other direction to replace him. Irving’s freedom did not account for whether Dorian Finney-Smith felt wanted, celebrated or comfortable in Brooklyn.
Referencing the many ripple effects that result from public trade demands, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said during his annual news conference from the All-Star Game, “I think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s corrosive to the system. Certainly fans don’t like it. Even lots of players don’t like it as well, because ultimately they may be going to a particular team under a belief that that player is still going to be there.”
Silver seemed to draw a distinction between public trade demands and those made behind closed doors, but the end result is often the same, especially when demands made in private are leaked to the media. So it was notable that Silver sounded as though he was siding closer to Durant and Irving on this matter.
“You want to find the right balance,” Silver said before the All-Star Saturday contests. “Obviously, you want players to honor their contracts, and at the same time a certain amount of player movement is good. So, strongly against anything said publicly. I agree a certain amount of player movement is good, but I think it has to be done in partnership and honoring those agreements that players and teams enter into.”
It is still unclear why Irving wanted off the Nets beyond their differences on his next deal. Even Durant said earlier in the week, “I didn’t know what was going on with Kyrie and his situation with the organization.” Irving has made veiled references to disagreements with Brooklyn’s front office that superseded his finances, but despite saying Saturday, “Now I get to speak on it truthfully,” he offered little clarification:
“We had a conversation between me, [general manager] Sean [Marks], [team owner] Joe [Tsai], upper management and the front office, and I was just telling them that I would love to have more of a shared responsibility if we’re going to be building a future here. They gave me all the right answers — ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ The moment it comes out in the media, it’s like, ‘Who does this guy think he is? He wants to be in the front office,’ and that’s not the angle I came from. I just wanted to bring in some great guys.
“I know cohesion. I know about winning games, but in this phase of my career, it’s about leading and also following with the right guys around me, so in Brooklyn I would have loved for things to work out and be there long term, but Dallas, they came calling. [Mavericks owner] Mark [Cuban] rang my phone, [general manager] Nico [Harrison] rang my phone, and I’m grateful they did, because I know that they wanted me for my work ethic, my leadership abilities and also my consistency in what I bring to the team, and I would just like to show that every day. That’s it.
“So, judge me off those actions, rather than what I’m talking about with management and what it kind of looks like from the outside. Most of the things that you guys hear about is not true behind the scenes, or it’s 100% true, and it doesn’t get reported, so I think I’ve got to find a balance of just knowing that some things are going to be talked about and some things aren’t, but how I handle the team and how I handle myself and others is what I can control.”
I am not quite sure what to make of any of that. What does come through is the sense that, amid all the chaos around him, Irving is understandably seeking more of what he can control. His pursuit also comes at the expense of those with less sway than him, whether they be fans or coworkers. Teams can be disloyal, but the reverse is no better. Both reveal hard truths about the NBA, fandom and the circus it has created.