It’s not about the vaccine. Of course, the vaccine seemed like why Kyrie Irving was the NBA’s most polarizing player this season. He refused to get the hit(s) the scientific community recommended and New York City required of employees, which kept him out of most Nets home games this year, and he was part of our screaming national match: He should get vaccinated, everyone should get vaccinated, he doesn’t have to get vaccinated if he doesn’t want to, some of these vaccine rules don’t make sense no matter what happens to the freedom, etc., etc. But many athletes refused the vaccine. Irving drives people crazy because of what he did to his team.
In the summer of 2019, Irving signed a four-year, $136 million contract with the Nets. In the three seasons that followed, he played in just 103 of his team’s 226 games, partly due to injury, but mostly due to his own choices. Before the vaccine question, he took a leave without explanation. Nets coach Steve Nash said he didn’t know where Irving was and general manager Sean Marks said he was “disappointed” that Irving was “not in the trenches with us.” Irving later said it was a family affair. He also violated league health and safety protocols. He seems to take great pride in having different priorities than the public expect of professional athletes, to the point where you wonder if his priorities aren’t as important to him as being different.
Now here he is, heading into the post-season play-in tournament as one of the NBA’s most exciting players. However, the Nets haven’t really looked like a team all year. James Harden came and went. Ben Simmons came and did not play. Still, the Nets are a dangerous 7 seed in the tournament, and that raises an uncomfortable question: If Kyrie Irving and the Nets somehow turn it on this spring and win a championship, what is does this say about the league?
The NBA is in a weird place right now. It is undeniably thriving as a business and cultural entity, but as a competitive sport it has gone astray.
In Michael Jordan’s last five seasons, he played 82 games four times, not because he was superhuman, but because that’s what players did. In 2002–03, 46 players played in all 82 games (including Jordan, who turned 40 that year and then retired for good). It was just the work: if you could play, you did it.
Commissioner Adam Silver recently said he was looking at “a trend of star players not participating in a full range of games”, but that’s an old story. Five years ago, he called sitting stars a “tremendously important issue for our league”. It is not much closer to a solution today than it was then. An in-season tournament would be fun and might motivate players to play more, but they would probably rest before and after. Leaders of winning teams have concluded that it is more important for players to be healthy and well rested than to have home advantage. The executives of losing teams would rather be terrible with young players than – oh, the horror! – trying to put their best teams on the floor.
At these prices, fans should expect a team to try. And in the long term, they are trying. They don’t necessarily try the night you show up with your kids.
Irving obviously didn’t create the environment where players skip games for reasons unrelated to health. But the NBA is now a league where healthy players often sit, sometimes for a long time despite having tons of money. The Rockets paid healthy former All-Star John Wall more than $44 million to sit out this year because he didn’t fit into their long-term plans. Everything Irving did in Brooklyn, he did in a league where skipping games is part of the culture.
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This generation of basketball has also been defined by player movement, which is an outgrowth of player empowerment, which is the product of star players realizing that while they’re technically employees, teams really work. for them. When LeBron James bounced from Cleveland to Miami to Cleveland to Los Angeles, he did so like a team owner looking for a better stadium deal: LeBron James Inc. signed a four-year lease on South Beach, then his CEO decided to move the offices again.
But when James does it, he always does it with basketball first. Just like Kevin Durant. James went to Miami to win his first title, to Cleveland to win there, to Los Angeles, at least in part, because there was no clear path to win more in Cleveland. Durant joined a Golden State team that won 73 games, won two titles there, then left to prove he could win elsewhere.
Kyrie? He played three consecutive finals, had the best player in the world on his team and demanded a trade. He was traded to a Boston team that should have been on the rise, said he would stay there, then fled to play with Durant for Brooklyn. It seemed like a move to win, but it’s pretty clear now that it wasn’t quite that. Throughout his career, Irving has searched for something different.
“He’s clearly not your average sportsman, is he?” says former New Jersey Governor Richard Codey, who briefly coached Irving when Irving was younger and keeps in touch with him. “You know, some of the things he says aren’t what you expected, are they? So what? That doesn’t make him a bad person.
It’s not. Codey says Irving is aware of defining himself exclusively as a basketball player: “He knows, ‘I have to start looking at the day when I’m not playing in the NBA. What am I going to do with my life? »
Thinking about life after basketball… refusing to see yourself as just an athlete… using your platform for philanthropy and social justice… that’s fine. The Nets, however, signed him to a $136 million basketball contract expecting him to play basketball.
It seems reasonable to think that a highly paid professional athlete should show up for work regularly, but Irving bristles at the idea that we should see him primarily as a professional athlete, and he doesn’t seem at all worried about being very well paid. He lost his salary for home games, part of an agreement between the NBA and the players’ association covering players who do not comply with local vaccination mandates. His lack of availability for the past three years should make teams wary when he returns to free agency. (When the Nets decided to sit him for all games, they continued to pay him for the road games he would have played.)
Since Irving doesn’t seem concerned about what we think he should care about, it’s easy to assume he’d be just as happy to lose early and have a free summer to see if he can find the end of the game. Earth. But perhaps because he doesn’t need basketball, Irving can play at an incredibly high level in high-pressure situations.
We never really saw what Irving could do with Durant and Harden, and we still haven’t seen what he could do with Durant and Simmons. But we saw what he did with James. There have been many times over the past few years where Irving hasn’t seemed very interested in his team. He did things that never would have worked in the NBA 20 years ago or the NFL today. His team still stayed with him. It might be worth it to them. But what is the cost for the league?
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