It’s not about the vaccine. Definitely the vaccine seemed Like why Kyrie Irving has been the NBA’s most polarizing player this season. He declined to get the shot(s) recommended by the scientific community and required by New York City staff, which prevented him from playing most of the Nets’ home games this year, and became part of our national shout-out match: He should get vaccinated, everyone should get vaccinated, he doesn’t have to get vaccinated if he doesn’t want to, some of those vaccination rules don’t make sense, whatever happens to freedom, etc, etc. But many athletes refused the vaccine. Irving is driving people wild because of what he’s done to his team.
In the summer of 2019, Irving signed a four-year, $136 million contract with Nets. In the three seasons since, he’s played in just 103 of his team’s 226 games – partly because of injury, but mostly because of his own choices. Before the vaccine was released, he took a leave of absence 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 “wasn’t in the trenches with us.” Irving later said it was a family affair. It also violated the league’s health and safety protocols. He seems to pride himself on having different priorities than what the public expects of professional athletes, so much so that you wonder if his priorities are just as important as being different.
Here he is, heading into the post-season championship as one of the NBA’s most exciting players. Despite this, the Nets didn’t really look like a team all year round. James Harden came and went. Ben Simmons came and didn’t play. However, the Nets are the owner of 7 dangerous players in the tournament, and that raises an uncomfortable question: If Kyrie Irving and the Nets somehow run him this spring and win the tournament, what does that say about the league?
The NBA is in a strange place now. It is undoubtedly thriving as a commercial and cultural entity, but it has lost its way as a competitive sport.
In Michael Jordan’s last five seasons, he’s played a full 82 games four times – not because he was superhuman, but because that’s what the players did. In 2002-03, 46 players played all 82 matches (including Jordan, who turned 40 that year and then retired permanently). This was just the job: If you could play, you did.
Commissioner Adam Silver recently said he’s looking at “a trend of star players not being involved in a whole host of games,” but that’s an old tune. Five years ago, he described star seating as a “critical issue for our Dora”. It’s not much closer to a solution now than it was then. The tournament in the season will be fun and may motivate players to play more, but it is likely that they will rest before and after. The executives of the winning teams concluded that it was more important for the players to be healthy and well rested rather than have the advantage of playing at home. Losing team CEOs would rather be horrible with young players than try – oh, the horror! – Put their best teams on the ground.
At these prices, fans should expect the team to try. And in the long run, they be Attempt. They don’t necessarily try the night you show up with your kids.
Irving apparently did not create the environment in which players skip games for reasons unrelated to health. But the NBA is now a league where healthy players often sit out, sometimes for a long time despite making a lot of money. The Rockets paid former healthy former All-Star Jon Wall more than $44 million not to play this year because it didn’t fit their long-term plans. Whatever 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, an offshoot of player empowerment, a product of star players realizing that, despite being technical employees, teams actually work for them. When LeBron James bounced from Cleveland to Miami to Cleveland to Los Angeles, he did so like a team owner shopping for a better stadium deal: LeBron James’ company signed a four-year lease in South Beach, then its CEO decided to move offices again.
But when James does it, he always does it with basketball as a priority. So does 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 winning more in Cleveland. Durant joined the Golden State’s 73-game winning team, won two titles there, and then left to prove he could win elsewhere.
Keri? He played in three consecutive Finals, had the world’s best player on his team and demanded a trade. He was traded to a Boston that should have been on the rise, said he’d stay there, and then pulled out to play Durant for Brooklyn. This seemed like a win-win move, but now it’s clear that it wasn’t quite so. Throughout his career, Irving has been looking for something different.
“He’s not your average player, obviously, is he?” says former New Jersey Governor Richard Cody, who briefly coached Irving when Irving was younger and is still in contact with him. “You know, some of the things he says aren’t what you’d expect, right? So what? That doesn’t make him a bad person.”
It did not. Cody says Irving is aware of defining himself exclusively as a basketball player: “He knows, ‘I should start looking at the day I’m not playing in the NBA.'” What will I do with my life? “
Thinking about life after basketball… refusing to see himself just as an athlete… using his platform for philanthropy and social justice… All of that is awesome. However, the Nets signed him to a $136 million basketball contract that expected him to play basketball.
It seems reasonable to think that a well-paid professional athlete should show up for work on a regular basis, but Irving is intimidated by the idea that we should see him primarily as a professional athlete, and he doesn’t seem too concerned about getting paid that much. He lost his salary to home games, as part of an agreement between the NBA and the Players Association that covers players who don’t comply with local vaccine mandates. His lack of availability for the past three years should make teams wary when he hits a free agency again. (When the Nets decided to sit with him for all the games, they kept paying him for the road games he was going to play.)
Since Irving doesn’t seem to be preoccupied with what we think he should care about, it’s easy to assume he’d be equally happy to lose early and have a free summer to see if he can find the end of the earth. But perhaps because he doesn’t need basketball, Irving can play at an incredibly high level in high pressure situations.
We haven’t really seen what Irving can do with Durant and Harden, and we still haven’t seen what he can do with Durant and Simmons. But we saw what he did with James. There have been a few times in the past few years when Irving wasn’t interested in his team that much. He did some things that would never have worked in the NBA 20 years ago or in the NFL today. His team stuck with him anyway. This might be worth it for them. But what is the cost of the league?
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• The Inevitable Kid Cunningham
• Nikola Jokic was lost among the stars. And he agrees.
• Behind the sudden rise of Ja Morant to the NBA Super League