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Does Loyalty in the NBA Still Exist?

The Kyrie Irving–Isaiah Thomas trade highlighted the desire for both players and front offices to move on from the status quo during a hectic summer. It’s not a good or bad thing—it’s just a reality of the league’s competitive landscape.

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If the NBA’s summer of 2017 doesn’t underscore that loyalty in sports is pure fiction, then what will? Chris Paul left Los Angeles. Paul George forced his way out of Indiana. The Bulls stunned Jimmy Butler. Gordon Hayward dumped Utah. Kyrie Irving abandoned King LeBron James. The Celtics blindsided Isaiah Thomas. But with players increasingly influential when it comes to their brands, short-term deals, constant speculation, and long-term planning by savvy executives, our ideas about player-to-team loyalty and team-to-player loyalty have been thrown out the window. Everything we think we know about sports tells us that Irving should want to stay in Cleveland, and Boston should want to keep Thomas—but the opposite is true.

“Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose— and commit myself to—what is best for me,” Brazilian author Paulo Coelho wrote in his 2005 novel, The Zahir. That concept of freedom is the operating principle for organizations. But in the rare instances where players are free agents (like Hayward or Durant) or have enough status to control their destiny (like George or Irving), fans often admonish their decisions when they exercise their right to leave. After Thomas was traded, Caron Butler and Ray Allen took to Instagram to call out perceived hypocrisy: When players aren’t “loyal” to their teams there’s outrage, but there’s no similar reaction when, say, a team trades a player who played in a game two days after his sister passed away while recovering from dental surgeries and battling a painful hip injury. Allen would know: He left the Celtics for the Heat in 2012, one month after Miami beat Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, which earned him a “Judas Shuttlesworth” nickname. He wrote on Instagram, “It is just a business so when the teams do it there should be no difference when the players do it!”

The executives and agents I’ve chatted with agree; they don’t think anything of the choices made by the players and teams this summer. “Every team operates pretty much the same way, which is virtually the same way nearly every business on earth operates,” said an NBA agent, who requested to be anonymous. Kevin Durant’s choice to leave the Thunder for the 73-win Warriors birthed the the My Next Chapter meme and a perception that he took the easy way out. Durant went on The Bill Simmons Podcast at the end of August, and had this to say: “Guys have been getting traded in their sleep for years. Guys have been getting the shitty end of the stick for years. I mean, some guys have been fucking over organizations, too. It’s no loyalty. It’s business. There’s money involved.”

You can feel however you want to feel if your favorite player gets traded or signs somewhere else. The range of emotions we all feel while watching, rooting, talking, and thinking about our favorite teams is what fuels our love for the game. But as the NBA evolves and grows, there are ways to alter what we expect from teams and players and how we respond to their choices.

One of the common responses to Irving’s decision to request a trade from the Cavaliers was, “Why would he want to leave LeBron, one of the greatest players ever? Does he not care about winning?” I’ve read it on Reddit—and NBA executives I’ve texted with have expressed the same sentiment. Irving said during his introductory press conference that his decision was simply about doing what was best for him: “going for something bigger than myself and honestly being in an environment that’s conducive for my potential.” The only way to grow was to escape from LeBron James’s towering shadow. But LeBron is the one who lay the path for Irving, as well as for the other players who chose their own destinies this summer.

Irving and James were guests on Episode 12 of Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye’s Road Trippin’ With RJ & Channing. On that episode, Irving said, “Have you read The Alchemist?”—Coelho’s most famous novel—then asked LeBron to share his takeaways from the book. (Paulo Coelho didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.) LeBron spoke about empowerment, having a vision, and chasing it. Kyrie has effectively done just that, saying in a video message to Cavaliers fans that the moment came and he wanted to “take full advantage of it” so he could “accomplish things that I have dreamt of as a kid.”

CP3 also opted for personal empowerment. So did George. So did Hayward. Disloyalty should be the expectation, not the exception. Loyalty is a two-way street where both teams and players are licensed to drive. Ultimately, this is where my mind has changed over the last 10 years or so. Teams stab players in the back all the time. Players do the same. It’s reality: The frequency at which it occurs doesn't make it any easier to deal with, but it does mean that there's a level of shock that should be removed from these situations. LeBron could have handled leaving Cleveland for Miami better, but maybe it had to be that way to empower players to make decisions that benefit their lives. Durant mentioned on The Bill Simmons Podcast that it’s the relationships with the people in the organization that he’s still loyal to, not the organization itself. It’s hard to be loyal to something that, by its very nature, is ever-changing.

Teams foster the same emotional rhythms in fans that we deal with in life: happiness, angst, disillusionment. But there's a reason why allegiance doesn't usually end when a player is traded or retires: It's all cyclical. Wins and losses, additions and subtractions, all create new opportunities. For sports fans, it might be best to enter into a new relationship with a player knowing the odds are it won’t last—either by the player’s personal choice or the team’s decision.

Front office work requires a certain level of callousness. The Bulls, Celtics, and Rockets reshaped their rosters this offseason with surprising trades. While I don’t like the return Chicago got for Butler, it was the right decision to move on. Houston and Boston got considerably better, on paper. You could make the argument that Daryl Morey and Danny Ainge would be lesser general managers had they considered loyalty a good business model.

It was only four short years ago, in the summer of 2013, when Ainge traded two Celtics legends, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, for a bunch of Nets draft picks and replacement-level players. My fiercely loyal Celtics-fan boss didn’t like the trade, and neither did a lot of other fans. It would’ve been easy to keep Pierce and let him fade off into the sunset after a year-long farewell tour in a Celtics uniform. Boston took a gamble on the future. No one could’ve expected the deal to work out at the level it did. The Nets died. The Celtics ascended. Here we are today.

Boston’s long web of trades and signings that started in 2013 culminated last week when Ainge acquired Irving for the 2018 Nets pick, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and, of course, Thomas, who won the hearts of an entire fanbase this past season. Boston fell head over heels for Thomas after he dropped 53 points in the playoffs. “I always dream of moments like this,” Thomas said after the game. “Those are where legends are born. And one day I want to be one of those guys.” Thomas meant it, and his love for the fans was not unrequited. But to reach their ultimate goal of winning a championship, the organization had to ignore those fuzzy feelings. The way I imagine it is like this: We were all watching Thomas on one knee, wearing his Brink’s truck sandals, ready to propose for a long-term commitment to the team and the city. But Ainge stopped him before he could reach for the ring. It was just a fling all along, nothing more. Ainge dealt Marcus Thornton for Isaiah Thomas, then Thomas for Kyrie Irving. To systematically upgrade assets, you cannot let attachment be an overriding decision-maker.

“I’ll leave it to your own imaginations to realize how difficult that conversation might have been—for me and Isaiah,” Ainge said after the trade. “Isaiah had just an amazing season this year and entertained us all—the whole city of Boston, and everybody fell in love with him. You know, he’s such an underdog because of his size and his heart and his spirit in which he plays. It was very challenging to make this decision.”

An agent texted me that “Danny would trade his son Austin if he had to.” I believe it. The Celtics had just won 53 games, earning them the no. 1 seed, and went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Now they have only four returning players: Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier. How many organizations in sports would seriously return only one-quarter of their roster after the season they had? It’s so easy to accept the status quo when things are going well. Some owners would love for a nice jog on the playoff treadmill as a six-seed every year. But it was the right choice for Ainge and the Celtics. The team was good and full of overachievers, but it wasn’t great like it needed to be for them to achieve their ultimate goal.

Any backlash Boston receives for the choices they made or grief Houston gets for trading away a fan favorite in Patrick Beverley will quickly fade as their reloaded teams surpass the good-but-not-great edition fans fell in love with. Sure, it’s no guarantee. The failed Lakers superteam still looms. So do the Nets, the spark that put Boston in this position in the first place. But usually when great players join forces, great moments follow.

Still, it can be hard as a fan to fall in love with a team with the realization that no matter how deep that love is, the players who define the team can be cut loose at any moment. But “remember what got you here” doesn’t work against a dominant, paradigm-shifting team like the Warriors. To paraphrase what Morey told ESPN in June, when the juggernaut Warriors present long odds for the rest of the league, you need to up your “risk profile” and get “more aggressive.” Drastic measures must be taken. The teams with owners and front offices who allow for that freedom will be the organizations that flourish in this new era of basketball.

It’s not easy for players and general managers to make these difficult choices. Oftentimes, they need to cut out the noise. In today’s NBA, it seems like no matter how much better a team gets, there’s someone who says, They still won’t beat the Warriors. Maybe that’s true. But teams won’t back down. Morey also has expressed that he doesn’t believe the Warriors are unbeatable. Other executives I’ve chatted with this summer still think the Spurs would’ve made life a living hell for Golden State had Kawhi Leonard stayed healthy for the series.

Ainge expressed similar thoughts in July 2016, days after Durant signed with the Warriors. “Listen, they are an outstanding team. And nobody can deny the great talent that they have,” Ainge said. “But we’re not going to just lay down and die, I’ll tell you that.” The Celtics and Rockets have stood their ground. They’ve moved forward as an attempt to transform their teams into worthy nemeses of the juggernaut Warriors. Irving, George, Hayward, and Paul all did the same—LeBron will next summer. Those parties aren’t worried about what others are saying or how their decisions are perceived; ultimately, it’s all babble.

After worrying about how the Irving trade with Boston might be judged considering Thomas’s hip injury, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert might have taken a page out of the Celtics’ book after moving forward with the decision to accept the trade for Irving. As the Cavs enter a likely post-LeBron era, they need to stick to their forward-thinking plan. Even if it means burning a big LeBron bridge, it could lead to something special down the line. Eventually, maybe the next generation of players will recognize and appreciate it.

Basketball is constantly shifting, and that reality can sometimes be cruel. Jazz fans would find it hard to lose Hayward, as Bulls fans would with Butler. But there are always new fan favorites waiting in the wings. And they, too, will eventually either abandon the team or get forced out. That’s business; that’s life.