Four days after Anthony Davis made the most consequential trade request in 44 years, and less than 24 hours after the Knicks traded their most promising homegrown talent in a generation to chase the grandest dream in franchise history, Kyrie Irving made it clear that he doesn’t owe anyone shit.
I am not throwing bones, or parsing anonymously sourced reports, or reading tea leaves. I am reading his words, transcribed by people who heard him say them at the Boston Celtics’ shootaround ahead of their Friday night game at Madison Square Garden:
Kyrie Irving has shifted from his commitment to re-signing with the Celtics: “I don’t owe anybody shit.”— Stefan Bondy (@SBondyNYDN) February 1, 2019
“I’m just going to do what’s best for me,” Irving told reporters when asked, in light of the Davis trade request, the Porzingis trade, and the speculation that his future might be tied to those developments, whether his future plans had changed. “That’s what it really comes down to. [...] I’m not worried about a reputation. I’m not worried about a legacy to leave. I’m just trying to be a human being, trying to make the best decision for me and my family.”
If you’re a Celtics fan—or, perhaps, a member of Boston’s front office—those words might come as a decidedly unwelcome surprise! After all, Irving, who holds a $21.3 million player option for the 2019-20 season that he is widely expected to decline so that he can enter unrestricted free agency this summer, said at an event for Celtics season-ticket holders two weeks before the start of the season that “if you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here.”
He also said, “I just have every intent to sign back. I just wanted to clear that up.” And, “A lot of great players have come before me, but to throw my name in Boston Celtics tradition and history is something I’m glad I can do and plan on doing.” And, “Now I don’t have to answer any other questions like, ‘What are you looking for [in free agency]?’ It was time. I’m glad I got past it. I can be with my teammates and we can move forward without a distraction.” (Although we perhaps forget Irving’s third-eye take on distractions at our own peril.)
But he said all that stuff, like, four months ago, man. Do you even remember what was going on at the beginning of October? Tom Thibodeau was pretty sure he could still get this Jimmy Butler business sorted out. The Brett Kavanaugh nomination seemed like it could go either way. Banksy pieces were self-destructing, for Reasons. Goddamn Venom! Four months isn’t just an eternity in the sports/media landscape of 2018-19; it’s an alternate dimension.
In Friday’s media session, Irving chalked his October statement up, in part, to “excitement.” When excitement wanes, though, an eye can wander.
“At the end of the day, I spent the last eight years trying to do what everybody else wanted me to do, in terms of making my decisions and trying to validate through the media, through other personnel, managers, anybody in this business,” Irving told reporters. “And I don’t owe anybody shit. So for me, I think the confidence I have in myself and my abilities, I want to be able to control what I want to control.”
That word—control, and all that it implies—means more than just about any other in the NBA lexicon at this point.
For decades, players had virtually no control over anything: who drafted them, who they’d play with, what they could earn. That began to change with the onset of unrestricted free agency in the 1988 collective bargaining agreement. (Shouts out to Tom Chambers.) The pace of change increased when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh decided to take three-year extensions of their rookie contracts rather than the customary five-year re-up, forsaking some financial security in exchange for future flexibility, and setting the stage for the paradigm-exploding power move that built the Big Three Miami Heat in 2010.
That pace has reached dizzying speed in recent years, as James and a generation of superstars who have studied his moves—including Irving—have come to understand just how much power they possess. The grand prize of superstardom isn’t the max salary and the endorsement deals. It’s the opportunity to gain control.
To be clear: This is better! Players are the labor and the product, and deserve the fruits of all of that, to the greatest degree they can get them and exercise them. But it also makes team-building incredibly tricky.
In the NBA as it exists now, which could be drastically different than the NBA that exists by the time I finish writing this sentence, plans and intentions matter only if they’re written on a signed contract. And even those mean only so much. Just ask Kevin Pritchard, R.C. Buford, or Dell Demps. Or, for that matter, ask Koby Altman, whose reward for becoming an NBA general manager at age 34 was finding out that Irving, with two seasons still remaining on a five-year extension of his rookie contract, wanted out of Cleveland.
Now, less than two years after having that wish granted through a trade to a Celtics team that seemed to provide everything he was looking for—an opportunity to consistently compete for championships; a more central offensive role; a luminous supporting cast; a front office that had amassed a war chest of prospects and draft picks with which to pursue elite players, and has a demonstrated appetite for taking big swings to land them—the five-time All-Star has backed off his public comments about wanting to re-sign in Boston.
Maybe that’s because what he thought he had in Boston in October hasn’t actually materialized. The Celtics have sputtered through fits and starts, only recently seeming to find a steady rhythm that maximizes their loaded roster. A team predicted by many to roll to 60-odd wins and the East’s no. 1 seed enters Friday at 32-19, tied with the Pacers for fourth in the conference and 5.5 games behind the rampaging Bucks, who just smacked around the second-seeded Raptors in Toronto on Thursday.
“Obviously, things this season haven’t gone as I planned, and that’s part of being on a team where you’re still trying to figure things out,” Irving said Friday. “So I’m always going to be mature about that, professional, come to do my job every single day and really just see what happens. And that’s what it really comes down to.”
Irving saw the LeBron-to-L.A. writing on the wall and forced his way off the Cavaliers a year early to make sure he wasn’t left holding the bag in Cleveland. Maybe what he’s seen during his remarkably rocky maiden voyage as a leader—or what he’s heard about AD’s preferred landing spots—led him to decide that the wisest course of action is once again to keep his options open, no matter what he said in the long, long ago of early October.
“Well, at the end of the day I’m going to do what I feel is best for my career, and that’s just where it stands,” Irving said Friday. “My focus this season is winning a championship with the Boston Celtics. Obviously we had goals coming into this season, and the primary goal is to win a championship. So that’s where my focus is.” As to anything beyond that: “Ask me July 1.”
Teams are building on sand right now. It seems impossible for even the best GMs to chart a course that doesn’t have draft-and-develop at its core, because that’s really the only thing they can control in an era when players’ minds, motivations, and movements seem to be changing at unprecedented speed.
Like, for example, within the space of a five-minute, 20-second press availability.
“I still have confidence in Boston and what they can promise for the future and what we have in terms of our pieces,” Irving said Friday, weaving his way through a tangled web of words like a defense he’s treating as his plaything. “That’s what excited me a lot about the beginning of the season, was the opportunity to come into this season really just doing what we planned on doing: Set a goal and go after it, and then see what happens at the end of the season. That was the plan before and that’s still the plan now.
“Obviously, Boston is still at the head of that race,” he added, as though “obvious” is a word that can meaningfully apply to anything happening in the NBA right now. “That’s just where it stands.”
Where it stands in four more months? That’s anybody’s guess. Welcome to the NBA’s Player Power Era. Nobody has any idea what the fuck is going to happen next.