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A Rational Conversation About Kyrie Irving and the Future of the NBA

The Boston star wants off the rumor roller coaster, but is it too late to stop progress? We discuss the Celtics, the rumor economy, and where we go from here.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Justin Verrier: We’ve officially reached the Seven Seconds or Less era of NBA player movement. In the past week alone, Anthony Davis asked for a trade, the Knicks decided to trade Kristaps Porzingis faster than it took the details of the deal to leak, the Lakers seesawed between a budding dynasty and a budding disaster every hour on the hour, the certainty around Kyrie Irving’s long-term commitment to Boston shattered, and Carmelo Anthony got dropped for the fifth time in the past year and a half. My head is spinning. The rumors are coming too fast to have a normal, functioning life; the night of the Porzingis trade I ate two packages of Pop-Tarts for dinner. And if you believe Kyrie, the constant rumormongering is having similar effects on the players at the center of all the scuttlebutt. Have we gone too far? What is happening?

Chris Ryan: On Thursday, I had Goldfish and beer for dinner, and I spent the night slack-jawed while staring at Twitter. On another screen, the Sixers were posting one of their most impressive victories of the post-Iverson era, and honestly, I can’t say I paid all that much attention to it. Granted, my nerve endings might have been a little shot after the Kristacalypse, but just the image of me staring at a social media feed, looking for crumbs of Kevin Durant real estate news, while one of the most interesting games of the year plays out on screen … it was all a little too on the nose. Basketball is dead, long live the NBA. We are all inside the DeAndre Jordan hostage house.

The information warfare, four-dimensional front-office chess, and sources-say gossip is always at a fever pitch before the trade deadline, but I don’t think there’s ever been a time when so many of the league’s most important chess pieces have been in play at midseason. And it’s upsetting a lot of apple carts. Even the teams that would seemingly benefit from an Anthony Davis trade demand are in precarious positions. The Lakers went from being the most likely Brow landing spot to having their players and coaches almost get into a fight, all in the same weekend. Players are mad about the role the media plays in all of it, but it is a two-way street. The truth is people care more about where Kyrie might play next year than they do about how he’s playing for the Celtics right now. It’s drama, and it makes the Hamptons Five seem like an episode of Downton Abbey. The off-court reality show may actually, finally, really be eclipsing the on-court product, and I’m not sure the NBA can do anything about it.

Verrier: I don’t know that there’s any incentive for the league to hit the brakes on it, either. While some recent data shows that the early national games have taken a hit because of LeBron’s migration to the late shift, ratings have been steadily climbing for years. More importantly, the NBA is dominating the conversation year-round. There’s only, like, two weeks in early September when there isn’t something to blog about—and that will change this year, with the Basketball World Cup. Who needs to watch Bill Belichick wince under interrogation about his favorite breakfast foods at Super Bowl media day when two of the biggest franchises in sports are playing tug-of-war using Anthony Davis’s limbs? The players and the coaches get that, too. During the Super Bowl, noted Rams fan LeBron James was itching for Woj bombs:

Even Brad Stevens broke the fourth wall last week:

Ryan: He can say that, but his point guard certainly hasn’t been taking it in stride. On Friday, Irving addressed the media and basically undid whatever Celtic-4-Lyfe campaigning he’d done earlier in the season, which included an appearance before season-ticket holders to announce his intentions to re-sign with the team, and appearing in a Nike commercial where he talks about wanting his number to hang in the Garden rafters.

That was the old Kyrie. The new Kyrie praises the Knicks’ team building, and says that he’ll make up his mind about his future in July. He has been aggrieved about the state of things, specifically the media speculation about whether he would stay in Boston, go to New York, reunite with LeBron, or just become a full-time vlogger. He was explicit about the impact that said speculation has on the on-court product: “It’s crazy how stories and things and story lines can seep into a locker room. You guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms. That’s just what it is.” Yes, since you asked, I find it high-key hilarious that Uncle Drew, the Flat Earth Vlogger, doesn’t think that basketball is entertainment, and I’m doubled over with laughter that he and his brother in the school of STFU AND HOOP, Kevin Durant, are the two dudes who are going to be asked the most about their futures between now and the event horizon that is free agency 2019. Ultimately, both can be true: The media scrutiny and fan interest in the behind-the-scenes and off-the-record NBA can help ruin a perfectly good basketball team, and players can play a huge part in instigating that drama.

Verrier: The “I asked Deepak Chopra for the time and now I speak to Mother Earth” brand Kyrie has crafted for himself makes it hard to take him seriously in moments like this. As does the fact that on the same day AD’s trade request went public, it was announced that Irving is starring in a movie about the haunted hotel known to have a bed bug or two that road teams stay at in Oklahoma City. The game he missed in 2016 because of bug bites became a big story, and now that hotel is IP. He is literally profiting off of the NBA as reality TV. I do feel for him to a certain degree. It’s impossible for star players to wrestle control of their careers away from owners without subjecting themselves to the hordes of content zombies to pick over their sweet, sweet brains, because if a shadow league of agents and backdoor handshakes and friendships is dictating the outcome of the actual league, the public is going to want to know more about that. But Kyrie should get that more than anyone, having seen LeBron manipulate his story arc up close. Irving has already begun to follow his lead with the Celtics, taking his teammates to task through media comments. The spectacle Irving created by revealing in a recent postgame presser that he’d phoned up James played like a LeBron tribute band.

Maybe we just know too much now? Or maybe the information is getting out so fast that it’s accelerating drama that would take years to come to a head?

Ryan: I don’t know if it’s a matter of knowing too much, but I do wonder whether we know enough about who is behind the stories we’re reading. Anonymous sourcing has become an industry standard in sports media, but maybe every Woj bomb or Sham wow should come with a question: Who does this story benefit?

As for Kyrie, I wonder whether he’d say anything if the Celtics had the Raptors’ record. He’s played 45 out of their 53 games and was nursing a hip injury for most of last week. You’re right, he’s acting like LeBron. And this Celtics team is playing like one of those can’t-get-out-of-their-own-way Cavs teams from 2014 to 2018. Kyrie has never played on a destroy-all-that-comes-before-it regular-season team, has he? Most of those Cavs squads won around 50 games, and there were a lot of broken eggs on the way to the omelette. Maybe this is all he knows?

Verrier: There’s been a changing of the guard happening in the NBA, too, and it’s more glaring now than ever before. LeBron just had the longest injury absence of his career, Dwyane Wade can make the All-Star Game only in a ceremonial role, and Melo is sitting on the sideline because he bought a ticket. Giannis is the one leading the MVP derby by a mile, Luka Doncic’s front office is swinging the trade to get him a superstar running mate, and Davis and Irving are the former Team USA teammates perhaps conspiring to play together. The generation of stars who came up under LeBron is rising to the forefront, and the most prominent ones are running with the track and tactics that LeBron first laid down. The game is the same, it just got more fierce; Kyrie is our Marlo.

Ryan: One other aspect of this that I find fascinating, speaking as a child of the Process, is what this kind of volatility creates for front offices. For the past six months, all my Knicks fan friends have been praising New York’s patient tanking approach, which presumably was done with an eye toward pairing a fully restored KP with Zion. The Knicks were finally rebuilding the right way. The way the Sonics/Thunder did, the way the Sixers did, etc. And then they go full Teddy KGB and pull apart the Oreo. Maybe they’ll wind up with Kyrie, Kevin, and a top-three pick. Or maybe they’ll get Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Keldon Johnson. Danny Ainge has been sitting on his overflowing war chest of young wings and lottery picks for what feels like my entire adult life, all with the goal of making the right set of moves to create another Big Three in Boston. But after this season, he could be SOL, with only Gordon Hayward’s ghost to show for it. If guys with a year and a half left on their deals can start calling their own shots, how do you come up with a five-year plan? Maybe the best plan is to have no plan at all and be willing to drop everything at the sound of a Twitter push alert?

Verrier: For all the talk about player agency, most of our favorite preagents haven’t actually gotten a chance to pick their destination yet. Oklahoma City, Toronto, Boston, and Philly all traded for disgruntled stars in the hope that they could win them over with their winning cultures, and while the gamble worked with Paul George, that might have been the outlier; as good as the Raptors, Celtics, and 76ers are this season, Leonard, Irving, and Butler could all flee to Los Angeles the first moment they get a say in the matter. Maybe all of the trades these unglamorous-market teams have made to prevent stars from exercising their power has only added more kerosene to the situation, because it both adds another layer of player movement before the player’s own choice and forces the players to choose between a proven winner (what we used to assume was more important than anything to a player’s worth) and winning on their own terms. It’s a clash between progress and the teams that will get left behind if they can’t stop it.

Whether you’re Kyrie or Sully from Charlestown, I think there are some legitimate concerns to raise about the future of the Celtics’ core. Jayson Tatum is only 20 years old and will probably figure it out, but Gordon Hayward, the player expected to be Irving’s best teammate, is a shell of who he once was, and Al Horford is starting to show signs of the wear and tear from all of those technically proficient screens he’s set over 872 games. But if Irving does bolt this summer, there’s still going to be a lot of exasperation from places like Boston and Cleveland and San Antonio about the fatalism of a star-driven league. (Who’s ready for another lockout?!) I guess the silver lining is that the Celtics may still have the best assets to swing a trade for the next unhappy All-Star in the queue.

Ryan: Do you think we’re doing another one of these conversations next Monday as we look at a radically different NBA landscape? I still can’t imagine the Pelicans caving to the Lakers without hearing what other teams have to offer in the summer. If I’m Dell Demps, I’m not doing this trade #forthecontent, I’m doing it to get the best return on a player I cannot replace. Maybe Mike Conley Jr. will get moved, but I think that’s the level we’re going to see on or before Thursday.

Verrier: The Lakers, based on the most recent reporting, are still fucking around and trying to slip Rajon Rondo and Michael Beasley into their offer, so unless AD doubles down and says it’s Lakers or bust, I doubt that he’ll get moved. In addition to letting the Celtics into the bidding, the Knicks’ trade of Porzingis (whom the Pelicans reportedly had little interest in acquiring) makes them an even more intriguing option if this drags past Thursday’s deadline. Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, and the no. 1 overall pick would be better than anything the Lakers or Celtics could scrap together; at worst, New York’s three recent lottery picks plus a top-four pick this year could get Boston to throw Tatum on the table. But it does feel like the Porzingis trade turned on the pilot light for all the other middle-tier playoff teams. Houston is always looming. Utah has all of this cap space next summer but no one to spend it on, so they’re probably better off putting their expiring contracts to work now. The Pelicans need to dump their vets, and the Grizzlies officially revved up the tank on Sunday by starting Bruno Caboclo. … I take it all back. I love this. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go mainline the HoopsHype rumors page.