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How Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Misery Could Reboot the NBA

The Warriors and Celtics will meet on Tuesday night, but the on-court matchup won’t be as important as the metanarratives on display

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Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have spent the last couple of months making it abundantly clear that, if we must talk about them, they’d prefer we restrict our conversation to their performance on the basketball court. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but when Durant’s Warriors (which will never really be Durant’s Warriors, which is kind of the crux of the issue, isn’t it?) take on Irving’s Celtics (which have certainly become Irving’s Celtics, which is its own therapy session/lecture in postmodern media theory) in Oakland on Tuesday, they will not get their wish.

Sure, TNT’s commentators will call the game as they see it unfolding, detailing each block, blown assignment, and bucket. Hovering over the minute-by-minute, though, will be the metanarratives: What lies ahead for Durant and Irving, who both hold player options for the 2019-20 season and are widely expected to enter free agency? How has the weight of their impending free-agency decisions affected the present, with Golden State weathering an early free-agency-related flare-up to return to supremacy and Boston continuing to joylessly sputter toward the fifth seed? And, of course, don’t forget the orange-and-blue elephant in the room.

These story lines now comprise the superstructure of the sport, and that draws interest and demands attention; at this point, what we talk about when we talk about the NBA is, well, everything. That has rankled Durant and Irving, two basketball virtuosos who bristle at the discussion of off-court topics, and how the crush of media draws attention away from their on-court artistry. (Well, sometimes, at least.)

They are superstar players who made what appear to be vastly different career choices—Durant joining Golden State’s galaxy of stars to seek résumé-burnishing championships, Irving leaving LeBron James’s side to prove he could chart his own course—that were born of a similar desire: to maximize their talents in one way or another. Neither move has quite worked out, leaving Durant and Irving looking like prime examples of what NBA commissioner Adam Silver described during an interview with our Bill Simmons at the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference as a generation of unhappy and isolated stars who have poured themselves into their craft in pursuit of fulfillment, only to find that it continues to elude their grasp. (That quandary is not unique to basketball players.)

I can’t say that it makes much sense to me that these two particular personalities, who have expressed objections to incessant media speculation and extraneous non-basketball intrusions, would choose to play in New York, and for the Knicks in particular. It similarly strikes me as odd that the Knicks have gone all in on a plan built around securing the commitments of two guys who have been fairly squirrelly on the topic of commitment, and who have seemed downright angry at the suggestion that they might soon become Knicks. Maybe owning New York is an enticing enough proposition to render all this moot, but the entire enterprise seems like a recipe for misery for KD and Kyrie; then again, misery loves company.

Besides, this whole endeavor could wind up being just what NBA fans have been clamoring for—an antidote for the Warriors-induced existential dread that has seemed to plague so many. However precarious a Durant-Irving pair-up under James Dolan’s roof might wind up being, it could help give NBA fans writ large precisely what they’ve said they want: a league where a larger number of teams can harbor an honest hope of winning it all.

A Durant-less Golden State likely remains the West’s favorite, provided Klay Thompson sticks around to run with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. But its stranglehold is loosened, and a narrowed margin between the Warriors and the rest of the Western pack could open the door for established threats like the James Harden–Chris Paul Rockets and the Paul George–Russell Westbrook Thunder. Maybe it emboldens would-be contenders like the Nuggets, with plenty of intriguing young pieces positioned around MVP candidate Nikola Jokic; the Jazz, building around the core of Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Joe Ingles; or the Blazers, perpetually in search of a level-up jolt alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

If Irving were to leave Boston, perhaps Danny Ainge would decide against putting his best offer for Anthony Davis on the table after all, prompting the Pelicans to revisit that “all the Young Lakers” proposal … and, at long last, giving the Lakers the one-two punch Magic Johnson has been promising. (And, call me crazy, but I’m getting increasingly into the idea that Jrue Holiday, Julius Randle, the Pelicans’ incredibly feisty core of young role players, plus Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma, might not be all that bad a place for New Orleans to start over.) That would require the Celtics to rebuild on the fly; it’d be fascinating to see which players Ainge would prioritize as cornerstones as he sketches a new blueprint.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo locked in, Eric Bledsoe newly re-upped, and Khris Middleton likely to follow, the Bucks should remain the class of the East. The Raptors could cement their position alongside them by re-signing Kawhi Leonard, or perhaps the Clippers will join the conversation by luring the Southern California native in free agency. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ensure the 76ers’ floor, but their ceiling could be determined by what Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris choose to do come July 1. A KD-Kyrie Knicks team—plus a high 2019 lottery pick and some other young pieces to develop or flip for more established vets—would join the ranks of Eastern contenders; a deep young Nets side with max cap space and an established culture looms, too. Given the number of significant players who could be on the move, and the number of potential destinations for them, it seems like we could be on the precipice of the most widespread shake-up to the league’s power structure since the summer of 2010. (With the big decisions, the Knicks hope, going in their favor this time.)

It will seem weird if Durant and Irving, after all this stress and drama, really decide to team up in New York (or elsewhere). But it might also be the sort of reset-button smash the league could use—a monopoly busted, a Pangaea separated, a restoration of balance, or something like it. It might not solve all of the NBA’s problems, or erase the issues that have left an epoch of stars increasingly disgruntled. It might give us more actual fun basketball stuff to talk about, though, which seems like it’d be a pretty good start.