Kyrie Irving’s decision this week to settle in Brooklyn for the final year of his deal didn’t calm Kevin Durant’s wandering mind.
Durant asked to be traded on the opening day of NBA Free Agency, although Irving took the $37 million in front of him without any trade conditions. The Nets are under no obligation to trade Durant — he has four years and $198 million left on the contract. But it wouldn’t be a surprise now to see him and Irving both trade before the start of training camp.
Network owner Joseph Tsai had already reached his limit, multiple sources said the athleteYears of injury, extrajudicial embarrassment, and playoff failures were followed by threats from Irving and Durant during Brooklyn’s contract negotiations with Irving.
Tsai, 58, co-founder of Alibaba Group, China’s largest retail company, was born in Taiwan, attended high school in New Jersey, has two degrees and four varsity degrees (lacrosse) from Yale, and is worth $9 billion, according to Forbes.
As the owner, he mostly stays out of the way of his basketball operations staff, gives his blessing to the most important decisions, and would otherwise understand/support/not dislike the general trend of player empowerment in the modern NBA.
Tsai would understand that under normal circumstances, stars at the level of Durant and Irving can force trades a year after signing Max extensions (Durant) or attempt to publicly negotiate another Max contract (Irving) when it comes to it. Tsai has sat at a negotiating table or two in his career.
With these particular circumstances surrounding Durant, Irving and the Nets, things got more complicated than planned. Brooklyn spent three full seasons paying the luxury tax, failed to get out of the second round of the playoffs, fired a popular coach, traded a slew of assets to bring in another star in James Harden, and then was forced to trade him , because he had lost all faith in Irving’s commitment to victory. This resulted in the signing of a maximum-contract player who was physically and mentally unplayable last season (Ben Simmons), while neither Irving nor Durant came close to playing in half of the Nets’ games. Add in Irving’s refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and the team cohesion that has impacted last season and it’s no wonder Tsai has been stretched to the limit.
Here’s a look at how Tsai got to the point where both could be traded.
In the summer of 2019, the Nets pulled off a major coup by signing both Star free agents. It was a package deal. Irving signed a four-year, $137 million deal, ending his two tumultuous seasons in Boston. Durant came on board via a four-year, $165 million sign-and-trade, despite tearing his Achilles tendon in the previous NBA Finals with the Warriors and would miss the entire 2019-20 season. It was a risk that each team would take on two champion and gold medalists who are as talented in their respective positions as almost anyone else in the NBA.
In Year 1, when Durant was out, Irving started strong but suffered a shoulder injury. As the athlete Detailed in a previous story about Irving, he sought so many opinions on his shoulder, outside of Net’s doctors, that it delayed either his return, or surgery, or both, for weeks. It’s been a frustrating time for the franchise, but Irving is by no means the only injured star taking care of his own body. It’s the cost of doing business.
The Nets were headed for the playoffs in a season curtailed by the pandemic, and Irving was out for the rest of the year with shoulder surgery as Brooklyn fired coach Kenny Atkinson.
The following offseason, with Irving and Durant healthy and preparing for the game, the duo hopped on KD’s podcast and belittled the role new coach Steve Nash would play in leading the team. Irving went AWOL from the team for about a week early in the 2020-21 campaign, willingly violating COVID-19 protocols to attend a family birthday party. While out, he was spotted making a Zoom call for a local politician minutes before the Nets were due to play a game.
Around that time, Brooklyn traded promising center Jarrett Allen, talented guard Caris LeVert, two other players, and their first-round draft picks through 2027 to Harden. Tsai and GM Sean Marks pledged the entire future of the team to win now, adding Harden to the already-signed all-star tandem.
Durant has been injured for most of this season. He played in 35 games out of a possible 72. And when the playoffs came, Harden and then Irving were both injured. The Nets still nearly beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, coming just short of Durant’s big toe to reach the Conference Finals.
Then there was the last season. You remember the highlights and the lowlights. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when trying to understand how Tsai might view his overall picture with the nets right now:
• Tsai is a big supporter of the COVID-19 vaccine. He got at least four cans of it.
• According to sources, Durant urged the organization to return to their original stance of allowing Irving to play and practice on the street where possible. Brooklyn was second in the East on the day of Irving’s first game.
• Not only did the Nets deteriorate with Irving back on the team (who fell behind until the play-in tournament), but it was with Irving on the roster that Harden decided he wasn’t going to sign again with Brooklyn and wanted to be traded to the 76ers. Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond came over from Philadelphia, but Simmons never fit – to the disappointment of the entire franchise.
• Almost in passing, Harden turned down the $47 million player option on his contract this week and vowed to sign the Sixers to a long-term, team-friendly contract so they can add more parts. That literally almost never happens in the NBA. Meanwhile, Brooklyn owes Simmons more than $100 million over the next three seasons. He hasn’t played a minute since June 2021 and has had back surgery.
Most of this goes straight back to Irving and Durant. Irving has played in 103 of a possible 226 regular-season games for Brooklyn; Durant can only count 90 games with this missed 2019-20 campaign.
If both have played their last game with Brooklyn, it’s a safe bet that the Nets are heavily involved in trades that are right for all parties, if only because that’s likely to yield the greatest returns.
What Tsai won’t do is demand that Durant honor his contract in Brooklyn.
Because he’s had enough.
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(Photo by Joseph Tsai: Brad Penner / USA Today)