He may not know it yet, but Kyrie Irving might hold the keys for the next decade of NBA basketball.
The Celtic superstar joins a whole host of players to show that their voice and demands exceed that of the franchises they are on. Ten days ago, Anthony Davis - through his representation - made a trade request that will forever change the landscape of basketball. The Unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis, was traded out of New York in exchange for cap space and shortly after that; Kyrie Irving made it clear to everyone that he is his own man.
The words and his feelings are entirely fair. As much as we rave about the unity and comradery of team sports, it is a business. All actors act on their best interests, and Kyrie's prerogative it to contend for a title this season with the Celtics and then make a decision on his future.
Nobody denies that he should not do what is best for himself; from a basketball fit or otherwise. But his words do put a pit in the stomachs of all Celtics fans. Even though he has a player option next season, he is widely expected to turn it down to become an unrestricted free agent come July 1. This comes after he publicly declared during the preseason in front of a crowd of green he would resign with the franchise should they want him back. All that and more to reassure the Celtics faithful that he would be the face of the City of Champions in the present and the future.
But that was back in early October. If we have learned anything about this generation of NBA stars, it is that they are volatile creatures. October was a long time ago. Jimmy Butler was still actively trying to tear down the T-Wolves, and Thibs was still their head coach and President. The 76ers were starting Markelle Fultz. Porzingis was still sulking face of the Knicks. Four months since Kyrie's remarks about wanting the re-sign. That feels like it occurred a lifetime ago.
Players should not feel indebted to the franchises that drafted them. Nor should they succumb to the wishes of fans or media personalities who have an idealized vision of what the NBA should be. Control. That's what this is all about. It is probably the defining word of this decade starting with LeBron's decision to leave Cleveland as a free agent.
For decades, franchises and owners determined player movement. Oscar Robertson had to sue to NBA in 1970 which paved the way for the merger with the glitzy ABA and restricted free agency. While players were given some leeway to change teams, incumbent franchises still had the right to match offers. Unrestricted free agency would only become a reality after the NBA and Players Association agreed to a new CBA in 1988. This marked the first time ever in league history where the balance of power began to shift in favor of the players. Player movement would slowly pick-up but would genuinely shake up the status quo in the Summer of 2010.
The Beginning of the short-lived Big-3 era and the start of the NBA finally become the player's league. LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh all opted to sign a 4-year rookie extension during the summer of 2006 with an option to opt out of their final year and become free agents by 2010. This was against the norm of signing the customary 5-year max which guaranteed financial security. All three were ahead of the curve by realizing that a superstars' greatest strength is flexibility. That set the stage for 2010 which forever changed the landscape of the NBA.
Since then, stars have taken the Summer of 2010 as gospel. Kevin Durant changed the balance of power by joining the Warriors. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard negotiated from a position of strength by exercising their trade demands through pre-agency. And Irving has seen it all and come to the ultimate conclusion that the consequence of stardom is not money, but power. And power is control.
NBA players are not just workers, but the brands and the commodity that the league sells to us fans. Frankly, they deserve all the spoils of being one of the world's most popular sports league. But that comes with a cost. Having all the power in the world means that the decisions they make are that much more consequential. Building the ideal team in which they get to play with all their friends while making the most money possible is a luxury few get to make, and even fewer succeed.
The NBA landscape changes daily in the age of Twitter, as do the wishes and choices that players make. Unfortunately, this can be a massive headache for the GMs who hold the signatures of the very same players who have signed multi-year contracts. Irving was one such player who went from the inheritor of the Cavaliers in one second to force a trade out of Cleveland in the next. This while he had two years left on a five-year rookie extension he signed in 2014. That was the first move that Koby Altman had to make. If being handed the job of running a team that had LeBron while also becoming one of the youngest GM's in league history was not hard enough, he was forced to part with the future of the franchise he worked for as his first move on the job.
Eighteen months after forcing his way out of North-eastern Ohio, Irving finds himself on a franchise that is willing to hand him everything he wants. But his wishes haven't come to fruition, yet. After succumbing to a knee injury late last season, a young Boston squad lead by Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown were a fourth quarter away from making the NBA finals. This season, with Irving and Gordon Hayward coming back from injuries, the Celtics were expected to win 60+ games and march their way to the NBA Finals. Despite having an incredible roster, the Celtics have been the poster child of inconsistency. As of me writing this, the Celtics stand at 35-19. According to FiveThirtyEight, they are projected to be fourth in the East (with a projected record of 54-28) with only a 4% chance of making the finals.
It was smart of Kyrie to jump ship before the boat started to sink. Maybe he saw what happened to Cleveland the last time LeBron left and wanted to get ahead of it before the Cavs became his problem. And now perhaps he realizes that being a leader is not what he expected it to be. Combine that with Anthony Davis and Rich Paul attempting to force the 6-10 forward to Lakers and maybe Kyrie thinks that it's best to not have a concrete decision on the future. Perhaps indecision is his best option at this point in time.
As a resident of Dubai, I can tell you how fucking painful it is to build on sand. Sure, the folks here make it look easy, but it was not without an inconceivable amount of effort and struggles. With all the indecision and uncertainty among the league's superstars, NBA executives are on an uphill battle in trying to build stable, long-lasting teams. It is hard enough for the best of GMs in the league, imagine working for a team that is lacking in good, young players and draft capital.
Try to think what Danny Ainge was thinking when Kyrie when from staying with the Celtics to "Ask me July 1" in a matter of single interview. Not that he's sweating but his masterplan hinges on Kyrie staying and trading for Anthony Davis. One is not expected to happen without the other.
Where might Kyrie stand come July 1? Nobody knows, and Kyrie may not have decided it. This is the new age we live in. Players seek power and control, and we are at the mercy of their indecisions.