The KD/Kyrie Drama Examined

Have you ever had one of those dreams where your goal is to complete a task and, each time you get close, some weird happenstance prevents the completion?  This dream is the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving Nets in a nutshell.  They were a KD toe away from a possible title last year and now both stars want out after a disaster of a season in 2021-22.  Brooklyn was close to accomplishing greatness but seems to be ending in failure.  The public consensus seems to be that Kyrie is mostly to blame but that KD is bailing on his handpicked situation.  The reporting on the Nets’ side was that owner Joe Tsai “lost his belief that this could work” after negotiations with Kyrie became acrimonious.

Still, the situation remains fluid even now and there is much the public does not know.  Nevertheless, there are a lot of facts in the public domain so I thought it would be helpful to go through the history of the KD/Kyrie Nets see what conclusions we can come to at this time and how, if at all, they differ from what most people are saying now.  I find that lining them all together in a timeline makes a coherent narrative that reveals a little more than having disparate factoids bouncing about the brain.  So here goes….

A Review of the Public Facts

-After the 2018-19 season, the Nets signed Kyrie and KD to a “package deal” that seemed to be driven by Irving’s desire to play for his childhood team (he grew up in Jersey), telling the press “I always wanted to play at home.”   Durant didn’t seem to care where he specifically played but he wanted Kyrie as his wingman to go for titles.  At the time, Durant was coming off of a serious Achilles injury and the Nets were willing to pay him to rehab for the 2019-20 season and bet that he could comeback close to his pre-injury form, which was no foregone conclusion.

Kyrie was something of a risk or different reasons.  He had forced his way off of a good situation with LeBron James in Cleveland in 2017 because he had some sort of strange beef with LBJ that was not really explained.  Once he got to Boston, Kyrie had some injury issues and, according to Adrian Wojnarowski, Kyrie “got into repeated public back-and-forths with the team’s younger players, and also announced after a victory over the Raptors in January that he’d made up with James.”  Kyrie clearly ran both injury and other risks but the Nets deemed them worth it if it was the cost of locking in KD.

-During the 2019-20 season, Kyrie played only 20 games due to injuries but was really good when he did play (27.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 6.4 apg).   Brooklyn went 8-12 in the games he played.  A first public Kyrie hiccup during the season came in January 2020, after being gone with injury for two months, he publicly assessed that the team was “one or two pieces” away  and named the players who he considered the current “pieces” and conspicuously omitted the other half of the team.  He didn’t play in a game after February 1, 2020. 

Meanwhile, the Nets scrapped into the seven seed mostly without him, going 27-25 in the non-Kyrie games.  Despite seemingly doing a nice job coaching the team, coach Kenny Atkinson was abruptly fired in early March 2020.  There was a rumor that Irving got him fired and was miffed that Atkinson was playing Jarrett Allen over Jordan but that was just a rumor (Steve Nash would later bench Jordan as well).

The reporting at the time blamed Kyrie.  On March 9, 2020, Brad Botkin of CBS Sports wrote that Irving had “soured” on Atkinson and wanted Ty Lue as coach.  In October 2020, Irving addressed the issue further on Durant’s podcast: “Kenny was great for the group that he served, and I was very appreciative of what he was giving us throughout the season when we were playing…we don’t need somebody to come in and put their coaching philosophy on everything that we’re doing and change up the wheel and, ‘Yo, you guys need to start doing this,’ and we start running on the first day of practice, and it’s just like, ‘No.’…I want somebody, I need somebody that’s going to understand that I am a human being first. I serve my community and where I come from first, and then basketball is something I come and do every single day because I love [it], and also I have the right ingredients and people around me to come in and do my job at a high level, and I know that they will hold me accountable to that level.”  That’s not a great explanation of anything but if Irving and Durant wanted Steve Nash as coach, they had the juice to get what they wanted.

Kyrie made a little noise after the pandemic started as well.  He declined to play in the Bubble, which was not an unreasonable decision at the time.  He also publicly stated that the NBA shouldn’t play the playoffs because it was going to take the focus off of the BLM issues that he was championing. 

-In 2020-21, the KD/Kyrie dream came close.  Durant came back from major injury ostensibly as good as he was before, though missed much of the second half with a lingering hamstring issue (he played only 35 of the 72 games). Kyrie played 54 games but had his own injuries.  He also went AWOL for a few days in mid-January 2021 which he told people was due to his upset over the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

 In response to critics regarding his disappearance, Irving posted, without further explanation, that “I am human. No Different than you. I am healing.”  Due to the KD/Kyrie absences, and with the approval of KD/Kyrie, Brooklyn then traded a boatload of picks for James Harden, age-31, to supplement the core.  Harden was healthy and played a ton of minutes and really stabilized the team until the other stars returned.

The Big Three played only a few games together and went 13-3 in those games.  Here is the record for each player while playing for Brooklyn that year:

Harden: 29-7

Irving: 36-18

Durant: 23-12

The Nets lost an epic seven-game series to Milwaukee in the playoffs and Brooklyn probably would’ve won that series and the title but for Irving spraining his ankle and Harden tweaking his hamstring. Nevertheless, the season was a success so much so that, last October, the Nets offered  Harden a three-year $161 million extension that would likely take him well-past his star years.  Harden declined, ostensibly because he could get more money and be eligible for a supermax extension of $227 million if he played out 2021-22.

-2021-22, as we all remember, is when things went sideways, with Kyrie refusing to get vaccinated and Harden loafing in a manner that indicated he didn’t want to be in town.  While we remember all the drama, the Nets were basically on pace for the same sort of season this year (they were 27-15) until KD sprained his knee and Harden’s passive aggressive vibe got stronger.  The team tanked and Harden nudged his way out of town.  The Nets rallied to a solid finish but were swept by the Celtics. 

-Now, we are back to the present.   After all the strife of the season, Kyrie wanted a max extension and the Nets were not happy and offered him,  according to Shams Charania: “a two-year max with incentives based on games played and a four-year max with the first two years guaranteed and triggers that would kick in based on games played in Years 1 and 2.”  When Irving rejected the offer, the Nets allowed him to find a deal elsewhere and, shockingly, no offers near that number were forthcoming.  Irving, instead, exercised his $37 million option and posted a cryptic message that strongly indicated that he would not be a happy camper: “Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow. I’ve made my decision to opt in. See you in the fall.” 

The Nets potentially have a good team if KD, Kyrie, and Ben Simmons play next year but, within a day, KD demanded a trade.  It’s not clear if the trade is in support of Kyrie or whether it he just wants to wash his hands of the entire situation.  Tsai is telling people he is sick of the whole situation and wants out of both of them.

-While not really noted in much of the reporting on the current drama, the Nets are currently deep in the NBA’s luxury tax which escalates each year a team consecutively exceeds the salary cap.  Without getting into the weeds, the Nets are so deep into the cap that, unless they can get under, the repeater penalty, per the Daily News, would mean that paying Nic Claxton $15 million next season would cost an additional $65 million in luxury taxes (Claxton was recently re-signed for $10 million).  Here’s the Nets’ payroll and tax situation the last few years (per Sportrac):

2020: payroll $163 million, luxury tax $102 million

2021: payroll $158 million, luxury tax $98 million

2022: payroll $174 million, luxury tax $74 million

Obviously, the Nets have huge incentives to get below that luxury tax threshold in 2023.  Only a year ago, however, they were willing to max out Harden and eat the likely bad years at the end of his contract.  A few months later, the Nets have changed perspective.

Having run through the basics, let’s make some findings of facts:

The Nets made a huge gamble on an injured KD in hopes that they could create a superteam to contend for a title.  Kyrie was a complicated figure but worth the risk as an add-on to bring in Durant.  The play was to overpay Kyrie, Durant, and Harden for most of the decade to try to get a ring in the next three years or so (Irving will be 30, KD 34, and Harden 33 in 2022-23). Realistically, this core was good for title runs through, maybe, 2024.

And this plan sort of worked.  The Nets were really good for about a season and a third.  We can’t help but notice that the team played much better with Harden and Durant than they did with just Kyrie and Durant.  Once Harden wanted out, the plan shifted quite a bit and now relies on Simmons returning to form which well….who knows?

-Kyrie: tortured genius or chutzpah personified?  For someone who takes attendance at games so lightly, it’s a little silly that he’s not willing to give the Nets any protection in case he misses future games.  Their reported offer was a little light but well above what the market would yield for Kyrie.  If the Nets’ extension offer was real, it does suggest that Tsai’s reported disdain for Irving was not as great as indicated.  This is all reported second-hand but it seems that Tsai made a major offer and Kyrie was a hard ass about compensation, perhaps not totally understanding how his performance the last three years was viewed objectively.

-Durant’s motivations are mysterious at this point.  We have no idea why he demanded the trade.  If it was because he felt Kyrie was disrespected by the Nets then what can the Nets’ do?  Between missed games, flights of fancy, and luxury tax exposure, paying Kyrie  a max deal without protections is not sane.  If KD is sick of Brooklyn and/or just wants to go to a better team that is certainly his right.  But he just signed a four-year extension and the Nets traded all their picks in the Harden trade in reliance of the fact that their stars would be in town for a few years.  The Nets should not trade him until they get an acceptable return and could force him to play in Brooklyn next year (KD plays so hard I can’t see him malingering like Harden or Irving).

Despite the fact that Durant deserves some scorn for wanting to jump ship so abruptly, he doesn’t shoulder nearly as much blame as Harden or Kyrie who expressed themselves by pouting or refusing to play.  KD has played hard and has been an inner circle Hall of Famer for about a decade.  He seems concerned with winning another ring and seems annoyed that the Golden State team he left won another ring before he did.  But the lesson to take from GS was not necessarily that KD made a mistake leaving.  Instead, the lesson is that GS was patient and suffered  a little before its window reopened.  Going to Phoenix or GS will likely give KD a better shot at a ring in 2022-23 but it’s not always that simple.

-The Nets took a good gamble and it was working as intended until the wheels totally came off.  There is an argument that they should’ve paid Kyrie the max just to keep the peace but I get the reluctance.  The window had one or two years left and they would not abide another dud year like 2021-22. 

Some commentators have taken the KD/Kyrie run as proof that players have run amok and that player empowerment has gone too far.  Like it or not, huge stars are paid so much that they are effectively equity partners with owners.  Partnerships rise and fall based on the honest commitment of their members.  If you are linked up to committed stars like Steph Curry, a team can more securely invest in the player and in paying the luxury tax (note that there are plenty of shitty owners who screw over their stars too).  KD is arguably such a star in the right situation.  Kyrie is another story.