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KYRIE, CUBAN, ENABLING A MALCONTENT, LASER GUNS AND A BANANAS NBA
What’s a Chinese spy balloon when Irving finds a crisis taker in Mark Cuban and the Nets weigh a Durant teardown, all while Ja Morant allegedly was in an SUV where a gun was aimed at Pacers personnel?
We live in a world where Apple Watches think healthy people are dying and need 911 assistance, where Dave Chappelle wins a Grammy for comedy considered transphobic and homophobic, and where a Chinese spy balloon is allowed to float across America for five days until it’s shot down near Myrtle Beach. So, sure, why wouldn’t the NBA be crazier than ever?
Why wouldn’t Mark Cuban, who is Jewish, acquire Kyrie Irving, who recently was suspended for endorsing an antisemitic film, and hope that Luka Doncic doesn’t threaten him in Slovenian if he quits on the Dallas Mavericks as he quit on the Brooklyn Nets? And why wouldn’t the Nets, whose grand scheme was to create a superteam around Irving and Kevin Durant, toss the entire plan in the East River by shopping Durant to the Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and any other team desiring an all-time great?
And why wouldn’t LeBron James, hours from becoming the league’s career scoring leader, brood because the Lakers — who offered Russell Westbrook and two first-round picks — were trumped for Irving instead of bringing him to Los Angeles and enabling a bigger fraud than Crypto.com Arena itself? “Obviously, that’s a — what’s the word you use — ‘duh’ question when you talk about a player like that,” James said of Kyrie.
Duh, the Lakers remain in 13th place in the Western Conference. “Maybe It’s Me,” he tweeted after the Lakers had swung and missed, failing again to fix the roster dysfunction he helped create.
And why wouldn’t emerging superstar Ja Morant and his entourage members be inside an SUV, from which a red laser allegedly was pointed toward Indiana Pacers’ personnel, who were convinced the laser was connected to a gun after a contentious game in Memphis? And why wouldn’t Stephen Curry, as all of this was happening, collide with an obscure Dallas guard, McKinley Wright IV, and once again show he’s human by suffering yet another leg injury that might spell the end of the Golden State dynasty?
Give the association this much: It’s entertaining, if in a twisted way. Only in the NBA could a problem child like Irving demand a trade — after hating Jews, condemning coronavirus vaccines, blowing off dozens of games, blindsiding James in 2017 by demanding out of Cleveland and sabotaging the Boston Celtics in 2019 by fleeing to Brooklyn as a free agent, only to backstab the Nets by demanding yet another trade — and prompt a generally discerning sort like Cuban to bite the forbidden fruit?
Wasn’t he listening when Nets coach Jacque Vaughn, upon learning Irving would blow off Saturday’s game after his trade demand, made the definitive statement about an athlete’s accountability — especially one who takes tens of millions of dollars in pay each season? “I think you have a responsibility as a basketball player, like I do as a coach,” Vaughn said. “I show up, I do my job every single day, that’s what I signed up for, and that’s my expectation for one through seventeen.” Apparently, the message didn’t make it to north Texas.
This is delusional desperation from the mind of Cuban, whose only league championship was a dozen years ago. He knows Doncic’s eye will wander — to L.A., where else? — if the Mavericks don’t make a serious title run in the next three years. The NBA is a shark tank, much wilder than his TV show by the same name, and he relinquished a stunning talent haul — Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, an unprotected first-round draft pick and multiple second-rounders — for a head case who could flee the team at any time for any reason. Heretofore, Cuban has been an owner who has demanded professionalism and loyalty from players in exchange for treating them like kings. His quid pro quo is about to be tested like never before. Irving wants a four-year, $198.5 million max extension, as allowed until June 30. Or, he could sign a two-year, $83 million extension with the Mavs until the same date. For a few days, Irving will be on his finest behavior, say all the right things about Luka and his new city. He’ll continue to play well offensively and share the basketball with Doncic, who needs it more than he does, and maintain his impressive post-suspension numbers (27.1 points, 5.3 assists and 5.1 rebounds a game). But once the Mavs encounter turbulence — and they will, as a vulnerable defensive team acquiring a dog-ass defender — Kooky Kyrie is doomed to act up.
As for the Nets, they have conclusively waved the white flag on a reality apparent long ago: Superteams no longer can work in a social media-dizzy, megalomania-intensive league, especially when stars are thrown together in a salad bowl without careful consideration of whether they’ll ever mesh. Blame James for authoring the craze in Miami, where the Heat managed two league titles but not before considerable drama. Give the Warriors credit for trying when they recruited Durant in the Hamptons, rode him to two championships, then saw the run implode when Draymond Green screamed at Durant and called him a “bitch.” The Lakers won the pandemic bubble with LeBron and Anthony Davis, but when James insisted on adding Westbrook, they regressed into a sub-.500 mess. This season’s favorites were pieced together with traditional wisdom and homegrown ideals: the Denver Nuggets and their understated superstar, Nikola Jokic, who might win a third straight MVP trophy without anyone knowing it; and the Celtics, who emerged as united after Irving tried to poison them and continue to lead the Eastern Conference, just ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks, who chase a second championship with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who likes life in Wisconsin, at least for now.
We might have included the Warriors until Curry’s injury, the latest setback in a career of fragility. As it is, they’re dealing with internal tremors: the likely summer departure of Green, whose tempestuous troublemaking was tolerated and even defended by coach Steve Kerr until he cold-cocked teammate Jordan Poole in training camp; how to handle the final seasons of Klay Thompson, who isn’t the same player he was before his awful injuries; and the gathering gloom of an ending era amid the emergence of a new talent wave, led by newly minted Poole, who isn’t Curry or even close. General manager Bob Myers, the architect of four championships, might leave and walk across the Bay Bridge himself, feeling unappreciated by an owner who won’t pay him top dollar. Remember when Joe Lacob told the New York Times that the Warriors were “light years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things”?
We also might have included the Memphis Grizzlies until the latest incident involving Morant and his associates. As it is, America is sickened by the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five former police officers in what already was one of the country’s poorest and most dangerous cities. Now, there is this disturbing news, reported by The Athletic: Was Morant in the SUV when members of the Pacers’ traveling party were threatened, as they allege, during a Jan. 29 confrontation in the loading area of FedEx Forum? Was a gun with a laser involved? “We felt we were in grave danger,” said one Indiana-affiliated witness at the scene, according to The Athletic. A Pacers security guard said at the time, “That’s 100 percent a gun.”
The Morant family is becoming a problem. By no coincidence, the Grizzlies are becoming a problem, too. Last month, players engaged Shannon Sharpe, the NFL Hall of Famer who antagonizes fellow host Skip Bayless on a Fox Sports morning show, in a trash-talking duel during a game in L.A. Security had to break up a potential riot. Eight nights later, Morant’s father, Tee, was engaged in nasty trash-talking with Pacers players along with Ja’s longtime friend, Davonte Pack. Again, security was called, and Pack was ushered away from courtside. This led to Morant’s crew allegedly shouting threats at Pacers players and personnel afterward, including, “Come get some of this” and “You don’t know how we roll.”
An NBA investigation couldn’t confirm the existence of a weapon, a league spokesperson told The Athletic, adding, “Certain individuals involved in the postgame situation and a related matter during the game that night have been subsequently banned from attending games in the arena.” Pack apparently was one of the individuals. So far, Morant has been cleared. Is he being protected on high? The league certainly doesn’t need one of its young cornerstones hanging around the wrong people. Closer to the point, it’s the last thing Memphis needs.
“That was addressed internally. We're aware of the investigation of the NBA," Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “They did a full-on investigation, we were fully compliant with it and I think they came out with a statement saying nothing was corroborated or found. That's what I know and that's all I'm going to comment on.”
Morant didn’t play Sunday against the Raptors, out with a sore right wrist. But he did tweet something: “did a investigation seen they were cappin . still let a article come out to paint this negative image on me & my fam . & banned my brother from home games for a year . unbelievable.”
It was followed by a laughing emoji with two tears.
No one else sees the humor.
All of which happened during one lazy weekend in early February. Oh, did I mention Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks was suspended a game for landing a cheap shot in Donovan Mitchell’s groin region? What in the name of lunacy will happen next in the NBA, aka No Brains Allowed? The trade deadline is Thursday at 3 p.m. ET.
A clock ticks, but is it a bomb?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.