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REJECTION! REBUFFING DURANT, LEBRON ENDS NBA’S ENTITLEMENT ERA
For the league to achieve maximum prosperity, pre-agency maneuvering by superstars cannot happen — and with Durant staying in Brooklyn and James in Los Angeles, the dance music has stopped
By mid-century, assuming climate change hasn’t turned us into millions of overfried egg yolks, basketball could be America’s leading sport. What, you were thinking pickleball?
Common sense will have prevailed about football and brain damage. Our soccer passions, ever growing, won’t be served beyond Saturday mornings from Europe because we still can’t develop our own greats. Baseball? If multiple teams are for sale now, how many will change hands before then, considering Rutgers and Nebraska will pocket as much media money from the Big Ten windfall as MLB clubs receive from their flattening TV deals.
No, it’s the NBA that is positioned for a continuing global takeover, and not just because the ball is shaped like Planet Earth itself, though never try to convince Kyrie Irving. On hardwood, we are the world. The league’s most recent Most Valuable Players hail from Serbia (Nikola Jokic) and Greece (Giannis Antetokounmpo), among candidates from Slovenia (Luka Doncic) and Cameroon (Joel Embiid). The Toronto Raptors have won the Finals. The Olympics, once a predominant U.S. affair, is a quadrennial free-for-all. Above all indicators, young people in the advertiser-coveted demographics are streaming and tweeting and TikTok-ing basketball, intrigued by a sport that doesn’t cloak players under helmets and padding, instead putting them in glorified underwear so athleticism is maximized and emotions are visible.
To use a phrase that never will age, the NBA still has a cool factor that can’t be eroded by chronic traumatic encephalopathy or Arte Moreno. And the league’s next media jackpot will reflect the projections of years ahead, even if Charles Barkley is no longer with us, murdered or otherwise. If it’s tricky to forecast evolution, life always will involve someone shooting a ball through a cylinder, and doing so sensationally. Never mind the slippage in Finals eyeballs, a function of the pandemic and cord-cutting and Americans preferring to be outside in June than inside. Market conditions are right for basketball to thrive deep into the 21st century.
That is: As long as the biggest names don’t screw it up.
That is: As long as they grow up, shut up and stay put.
There’s only one lurking evil that can sabotage hoops prosperity: the disease of entitlement. It was enabled by a decade of empowerment — as originated by LeBron (“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach”) James and once encouraged by commissioner Adam Silver — that saw too many NBA stars prematurely weasel their way to new destinations, regardless of the contracts they’d signed in ink. But I’d like to think the league moved on from its crisis this week, when Kevin Durant had to eat a crap sandwich after his failed trade demand in Brooklyn. This important landmark, worthy of mass celebration, came days after James abandoned his usual exit strategy and chose not to maneuver out of Los Angeles, instead signing a two-year extension that likely keeps him with the Lakers through 2025, when he’ll become the first player to suit up as a teen AND a 40-year-old. He’ll stick around even though the institutional rebuffing of Durant means Irving also will begin his season with the Nets — his demons permitting — and not relocating to L.A. as LeBron had plotted.
Where’s Marv Albert when we need him?
Finally, after too many offseasons of recklessly swirling drama, the NBA has rediscovered its equilibrium. The stars with the wandering gazes, trying to form superteams with friends, have been reminded that the owners who pay the megamillions and the general managers who run the front offices are still in charge. In an unprecedented fit of megalomaniacal nerve, Durant demanded to be traded if GM Sean Marks and coach Steve Nash weren’t fired. Nets owner Joe Tsai, humiliated as it is by Durant’s urgings to acquire the problematic Irving and a soon-disillusioned James Harden, immediately issued a public statement backing Marks and Nash. Then, even better, he let Durant twist in the cruel summer winds for weeks, as he was appropriately pilloried on social media and by columnists such as me, who remember Michael Jordan staying in Chicago long enough to create six-championship magnificence out of management-stirred misery.
Predictably, Durant buckled. This time, without the escape hatch that led him to Brooklyn after taking his first escape hatch from Oklahoma City to Golden State, he had two choices: quit basketball or crawl back to Tsai, Marks and Nash with his head between his very long legs. He crawled, meeting with the GM, the coach, the owner and the owner’s wife in L.A. The resulting statement, which included a Nets logo and the logo of the media company Durant shares with Rich Kleiman, made him look worse.
“Steve Nash and I, together with Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai, met with Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman in Los Angeles yesterday," Marks said in the statement. “We have agreed to move forward with our partnership. We are focusing on basketball, with one collective goal in mind: build a lasting franchise to bring a championship to Brooklyn.”
For now — words that will be uttered in the borough more than Di Fara pizza — sanity has returned to the Nets. More importantly, it has returned to the league. Boston, Memphis, Miami, Phoenix and Toronto all thought about making a blockbuster deal for Durant. Wisely, all concluded they were better off without a divisive malcontent, soon to be 34, whose injury-wracked body is older in basketball years. It was a jolt to Durant’s ego that his skills aren’t as coveted as he’d thought. The league is on to him, disturbed by his power plays and weary of his social-media habits. The Celtics, Suns and Heat have reached the Finals the last three seasons — all have better shots at a title parade by retaining the status quo. The Grizzlies are Ja Morant’s work of art; why let Durant blow it up?
As Boston mayor Michelle Wu tweeted after the Durant announcement, “Good.” Basketball fans everywhere are echoing her relief. We grew tired long ago of the annual musical-chairs game, an outgrowth of a league that prides itself on being woke. The constant movement backfired on Silver, who admitted as much in July while suggesting franchise owners could be prompted to take a hard-line labor stance in the next negotiations. “There’s always conversations behind closed doors between the players and the representatives of the teams. But we don’t like to see players requesting trades. We don’t like to see it playing out the way it is,” the commissioner said. “It’s one of those issues that as we move into a collective bargaining cycle — we intend to discuss with our players association and see if there are remedies for this. Star movement that is a result of free agency or trades doesn’t bother me at all. It gives players and teams opportunities to rebuild and change circumstances when it’s not working for the team or the player. I separate that from guys requesting that they get traded.”
Kobe Bryant, remember, played all 20 of his NBA seasons for the Lakers. Durant would be wise to heed the lessons of Bryant’s one trade demand, in 2007, when he quickly backed down and led a fortified team to two more championships. His public angst kicked management in the ass — but never did he demand that coach Phil Jackson and GM Mitch Kupchak be canned, maybe because he knew owner Jerry Buss wouldn’t have stood for it. “I can only hope that they do something because I don't want to go no place else,” he said then. “I don't want to. I want to stay here. I hope they can do something.” They did, making necessary roster additions. Durant, as yet, hasn’t shown similar leadership traits.
He’s never happy, even when winning two titles with the Warriors, who proved last season they can win another without him. Unfortunately, his legacy will be marred by their continued success while he crashed. Winning is about culture, stability and trust, not the haphazard collecting of stars — and if Golden State and Steph Curry are Exhibit A, Milwaukee and Giannis were Exhibit B in 2021. The superteam concept has failed in Brooklyn. It failed last season in L.A., where an idea heartily endorsed by James and Anthony Davis — hey, let’s bring in Russell Westbrook! — was an all-time bust. James tried to rectify matters by pushing the front office to acquire Irving, forgetting how Kyrie began his five-year run of kooky terror by demanding out of Cleveland, where he and James had won a historic title just one year earlier. But the Nets wanted no part of Westbrook’s baggage, preferring another rocky ride with Irving — gulp — who opted into his $37 million player option when he realized his market also had dried up amid league-wide Kyrie Fatigue.
LeBron will have to settle for the combustible Patrick Beverley, who at least will play defense, bring a competitive inferno and, unlike Irving, show up for most games. You’d think the Lakers couldn’t possibly keep Beverley and Westbrook in the same locker room together, given their ugly history. Westbrook hasn’t forgotten his torn meniscus in the 2013 playoffs, suffered after Beverley attempted a steal and caused a collision while Westbrook was about to call a midcourt timeout. Or, does LeBron want to light a daily practice fire under Russ?
Whatever, James is finished winning championships. He’ll break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record, then see if son Bronny is worthy in two or three years of fulfilling his old man’s wish: playing together on the same NBA team, if only for one game in L.A. Until then, James should focus on making smart decisions. For sure, he was not smart to play in a Pro-Am event last weekend in Seattle, where humidity and a capacity indoor crowd conspired to form slippery spots on the floor. He easily could have been injured. Same could be said for Jayson Tatum, Paolo Banchero, Dejounte Murray and other pros.
Rather, it was the gangly Chet Holmgren — all skin and bones at 7 feet 1 and 195 pounds — who tried to defend a rambling LeBron on a fast break and landed awkwardly under the basket. He’ll miss his entire rookie season in Oklahoma City with a Lisfranc injury to his right foot. “Something positive will come from this,” said Thunder GM Sam Presti, though we’re not sure what. In no logical world should teams let NBA players, especially those paid fortunes, participate in offseason exhibitions. Why are they typically given “love of the game” clauses that allow them to moonlight? Nor should they be encouraged by the league’s own network, NBA TV, which televised the CrawsOver fiasco until the game was mercifully canceled by organizer Jamal Crawford in the second quarter.
Once again, the owners are called to action.
Take back the league.
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.