I am not privy to the inner thoughts of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, or any of the Brooklyn Nets executives. I can only gauge their intentions and desires based on intermittent leaks and statements and what I see are people who are all jockeying for position, trying to gain some sort of leverage they can utilize to get what they want. Of course, desire is rarely unambiguous. 

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are particularly difficult to pin down, their wants overlapping so much that any decision becomes a compromise. Do they think it is more important to stay together or cut ties with Brooklyn? Are they more concerned with having freedom or being part of a winning team? They are two of the most idiosyncratic stars in the NBA, men who are sincerely devoted to following their own path and staying true to themselves. The hard part has been figuring out what that looks like at any given moment and which situation would most easily allow them to travel as they wish. 

The Nets want to field a winning team of course. They want superstars and the cache and success they so often bring. However, they also seem to want to get a semblance of control back, having given its players close to free rein for the last few years. It may be too late to do that though. The Nets made themselves a destination franchise for Durant and Irving in the summer of 2019 not only because of their location, but because they appeared to be a franchise that was building a culture and doing things the right way, a team that prioritized process as well as results. But all the process, all the so-called culture-building was a means to an end. Once they signed their stars, it was like they never gave thought to what would happen next, thinking their presence would be enough. 

Now, after two years of disappointing playoff exits, including last season’s first-round sweep, the Nets are realizing that things went awry, that perhaps they failed to stay true to their principles in the aftermath of signing Durant and Irving. But now, by trying to assert themselves, they have alienated those stars they worked so hard to lure. They hired Steve Nash as head coach, signed DeAndre Jordan, and didn’t push Kyrie too much when he refused to be vaccinated. The hope was that these compromises would not be an issue in light of Durant and Irving’s talent. A title seemed inevitable but then when it did not come, the team decided to take a harder stance. Their stars, accustomed to a certain level of leeway, were unhappy. Why wouldn’t they be? You cannot say there are no rules and then be upset when no one is acting the way you had hoped they would. Now, there have been reports that both players want out, potentially writing a new chapter in the saga of star empowerment while also bringing a desultory end of this strange era of Nets basketball. 

Stars fighting to determine their own destiny is nothing new. From Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demanding and receiving trades in the years before free agency to players such as Vince Carter doing so in the early 2000’s, stars getting to choose where they play has long been part of the league. However, when LeBron James left Cleveland to join the Heat with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it both empowered other stars to forge their own path while also inciting a panic among owners who were now terrified their own stars would leave for sunnier shores. The next CBA, negotiated the next year, was meant to rectify this. It incentivized players to stay with their own team by enabling teams to offer incumbent players more years and money than anyone else. 

Five years later though, Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to join the Warriors and the new Designated Veteran Player Extension (more popularly known as the Supermax contract), created in the next CBA, can be seen as a reaction to this. It allowed teams to sign veterans to a sixth year for 35 percent of the cap, with raises each subsequent season. While again an attempt by the league owners to have new ways to retain their star players, this strategy has only created more problems than it solved. While players have often taken advantage of the chance to sign these deals, it has hampered their team’s ability to sign complementary pieces. This then leads to the team either trying to restart by trading them or the player becoming dissatisfied and demanding a trade. Since signing these deals, James Harden, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Rudy Gobert have all been traded and there are bound to be others in the future. This merry-go-round neither shows no sign of stopping nor does it seem sustainable.

Clearly the owners’ quest to reassert power of players by locking them in to longer, more lucrative contracts to keep them with their current teams has backfired, but one would be naive to think they will not try to find a new way to do this when negotiations for a new CBA begin.

It’s not yet clear how the situation in Brooklyn will resolve itself, but it is nevertheless a symptom of a system that has been purely reactionary on the part of ownership for over a decade now. While player movement and the rumors and speculation it engenders may be intriguing to many, it has rapidly diminishing returns with many caring more about drama than on-court action – there is too much focus on the smoke and not enough on the fire itself. 

Perhaps a way can be found that simultaneously prioritizes player freedom and overall stability, but it often seems like the best way to do that is for executives to put together a team and an environment where players want to be. The Nets were able to do that three years ago when they signed Durant and Irving. But by giving up on what made them a desirable destination in the first place, and by getting swept in the first round last season, the franchise no longer appears as appealing as it once did. There are a number of different factors that have muddied the situation in Brooklyn, but the most important, as it always is in the NBA, is that they failed to win games. If they can stay together and perform better than last year, then this apparent crisis may fade, but that won’t keep something similar from happening elsewhere. At least until the next CBA addresses this specific problem and – if history is any indication – opens up the chance for a host of new ones. How rare it is to know what one truly wants.