The trade deadline is always an inflection point for the league. Some teams become sellers, some teams become buyers, and players become commodities in flux. Contenders prey on pretenders and timelines are set and reset. You’re either playing for June or next June or even next next next June. But for Kyrie Irving, he’s stuck in some NBA version of the Upside Down, a murky, suspended motion where everybody else has him either coming or going.
It’s the plight of every superstar heading into max free agency. After passing on an extension last summer, this final season of his contract has become this will-he-or-won’t-he holding pattern. What should be a march to the playoffs has shifted into off court drama and hearsay. The games almost become meaningless because everybody wants to know about what’s happening later rather than what’s happening now. You could see it on the floor Friday night at Madison Square Garden. What should have been a sort of homecoming and celebration for Irving turned into a plodding, ho hum affair where Knicks fans weren’t even concerned that their team was down double digits in the fourth quarter. Instead, they showered Irving with “we want Kyrie” chants with next year already in mind.
It’s that FOMO mentality that has turned the NBA into a 12-month sport; every couple of months there seems to be a chance for owners and GM’s to shuffle the deck from the draft to free agency to the trade deadline. The best front offices are mapping out scenarios 5-10 years in the future, but these best laid plans could change in a New York minute (see Porzingis, Kristaps).
To his credit, Kyrie, a very mindful person, has chosen to live in the moment as best he can. Earlier in the year, he tried to get ahead of the wave of speculation that would surround his decision (lower case “d”) by publicly stating his plans of returning to the team next summer. It was a modest declaration at a season ticket holder event, but it was public and definitive. Instead, it’s all come crashing down on him this week after his name was tied to the future of his friend, Anthony Davis.
Kyrie hasn’t helped himself with the media. After publicly criticizing his teammates and coach and then telling the Boston media that he had contacted LeBron for advice, he’s invited the haters to start doubting him. When asked directly about whether or not he was re-considering his commitment to the Celtics, Irving curtly answered, “ask me on July 1st.”
Here’s where I’ll come to Irving’s defense. He wasn’t at all suggesting that he was going back on his statement from October; he was snippy because he didn’t want to be badgered about it on February 1st. Let’s remember that this is a guy that privately requested his trade from the Cavaliers and it wasn’t until LeBron found out that it went public. Of course, the media ran with that quote and now, the circus raises its tent in Boston where the Celtics will play two of their next three games with LeBron and the Lakers in town on the trade deadline.
When asked about all the outside noise drummed up by the trade deadline and the MSG crowd cheering his name, Kyrie said, “it’s nothing but a distraction at this point. Like I said, I’m appreciative of the fan support I get in the arena, but of course, coming back home, obviously in terms of what’s going on with all that noise and commentary, it’s just a bunch of nonsense right now. Can’t do anything about it, so I’m just accepting it, I’m appreciative, but at the same time, I got a game to focus on.”
I urge you to watch his entire presser because it’s important to see his demeanor and tone when he answers these questions. One of the New York beat reporters doubles back and asks if he heard the crowd chanting his name and Irving is visibly irked. Later, he took another stab at the media as a whole, saying, “obviously, you would hope it would quiet down, but like I said, it doesn’t help that across the league, there’s outside noise again and my name gets thrown into it and then conversations, speculations, everybody’s worried about their credibility...I don’t know how this media empire works. I know it’s a bunch of nonsense to me.”
Kyrie is having a Howard Beale moment. He may not be screaming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” out a window, but this is a breaking point that frankly, I share with him. Trade rumors are fun and gossip can be entertaining, but in an age where the media is under intense scrutiny, I’m appalled at how irresponsible some of the coverage has been around this trade deadline. I could be completely off, but I get the sense that Irving is upset that his word isn’t good enough, that him saying four months ago that he wanted to re-sign in Boston wasn’t good enough. There have been frustrating moments and Kyrie’s even admitted to handling it poorly, but to connect those dots to him thinking of leaving just isn’t fair.
His parting words in the press scrum two days ago were so telling and honest. One of Irving’s greatest attributes is also his Achilles heel: he says what he wants to say and he’s a truth teller. When pressed even further to address his free agency, Irving, beaten down and said, “I gotta go home, take care of my family and friends and that’s the stuff that really matters to me.”
”Loving the game of basketball, that’s where it’s always going to be for me. I didn’t do this for the media. I didn’t do this for the money. I didn’t do this for the fans. I did it because I love the game and I work extremely hard on my craft and I want to be one of the greatest ever so that’s where my focus is. It’s going to come, I’m appreciative. I’m grateful for everybody identifying how talented I am and (wanting) to play with me. I’m appreciative of that, but at the end of the day, like I said this morning, I’m going to make the best decision for me and my family and that’s how it’s going to go.”
After the buzzer in MSG, Irving searched the crowd. It’s been customary on the road for Kyrie to give his jersey away to a fan, but it wasn’t some deserving 12-year-old that he was looking for. In all the hoopla and scuttlebut and rumor-mongering, he was looking for his father. In front of a national TV audience, he showed everybody what’s important to him. He didn’t recognize the cheers or validate a narrative that the press has fabricated on his own. Kyrie has his friends and family, his talent, his career, and his word and I believe in all of it.