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There is not a more controversial player in the NBA than Kyrie Irving, and Friday’s bombshell news only drove that point home further.
According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the Brooklyn Nets star requested a trade, informing the team that is not moved before the Feb. 9 trade deadline, he will leave in free agency this summer.
It didn’t take long for the Phoenix Suns’ name to come up, joining the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks as three leading suitors for Irving’s services:
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 3, 2023
Normally, when a player averaging a 27-5-5 stat line requests a trade and a fanbase’s favorite team is listed as a possible suitor, the universal reaction is excitement. The response to Friday’s report was…mixed, to say the least.
Before going into the specific trades that would work financially, it’s important to remember why that’s the case with Kyrie Irving.
On the fiscal side, Irving requested a sign-and-trade last summer before opting into the final year of his contract worth $36.9 million. The Nets looked much-improved under coach Jacque Vaughn, and Irving once again sought an extension with Brooklyn. When the two sides were unable to reach an agreement due to certain guarantee stipulations, he fell back on a trade request once again, mere days before the deadline…and just weeks after saying this:
Kyrie on why KD's absence is different this year: "Well I'm consistently in the lineup, that helps. We also don't have anyone who is halfway in in the locker room."
— Alec Sturm (@Alec_Sturm) January 16, 2023
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Irving will be seeking an extension in the neighborhood of four years and $198.5 million this summer as a free agent. Potential suitors, meanwhile, are reluctant to even commit to the two-year, $78.6 million extension he’d be eligible to receive after being traded to a new team.
That begs the question: Why are teams so hesitant to deal for a 30-year-old star who’s an eight-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA selection and one-time NBA champion? How can the market be so tepid for a guy averaging 27.1 points, 5.3 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game on 48.6 percent shooting overall and 37.4 percent shooting from 3? And why would his trade request stir up more interest in his superstar companion Kevin Durant rather than Irving himself?
The answers are fairly obvious, but for those who are new here, we’ll spell it out: Kyrie Irving is a firestorm of controversy and a lightning rod for drama wherever he goes.
People trying to talk themselves into Kyrie NOT being a headache on their favorite team pic.twitter.com/80wFKr0ssv
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) February 3, 2023
For a time, Irving labeling himself as a “free thinker” could be cast off as obnoxious, being that his antics were ultimately harmless. But as his indulgence in conspiracy theories grew, his words and actions — and indignation whenever his “enlightened” perspective was challenged — evolved into a more dangerous pattern of behavior.
It started with pushing the flat-Earth theory, and when he received understandable backlash for it, he tried to claim he was trolling everyone with a different idea that spun the media into a frenzy. He doubled down on it the following month, and it took him 20 months to finally apologize for the harm his scientifically disproven theory had done.
— Nicole Yang (@nicolecyang) October 1, 2018
Then came his refusal to cooperate with New York City’s COVID-19 guidelines that prohibited him from playing in Nets home games during the 2021-22 NBA season because he wouldn’t get vaccinated. He was seen liking Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist claiming “secret societies” were implanting vaccines with microchips to connect Black people to a master computer for “a plan of Satan.”
He billed himself a neither pro- or anti-vaccine, but rather, a “voice for the voiceless.” After the city’s mandate ended, Irving called it “one of the biggest violations in human rights in history.”
If I can work and be unvaccinated, then all of my brothers and sisters who are also unvaccinated should be able to do the same, without being discriminated against, vilified, or fired. ♾🤞🏾
This enforced Vaccine/Pandemic is one the biggest violations of HUMAN RIGHTS in history.
— Chief Hélà 🤞🏾 (@KyrieIrving) September 20, 2022
Even if one were willing to overlook the harm his words and actions did in empowering anti-science stances in both of those instances, Irving took the negative influence of his platform even further at the start of the season.
First, he tweeted out a 2002 video from noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones about the “New World Order,” a theory suggesting a cabal of elites is working behind the scenes to enslave the global populace. Jones, for reference, was recently sued by the parents of Sandy Hook victims for saying the 2012 shooting was staged and forced to pay nearly $1 billion as a result.
Then, Irving tweeted out a link to the Amazon documentary “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America.” The documentary is based on a book by the same name, which includes a ton of misinformation and blatantly antisemitic material.
I started watching the movie Kyrie tweeted out to prepare for today's episode of @debatable. And if you were wondering exactly how insanely anti-Semitic it is, just know that they show this quote from "Adolph Hitler," as such: pic.twitter.com/1Z8bzKzFen
— Pablo Torre 🏴☠️ (@PabloTorre) October 31, 2022
Given the chance to apologize for promoting harmful and hateful conspiracy theories on his social media, Irving was combative, doubling down on his beliefs and refusing to take ownership for his actions. It wasn’t until the Nets suspended him and the sponsors started falling off that Irving finally apologized…via Instagram.
With all due respect to those who came here skimming for Kyrie Irving trades, this stuff is more important. Every fan has a different barometer for how far they’re willing to go to separate an artist from their art, and how comfortable they are with supporting athletes, musicians or actors who are known to have done and said terrible things. That decision lies with each individual, suited to their own comfort level.
To his credit, Irving has been extremely charitable during his time in the NBA. He was unfairly labeled as a “disruptor” when he raised legitimate concerns about how the league would handle the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, and for all the trouble he’s caused, there’s a chance his unsavory words and actions have stemmed from ignorance dressed up as enlightenment, not necessarily malicious intent.
However, even if you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and speed right past the crackpot theories, the dangerous example he’s setting with his platform and the hate speech he’s endorsed to 5.7 million Twitter followers within the last year alone, there’s not a single argument to be made against the fact that Irving has become such a toxic persona that it’s overshadowed his All-Star talent.
Is that really the sort of person this organization and fanbase should bring in, after finally ridding themselves of the indelible stain that was Robert Sarver? Mat Ishbia has a chance to rebuild the culture and reputation of this organization. Bringing in a guy whose team had qualms about keeping him, and whose own reputation has prompted 29 other teams to hash out their own qualms about him, would be thoughtless.
This is a guy who can wear out his welcome with one tweet, Instagram post or press conference. Technically speaking, everyone in this league has that power. Nobody exercises it as routinely as Kyrie Irving.
So as much as his teammates may not have a problem with him directly, his antics and comments inadvertently have a negative affect. They invite drama, national headlines and controversy, which makes it impossible for basketball — the one thing we would all like to focus on, believe it or not! — to remain at the forefront.
Even speaking strictly from a basketball perspective, committing four years at nearly $50 million a season is a dicey proposition for a guy who is as injury-prone as they come:
Games played since 2019:
Kyrie Irving 143
Kristaps Porzingis 193
— Iztok Franko (@iztok_franko) February 3, 2023
Sure, a decent chunk of that came from being forced to miss home games last season because he wasn’t vaccinated, but does that honestly make it any better? Are we supposed to be encouraged the he was willing to abandon his teammates for half a season because he refused to get a vaccine meant to combat a pandemic that’s killed millions?
The hesitation over Irving’s long-term future could make him a short-term rental, and no team is going to want to trade the farm for someone fitting that description. He’s unreliable in every sense of the word, which is why this train of thought would make any Kyrie trade a legitimate concern:
Phoenix is viewed as one of the few teams capable of facilitating a deal with Brooklyn that could keep both teams in championship pursuit.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) February 3, 2023
The Nets’ refusal to pack it in and blow it up is understandable. Despite their horrible 2-5 start and going 4-7 over this recent stretch without Durant, Brooklyn is 29-15 overall since Vaughn took over, climbing to fourth in the Eastern Conference. With a fully healthy KD, this team looks like a borderline title contender. And even if they have to dump Irving, that doesn’t mean the situation will devolve so quickly that Durant tries to force his way out over the next five days.
The Suns make the most sense as a trade partner that could help Brooklyn absorb the blow of Irving’s trade request and remain in the title hunt. The Lakers’ offer will likely revolve around Russell Westbrook’s awful salary and one or both of their remaining first-round picks in 2027 and 2029. The Mavs have different salaries they can swing to make the money work, but no one as enticing as young cornerstones like Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton or Cam Johnson.
There’s no question Irving could help the Suns on the court, providing them with the second option they’ve been lacking at times this season. Even with Bridges’ growth and CP3’s recent return to Point God form, Phoenix lack a true No. 2 behind Booker, cycling through Bridges, Paul, Ayton and Johnson on a night-to-night basis.
Irving checks a lot of boxes for the Suns. He’s the type of scorer who can take over games in an instant, and best of all, he can create his own offense. According to The BBall Index, he ranks in the 99th percentile in total iso impact per 75 possessions and the 100th percentile in points per possession on iso plays.
In terms of putting pressure on the rim, Irving places in the 83rd percentile in drives per 75 possessions and the 94th percentile in rim shot-making. As a playmaker, he ranks in the 85th percentile in high-value assists per 75 possessions and the 95th percentile in points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. And as far as his ability to play off the ball next to another bucket-getter like Booker, Irving is in the 97th percentile in scoring gravity and the 88th percentile in points per possession as a spot-up shooter.
For as bad as he is at verifying credible information on the internet, he’s very good at this game.
The question is what the Nets will want, and whether the Suns will be willing to meet their asking price. Given Brooklyn’s interest in keeping a title-contending team assembled around Durant, one would have to assume they’ll be asking for Chris Paul to replace their All-Star point guard:
Even with a top-10 protection thrown on that 2024 first-rounder, that’s too much. The Suns have no use for Jae Crowder, who could help Brooklyn even at this juncture, but losing CP3 — a guy Booker and the rest of his teammates love — for a potentially divisive figure in the locker room just isn’t the sort of trade you make midseason.
If the Nets aren’t getting the Point God, Cam Johnson becomes the next likely centerpiece. The Suns would have to stack a whole host of bodies on top to make the salaries match, and probably a first-rounder since they’re avoiding Book, Paul, Bridges or Ayton being involved:
Aside from the logistics of freeing up enough roster spots for Brooklyn to take on that many players, Johnson is under team control as a restricted free agent this summer. His meniscus tear and Phoenix recently dialing back his minutes could hurt his value, but when he’s been healthy, he’s been an intrinsic part of one of the NBA’s best starting fives, and at the very least, is a tremendous 3-point shooter and starting-caliber wing on almost any team.
In other words, dumping him in this deal, when the Nets have zero leverage, would be a mistake. Even with Seth Curry and his 41.8 percent 3-point shooting thrown in, this should be a non-starter for Phoenix.
The best the Suns should be willing to do for Irving is a group of expiring contracts and a first-rounder, preferably protected. Yuta Watanabe or Day’Ron Sharpe would be included to make the body count a little more even. Watanabe is our choice here, given that he’s shooting a blistering 48 percent from 3:
There are issues here, obviously. For a team projected to be over the cap like Brooklyn, the expiring salaries of Crowder, Dario Saric and Torrey Craig aren’t valuable in terms of clearing out cap room. They just traded Landry Shamet away a few years ago, and one protected pick for Irving is an offer the Lakers or Mavs might be willing to beat.
As much trepidation as there is over LeBron James and Anthony Davis adding a third superstar, or Luka Doncic and Irving tearing up opposing backcourts, the Lakers have a ton of injury and depth concerns, and a pairing like the one in Dallas would need some time to find its footing with two ball-dominant guards. Regardless, Irving going elsewhere is ultimately better than sacrificing a part of this team’s core just for a four-month rental that would undoubtedly come with his fair share of baggage.
If Kevin Durant’s name resurfaces, that’s where things get interesting. The Suns could very well try and bite the bullet, sacrificing the Point God, DA, Cam Johnson, salary filler and multiple first-rounders to snag both superstars:
That would leave Phoenix with a core of Irving, Booker, Bridges and KD, but very little depth, and probably not enough going the other way to Brooklyn. The Suns would still need a separate trade to land a starting-caliber center too (Jakob Poeltl, anyone?).
Of course, if KD is on the market, the best of both worlds would be for the Lakers or Mavs to snag Kyrie, while the Suns swoop in for the best player involved. Looping in the Toronto Raptors with Fred VanVleet would be a nice touch, because even if it’d raise questions about CP3 coming off the bench or what the Suns would pay for FVV over the summer, at least it’d open the championship window even wider…and without all the headaches.
The Nets would get some blue-chip young players with OG Anunoby and Cam Johnson plus two first-rounders, in addition to whatever they take back from the Irving trade. The Raptors would get Ayton, Shamet and two first-rounders for their trouble, and the Suns would then need to swing a separate deal with Crowder and other expendable pieces for a starting-caliber center.
That’d leave them with something like CP3, Booker, Bridges, KD, Poeltl and VanVleet as a six-man core. It also probably wouldn’t be enough picks for either Brooklyn or Toronto.
Ultimately, the Suns may be better off keeping their core intact if it means throwing in their lot with an unpredictable, controversial and taxing option like Kyrie Irving. They can’t stand still at the trade deadline, but exploring more realistic targets — or even some of these bolder three-team deals — would be less of a risk, and certainly less of a headache.