In an era where title-starved NBA owners are increasingly taking responsibility out of the hands of their front office and handing their organizational control to their superstars, it’s telling that Kevin Durant personally issued his trade request from Brooklyn with owner Joseph Tsai.
As part of Durant and Kyrie Irving’s pact to join forces in Brooklyn, they also negotiated a three-year, $40 million contract for Deandre Jordan, an aging center who would become a liability on offense and a traffic cone on defense. It’s challenging to construct a supporting case around superstars who parachute into town and dictate their roster demands to a team already operating on a salary cap tightrope. Not every superstar is fit to be kowtowed to as a pseudo-GM. For every exception like LeBron, whose Klutch Sports connections were instrumental in him landing Anthony Davis as a teammate, there’s a Nets mashup that yields the disaster we have playing out before our eyes.
Steve Nash was tasked with leading Irving and Durant because he’d be more malleable than a more stern, seasoned X’s and O’s coach. For Durant, establishing a team culture meant hooping with the guys around the league he was chummy with. The Nets were an All-Star Barry Farm Goodman League pickup squad. His lone title with the Warriors is an aberration that revolved around a trio that was one game away from repeating before he latched on and won another after he left.
Unlike LeBron, not every active ex-superstar is cut out to be an executive on the floor. And even he’s delivered ephemeral gains at the expense of the long-term. Russell Westbrook is one of the toughest contracts to move and there are currently negotiations taking place that would potentially reunite LeBron with Kyrie, one of The Association’s biggest malcontents. Many of the NBA’s hardwood superstars have been its most incompetent talent evaluators after they’ve retired. Magic Johnson’s iteration of the 2019 Los Angeles Lakers was a Tragic Johnson sequel. Aside from 2020, the Lakers have been a poorly constructed boondoggle that has curiously de-emphasized spacing and shooting. These days, they do it while they’re still active.
Wes Unseld stuck rocks in the shoes of the young Bullets by swapping out Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland and Ben Wallace. Kevin McHale’s under-the-table deal for Joe Smith cost the Timberwolves four first-round picks and hamstrung the Garnett era before it could get started. Lest we forget, he also got bodied by former teammate Danny Ainge when he traded Kevin Garnett to Boston for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, and a pair of draft picks.
On Tuesday, Jeannie Buss shared a Kobe memory that somewhat rewrote history. For Jeannie, Kobe was a friend and confidante. He was also a legend in Los Angeles and a titan among superhumans in the sports plane, so she should be excused for misremembering him for being infallible as a Laker. However, he was also an imprudent talent evaluator.
In 2007, he demanded Andrew Bynum be traded for Jason Kidd. Of course, the trade likely would have cost them multiple supporting cast members, in addition to Bynum, who helped them two-peat in 2009 and 2010. Instead, Mitch Kupchak carefully closed a sweetheart deal with Jerry West that almost didn’t happen with Kobe’s interference.
Four years ago, Paul George forced his way out of Indiana and into Russell Westbrook’s passenger seat. The George and Westbrook pairing ultimately wound up with the Thunder blasting into the Stone Age. Following the 2018 season, George cited his bromance with Westbrook as a reason he signed an extension.
That friendship was only good enough to muster a pair of swift first-round exits. The friendship was strong, but the basketball didn’t work.
The line between the front office and the court is there for a reason. Emotions get involved between active players and business gets cloudy. They should never mix. Cross it too often and teams risk getting burned.
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