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Let's talk trade: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving say public requests are good for players and NBA

Houston Chronicle 2/20/2023 Jonathan Feigen, Staff writer

SALT LAKE CITY — Kyrie Irving had “no regrets.” Kevin Durant issued no apologies. No one expected anything else, and perhaps there is no reason to have thought any form of contrition was in order.

NBA teams can, and regularly do, decide that their plan — and the roster it brought them — is not working and choose to move on. There is nothing new about players reaching the same conclusion and driving the same decisions.

The era of player empowerment and the trade demands that have come with it, however, feels different.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left the Bucks nearly 50 years ago. Wilt Chamberlain left his hometown team in Philadelphia, returned to another Philly team and left again in trades that brought far less return than superstar deals do now.

Yet after the annual trade deadline shook up the NBA and presumed balance of power, with Durant joining the Phoenix Suns and Irving going to Dallas, Durant argued that players demanding trades not only does no harm to the league but helps.

"I don't think it's bad for the league,” Durant said. “It's bringing more eyes to the league“The tweets that I got and the news hits that we got from me being traded, Kyrie being traded — it just brings more attention to the league, and that's really what makes you money is when you get more attention. So I think it's great for the league, to be honest. Teams have been trading players and making acquisitions for a long time now. When a player can kind of dictate where he wants to go, leave in free agency or demand a trade, it's just part of the game now.

“So I don't think it's a bad thing. It’s bringing more excitement to the game.”

Durant might not have been so enthusiastic when he was left behind following James Harden’s trade demand and departure from Brooklyn to Philadelphia. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has often said that trade demands, when honored, can be unfair to players who joined teams specifically to play with teammates who then later ask out.

Rockets fans likely have been far less enthused with the growing pains that have come with rebuilding after Harden’s departure than Nets fans can be with the retooling in Brooklyn. The Nets have a solid, entertaining team, if without the championship ceiling they had in the brief Durant/Irving/Harden era.

With roughly 10 percent of the league dealt around this month’s trade deadline, the NBA views player movement as beneficial to recharge, reposition or rebuild teams. The issue, Silver said, is when trade demands become public, as they have far more regularly in recent seasons.

“When it comes to player movement, I generally think that's positive,” Silver said. “In fact, we designed this current collective bargaining agreement with shorter contracts, for example, with the way free agency works, to allow for that. I think for fans, you don't want your team to be locked into mediocrity. You want teams to be in a position with smart management where they can rebuild or make smart moves or, frankly, with both teams and players, work themselves out of bad relationships.

“That's very different than a so-called demand for a trade. I think that, in fact, the Players Association has agreed with us in our current collective bargaining agreement there are rules against making public trade demands. I've said that many times before. I think that's a bad thing. I think it's corrosive to the system. Certainly, fans don't like it. Even lots of players don't like it as well, because ultimately, they may be going to a particular team under a belief that that player is still going to be there.”

That also leads to a conundrum. If there is nothing wrong with trade demands, there would seem less motivation to keep them secret.

Beyond that, teams and agents routinely use leaks to the media to stoke fires of trade talks.

“As my colleague Joe Dumars (the Pistons Hall of Famer who is NBA executive vice president) has pointed out to me many times, lots of players, long time, have behind the scenes asked for trades, but they haven't been accommodated because ultimately the teams have concluded that's not in their interest,” Silver said. “You want to find the right balance. You want, obviously, players to honor their contracts, and at the same time, a certain amount of player movement is good.

“So, strongly against anything said publicly. I agree that a certain amount of player movement is good, but I think it has to be done in partnership and honoring those agreements that players and teams enter into. We already have agreed with the Players Association that public trade demands are inappropriate.”

Irving, however, remains a devout contrarian. He did not specifically argue that players’ trade requests should be made publicly. But he went far beyond saying that there is nothing wrong with them, contending that any player should be free to ask to be traded.

"Why doesn't anybody have the ability to ask for trades?" Irving said. "That's my question. When did it become terrible to make great business decisions for yourself, your happiness and your peace of mind? Not every employer you're going to get along with. So if you have a chance to go somewhere else and you're doing it legally, I don't think there's a problem with it.

“Again, the speculation and narratives is what makes this entertainment (element) kind of seem a little bit more important or more priority than it actually is. Like, it's my life. It's not just a dream that everybody can gossip about. I take it very serious, and most of the work that I do doesn't get seen, so I don't know if it'll ever be truly appreciated."

The results of the work behind the scenes are seen and, at least to some degree, appreciated (and richly rewarded). The NBA would simply like those players who are celebrated most, becoming the faces of the league, to keep the trade wishes unheard. But just as Silver argued that player movement works, players have found that public demands have worked, too.

A look at Durant in a Suns uniform or Irving in the Mavericks’ backcourt can confirm that asking for trades, whether privately or publicly, has gotten players what they wanted. And if Durant is to be believed, the league won, too. 

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