Vardon: Nets' Joseph Tsai had reason to be furious before Kevin Durant trade request. Here's why

Vardon: Nets’ Joseph Tsai had reason to be furious before Kevin Durant trade request. Here’s why

Kyrie Irving’s decision this week to opt into the final year of his deal in Brooklyn did not soothe Kevin Durant’s wandering mind.

Durant asked to be traded on the opening day of NBA free agency, even though Irving took the $37 million sitting in front of him without any trade stipulations attached. The Nets are under no obligation to trade Durant — he has four years and $198 million left on his contract. But it would be no surprise now to see him and Irving both traded before the start of training camp.

Nets owner Joseph Tsai had already reached his limit, multiple sources told The Athletic, after years of injuries, off-court embarrassments and playoff failures were followed by threats leaked by Irving and Durant during Brooklyn’s contract negotiations with Irving.

Tsai, 58, co-founder of Alibaba Group, China’s largest commerce retailer, was born in Taiwan, went to high school in New Jersey, has two degrees and four varsity letters (lacrosse) from Yale and is worth $9 billion, according to Forbes.

As an owner, he stays out of his basketball operations staff’s way, for the most part, giving his blessing on the most important decisions, and would otherwise understand/support/not be averse to the general trend of player empowerment in the modern NBA.

Tsai would understand that, under normal circumstances, stars at the level of Durant and Irving can force trades one year after signing max extensions (Durant) or try to negotiate another max contract (Irving) publicly if that’s what it comes to. Tsai has sat at a bargaining table or two in his career.

In this particular set of circumstances surrounding Durant, Irving and the Nets, things got more complicated than planned. Brooklyn spent three full seasons paying the luxury tax, failed to get out of the second round of the playoffs, fired a popular coach, traded away a lot of assets to bring in another star in James Harden and then was forced to trade him because he had lost all faith in Irving’s commitment to winning. That led to acquiring a player on a max contract who was physically and mentally unable to play at all last season (Ben Simmons), all while neither Irving nor Durant came close to playing in half of the Nets’ games. Add in Irving’s refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine and the team cohesiveness that affected last season, and it’s no wonder Tsai has reached his limit.

Here’s a look at how Tsai came to the point where both could be traded.

In the summer of 2019, the Nets pulled a major coup by attracting both star free agents. It was a package deal. Irving signed a four-year, $137 million contract, ending his two tumultuous seasons in Boston. Durant came aboard via a sign-and-trade for four years and $165 million, even though he’d torn his Achilles the previous NBA Finals with the Warriors and would miss the entire 2019-20 season. It was a risk any team would take on two championship-winning, gold-medal-winning players who are as gifted as just about anyone else in the NBA at their respective positions.

In Year 1, with Durant out, Irving started strong but suffered a shoulder injury. As The Athletic detailed in a previous story about Irving, he sought so many opinions on his shoulder, outside of Nets doctors, that it delayed either his return, or surgery, or both for weeks. It was a frustrating time for the franchise, but Irving is by no means the only injured star to take the care of his body into his own hands. It’s the cost of doing business.

The Nets were headed for the playoffs in a pandemic-shortened season, and Irving was out for the remainder of the year because of shoulder surgery, when Brooklyn fired coach Kenny Atkinson.

The following offseason, with Irving and Durant healthy and preparing to play, the duo jumped on KD’s podcast and belittled the role new coach Steve Nash would play in directing the team. Irving went AWOL for about a week from the team early in the 2020-21 campaign, willingly violating COVID-19 protocols to attend a family birthday party. While he was out, he was spotted on a Zoom call for a local politician minutes before the Nets were to play a game.

Right around that time, Brooklyn traded promising center Jarrett Allen, talented guard Caris LeVert, two other players and their first-round draft picks through 2027 for Harden. Tsai and GM Sean Marks mortgaged the team’s whole future to win now, adding Harden to the All-Star tandem already under contract. 

Durant was hurt for most of that season. He played in 35 of a possible 72 games. And when the playoffs arrived, Harden, and then Irving, were both injured. The Nets still almost beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, coming within Durant’s big toe of moving on to the conference finals.

Then there was last season. You remember the highlights and the lowlights. A few things to keep in mind, though, in trying to understand how Tsai might be looking at his big picture with the Nets right now:

• Tsai is a huge proponent of the COVID-19 vaccine. He’s received at least four doses of it.

• Durant urged the organization to go back on its original stance and allow Irving to play and practice where eligible on the road, according to sources. Brooklyn was in second in the East on the day of Irving’s first game.

• Not only did the Nets get worse with Irving back on the team (falling all the way to the Play-In Tournament), but it was with Irving in the fold that Harden decided he would not re-sign in Brooklyn and wanted to be traded to the 76ers. Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond came over from Philadelphia, but Simmons never suited up — in a disappointment to the entire franchise.

•  Almost as an aside, Harden declined the $47 million player option on his contract this week, with a pledge to the Sixers to sign a long-term, team-friendly deal so they can add more pieces. That literally almost never happens in the NBA. Meanwhile, Brooklyn owes Simmons more than $100 million over the next three seasons. He hasn’t played a single minute since June 2021 and is coming off back surgery.

Most of this ties directly back to Irving and to Durant. Irving has played in 103 of a possible 226 regular-season games for Brooklyn; Durant, with that missed 2019-20 campaign, can count just 90 games. 

If both have played their last game with Brooklyn, it’s a safe bet the Nets are heavily involved in trades that suit all parties, if only because doing so will probably produce the largest returns.

What Tsai will not do is demand Durant to honor his contract in Brooklyn.

Because he’s had enough.


Related reading

Aldridge & Thompson: Kevin Durant wants to be on the move … again
What’s next: Potential destinations for Kevin Durant

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(Photo of Joseph Tsai: Brad Penner / USA Today)


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