Irving’s missed games raise ‘load management’ allegation
It used to be met with suspicion when NBA players sat out regular-season games with dubious injuries.
Known euphemistically as “load management,” the concept is so ingrained now it has become tongue-in-cheek and gives off an air of inmates running the asylum.
New York City radio host Frank Isola has a cheeky proposition to get the handsomely-compensated athletes to suit up more often.
“The NBA is the one sport where they should start giving out participation trophies, because you need guys to participate,’’ quipped Isola, who is paired with Celtics commentator Brian Scalabrine weekday mornings on Sirius Satellite radio morning show, “The Starting Lineup.’’
“The biggest thing is games missed,’’ Isola added. “Mikal Bridges of the Phoenix Suns played in 80 games and led the league in minutes played this season. Nineteen years ago in the 2002-2003 season he would have ranked 35th in minutes played. You know who would have been ahead of him, 39-year-old Karl Malone and 40-year-old Michael Jordan.’’
That penchant for selective duty in the era of max and super-max contracts borders on unjust enrichment, with players never having to give back money for arbitrarily choosing when and when not to play.
There are, of course, cases of serious injuries in a fast-paced contact sport. But is management now trying to wrestle back control of their organizations and place players in a more subordinate position?
One of the prime scofflaws has been former Celtics guard Kyrie Irving. This past season he played in just 29 regular-season games for the Brooklyn Nets and four playoff contests, as the Celtics swept the Nets in the first round.
A large number of his absences this past season were due to his decision not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. That determination prevented him from playing in the 35 of 41 home games pursuant to the city’s mandatory vaccine law. Irving, an undoubtedly gifted player, has in numerous other instances missed games or groups of games without any viable excuse, and at times has verbally thrown unsuspecting teammates under the bus.
“There are always teams that would want a guy who’s talented like that, but to me the biggest thing about Kyrie is he just doesn’t play in enough games,’’ said Isola. “Before, if a guy didn’t play in 72-plus games they didn’t think he played a lot. Kyrie, I think, last year played in 29 games. If you just look at the games played for him and there’s just always something behind it. Regardless of how you feel about the vaccine, the fact is he just didn’t play.’’
Irving landed in Brooklyn for the 2018-2019 season, after shooting his way out of Boston, where he spent a maddening two seasons with the Celtics. Few Bostonians, it seems, were sad to see him leave. His behavioral antics haven’t won over fans in Brooklyn, either.
When the season ended, Irving was quoted as saying he and teammate Kevin Durant would sit down with management and help chart a desirable course for next season. The insinuation of the players’ influence on the team’s decisionmakers didn’t seem to strike the right chords with Nets management.
General Manager Sean Marks, who had an unenviable season dealing with Irving’s absences, traded away the unhappy James Harden, 32, to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and draft picks. Simmons never played a game for the Nets and recently underwent back surgery. Simmons demanded a trade from Philadelphia after a spat with coach Doc Rivers from the preceding playoffs. Each team seemed to trade a drama queen for a prima donna, but 25-year-old Simmons could benefit Brooklyn in the coming years.
Marks now has other choices to make. So does Irving, who has a $36.5 million option to address for the upcoming season. Irving could decide not to pick up that option in hopes of essentially swapping it for a four-year $185 million deal. He might be assuming too much.
“We need people here that want to be here, that are selfless, that want to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Marks recently told the New York media. “There’s an objective and there’s a goal at stake here. In order to do that, we’re going to need availability from everybody.”
A year ago, Marks told the team’s fan base they would re-sign both Irving and Harden to long-term deals. That didn’t happen. He learned that superstar players nowadays are not always loyal partners.
“They’ve paid Kyrie a lot of money, and there’s always some kind of drama with him,’’ said Isola. “There was always a lot of drama with Lebron [James], but Lebron would always deliver. I always feel like the team is willing to put up with your nonsense and drama if you are winning. But once you get to the point where that’s not happening, that changes. History’s proven that he’s going to break your heart. I think the Nets might be open to re-signing the guy, but they might want to do it on a short-term basis, and who could blame them for that? Are you going to give him four years?”
Harden has a $46.9 million option he could opt in to. Should he decide to opt out, he’s eligible for a five-year $270 million super-max deal that would include a $61-plus million deal when he’s 37 years old.
Harden has already begun showing signs of a decline in his production, averaging roughly 21.5 points per game this past season, down from the 36.1 and 34.6 points per game of the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons, respectively. He appears noticeably to have lost the necessary burst in his change of speed that made him unguardable.
It would make sense if these super-max deals ended at around age 32, like Houston guard John Wall’s four-year, $170 million contract. The player, who missed an entire season plus with a torn Achilles tendon, never lived up to his contract, but the 31-year-old will be off the books in a year. Russell Westbrook, 33, has a $45 million player option for this upcoming season.
There are exceptions to old age wearing down players. The Celtics’ forward Al Horford at 36 years old is still playing tremendously. But his personality type and the fact he quietly accepts a supporting role makes him a perfect fit.
“The NBA’s in this position where they do seem to give out these contracts based on what you have already accomplished,’’ said Isola. “Everybody wanted to see Kobe Bryant wear a Lakers’ uniform for the rest of his career. But they were losing all those years with him there. But you look at all the guys with super-max deals—John Wall, Russell Westbrook, who played well two years ago but this past season he didn’t play well. Kawhi Leonard missed an entire season now. There’s always something going on with these guys that you sign to these huge contracts. Either they are missing games or are underperforming.’’
The big question now is what direction the Nets move into. If Simmons comes back healthy, develops a jump shot and changes his attitude, the team could move forward without Irving. They still have Durant, some good role players and draft picks from the Sixers that could be turned into veteran acquisitions.
“There’s no way Sean Marks will say anything about Kyrie Irving unless it is well thought out,’’ Isola said. “I would even guess that he alerted Kevin Durant about what he was going to say to the media. So that’s not just an off-the-cuff remark by Sean Marks. The Nets know they’ve invested a lot of money in this guy, but they really haven’t gotten a lot in return.’’