Just last Wednesday, Kyrie Irving appeared invested in the Brooklyn Nets. He spoke with reporters following the blowout loss to the Celtics and expressed admiration for his former team, pledging his commitment to helping the Nets reach the Celtics’ level.
Forty-eight hours later, he requested a trade.
Irving wants out of Brooklyn, a byproduct of the Nets’ lack of desire in signing the mercurial point guard to a long-term contract extension. Irving is playing on the final year of a contract that pays him $36 million this season and he wanted more contract security, despite his behavior during his Brooklyn tenure.
Celtics brass Wyc Grousbeck and Brad Stevens are relieved Irving opted out of his contract and signed with the Nets in 2019. His four years in Brooklyn have been disastrous at best, with this latest episode of the soap opera making the rest of the league laugh.
Irving had actually been playing well of late. Since his six-game suspension for re-tweeting a movie link with antisemitic tropes, Irving avoided controversy, helped the Nets contend in the Eastern Conference, and had reportedly been a good teammate.
After the Celtics beat the Nets by 43 points Wednesday, Irving said, “When you’re going against a very motivated team, such as the Boston Celtics, they have a chip on their shoulder. It’s clear as day they want to win the championship. They’re not wasting any time with the regular season.
“I felt like we were just one of those teams in the way. We can’t be one of those teams in the way. We’ve got to be one of those teams that stands up to them, at least show them that we’re going to be competition for them moving forward.
“As a competitor, I’m not going to stop until I figure out this methodology is to the Boston Celtics right now and why they’re so hot. I think the main reason is how connected they are and, again, that chip on their shoulder. You can see it. You can feel it. And we have to develop a tougher mentality here and when we do we’ll be in better competition with them. I know we will.”
As much as the Irving trade demand Friday afternoon came as a surprise, it really didn’t to most NBA observers who realized that Irving was due for another controversy.
Irving, who turns 31 next month, felt as if he played well enough long enough to garner a maximum contract extension. And his agent told Bleacher Report last week that Brooklyn was the only place he wanted to play, a hint he’s seeking long-term security.
The Nets reportedly offered an extension that was incentive laden, not surprisingly, tied to games played and team success. Irving wanted a straight contract that wasn’t packed with enticements.
But availability is an issue. In two seasons with the Celtics, Irving played in 127 games. In 3½ seasons with the Nets, he’s played in 143 games. He’s missed games because of injury, a mental break after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, and because he refused vaccination.
As brilliant as Irving is on the floor, he’s confounding and infuriating off of it, and the primary reason the Nets signed him was to entice Kevin Durant into signing a maximum deal. Durant, after missing his first season in Brooklyn because of injury, has lived up to the billing, playing at a first-team All-NBA level these past 2½ seasons.
Durant requested a trade in the offseason but rescinded that demand after discussions with ownership. After the Nets parted ways with coach Steve Nash early in the season, assistant coach Jacque Vaughn appeared to offer stability and a fresh voice. And that lasted until Jan. 8, when Durant had a player tumble into his knee at Miami, spraining a ligament. He’s been out since. The Nets are 4-7 in that span and Irving pulled another Kyrie.
There are interested teams in Irving because of his immense talent. The Lakers would love to reunite him with LeBron James and make a serious run at winning the West. And the belief is with James present, Irving may reduce his off-court antics.
The Mavericks are trying to pair Luka Doncic with another marquee player because their brilliant point guard is taking on too much responsibility, but they would have to commit to a contract extension to make the transaction worthwhile.
The Suns could send Chris Paul to Brooklyn for Irving, but that would be a high-risk deal for a franchise that has declined since reaching the NBA Finals in 2021.
Or the Nets could just stand pat, force Irving to play out the rest of his contract, and then allow him to leave via free agency this summer. Brooklyn management would prefer to rid themselves of the Irving headache, but again, they would also like compensation for its wayward investment.
Still, Irving making headlines for nothing he has accomplished on the floor has become commonplace and his trade request at such a bizarre time doesn’t help his reputation. Although he’ll continue to attract attention because of his skills, organizations around the league are considering whether adding Irving is actually worth the drama. The Cavaliers, Celtics, and now Nets would say it isn’t.
Which is the missing piece?
By this time next week, the NBA trade deadline will be over. The players who are the most viable trade candidates are those on expiring contracts, or with player options who are likely to opt out of those contracts.
These players with options, which are rare for players to exercise, make the deadline most intriguing. Here’s a list of 11 players — other than Kyrie Irving — who could be moved:
▪ Fred VanVleet, Raptors — VanVleet is considered a cornerstone in Toronto, an undrafted player who has turned himself into an All-Star-caliber point guard.
So why would the Raptors trade their most popular player? Because he has a player option for next summer and interested teams could sign VanVleet to a potential max deal this summer with no compensation for Toronto.
The Raptors have offered VanVleet an extension that he rejected, meaning he is looking for a considerable pay raise, and there are clubs who are seeking a franchise point guard, such as the Suns and Magic.
The Raptors don’t want to trade VanVleet, but they’re not winning this season with him and they don’t want to see him walk for free.
▪ OG Anunoby, Raptors — The Raptors looked as if they would bounce back from Kawhi Leonard leaving for the Clippers without a glitch. They reached the Eastern Conference semifinals the next season and then, after drafting Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes with the fourth overall pick, lost in a hotly contested first-round series to the 76ers in 2022. But the Raptors have stumbled this season and Anunoby is their most attractive asset besides Barnes.
Anunoby is a physical defender and solid perimeter shooter. Like VanVleet, the Raptors don’t want to move Anunoby, but he has one more year on his contract at a bargain $19 million before a player option for the 2024-25 season. Since he has an additional year on his contract, Anunoby is more marketable, but Toronto’s price will be higher.
He’s a homegrown player who has turned into one of the league’s better defenders. Those types don’t come around often.
▪ Jakob Poeltl, Spurs — He came to the Spurs in the DeMar DeRozan deal and he’s turned himself into a solid defensive player and rebounder. He doesn’t bring a lot of sizzle, but he could be a real asset on a playoff-caliber team. The only issue is that his contract is expiring and he is expected to pursue free agency this summer.
How much will the Spurs ask for in return? They already have offered Poeltl a contract extension, but his price is rising. The Celtics would not only have to match Poeltl’s $11 million salary but also add a first-round pick in order to facilitate a trade. The Spurs need young assets because they’re in a total rebuild.
▪ D’Angelo Russell, Timberwolves — Russell will be a free agent this summer and he hasn’t necessarily added to Minnesota’s success on the floor. Many observers consider Russell a selfish player who doesn’t always play hard and is consumed with his numbers. But he has enough talent to help a team making a playoff push.
Russell may be difficult to trade because he’s earning $31 million is the final year of that deal he signed with the Nets, and he most likely will not earn that money in free agency this summer. But there have been murmurs that the Timberwolves will be in search of an upgrade at point guard, so they could be open to a deal, although the players in return would have to help Minnesota’s quest in the Western Conference this season.
▪ P.J. Washington, Hornets — Why would the Hornets trade Washington, a former No. 12 overall pick? Because they’ll have to make a decision on other players and Washington could be left out.
The development of Jalen McDaniels has made Washington expendable and McDaniels will be up for an extension this summer. The Hornets will also have to save money for a potential max extension for point guard LaMelo Ball this summer. The potential five-year, $200 million deal is quite a commitment for usually prudent owner Michael Jordan, and Washington will be a restricted free agent this summer.
The Hornets would have the option to match any offer for Washington, but if they aren’t going to, why not trade him now and get compensation? His $5.8 million salary could match the Celtics’ Dennis Schröder trade exception and other teams would be interested, though they’ll probably have to attach at least a first-round pick, as well as a young player.
▪ Jarred Vanderbilt, Jazz — Vanderbilt is a versatile wing defender and an improving player who was thrown into the Timberwolves-Jazz deal to make the salaries match. The Jazz are looking to trade Vanderbilt, who like the others, will be a free agent this summer and could cash in on an eight-figure contract.
Danny Ainge loves amassing first-round draft picks, as Celtics fans know, so that’s likely what it would take to acquire Vanderbilt. He will make a marketable free agent this summer looking for a payday after being a second-round pick in 2018.
The Celtics could be an interested party and could use the trade exception to fit him into their salary cap without any damage, but Ainge is likely to ask for more than that because the Jazz aren’t pressed into making a trade because they have so many draft assets.
▪ Kelly Olynyk, Jazz — The former Celtic has become a useful player but probably isn’t part of their long-term plans. His $12 million salary with $3 million guaranteed next season makes him attractive to clubs looking for a veteran stretch-4 who could also play center. Again, the question is what exactly would Ainge request for Olynyk? Is he worth a first-round pick? Or would it require just an expiring contract?
▪ Eric Gordon, Rockets — Gordon has been languishing in Houston for years, an ill-fitting piece in the Rockets’ rebuilding plan. But he had too many years on his contract to actually become a viable trade piece. He’s getting close to being tradeable with a non-guaranteed year in 2023-24. Gordon’s $19 million this season is still a hefty sum for a 34-year-old shooting guard, so the suitors won’t be plentiful, but he could help a championship-contending team with his shooting ability and experience.
▪ Russell Westbrook, Lakers — He’s in the final year of a contract that pays him $47 million this season, so the parties interested in 25 games of Westbrook will be minimal. But the Lakers will be trying to offer Westbrook for a player such as Irving or another high-salary player who can help a championship run this season. A rebuilding team would take on Westbrook’s salary because of the cap relief this summer. His improved play of the past few weeks has slightly boosted his value around the league, but the question is whether Westbrook would be an asset to a contending team.
▪ Will Barton, Wizards — Barton played good basketball for many years in Denver and he was supposed to help the Wizards a lot more than he has. He’s on an expiring contract, and at age 32, his most productive days may be over. But Barton is an intriguing player in a winning situation where he could score and defend off the bench. Barton is still shooting nearly 38 percent from the 3-point line and his $14 million salary could turn him into a tradeable piece for a Wizards team just looking for second-round picks and salary-cap relief.
▪ Cam Reddish, Knicks — He’s been benched in two locations now, but a team looking to develop young players could see the potential in Reddish, a 2019 first-round pick of the Hawks. Reddish is a ball-dominant forward who is a below-average 3-point shooter. That doesn’t make him marketable, especially since he couldn’t crack the rotation of two teams. But a rebuilding team looking to replace an aging player with a prospect could offer the Knicks a deal and give Reddish yet another chance.
While the Celtics’ G-League affiliate in Maine added former NBA swingman Tony Snell, it doesn’t mean the Celtics are preparing to add Snell to their roster. G-League Maine is an opportunity for Snell to get into basketball shape and back into the consciousness of NBA scouts after being unsigned last summer. Snell, 31, is the type of swingman that could draw the Celtics’ interest, but there are likely to be more productive players on the trade and buyout market . . . The Suns are slipping in the Western Conference, including an embarrassing home loss to the Hawks before embarking on an East Coast trip that began Friday in Boston. They could get some relief when former All-Star Devin Booker returns from a groin strain that has cost him six weeks. The Suns fell to 27-26 after the Atlanta loss but went into Friday’s action just one game behind the Clippers for the fourth seed in the West. What’s more, just three games separate the fourth and 13th seeds in the West. At the top, the Nuggets have separated themselves, going four games up on the slumping Grizzlies. The Pelicans, once in the top three, have lost 10 consecutive games and are sinking fast without All-Star Zion Williamson. The Trail Blazers, Lakers, and Thunder are all within one game of the play-in tournament, making every game critically important down the stretch . . . The NBA has decided to allow some of the top G-League players to enter the Rising Stars game during All-Star Weekend and that includes Ignite guard Scott Henderson, who is expected to be a top-two pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. The only player stopping Henderson from being the top pick is French prospect Victor Wembanyama. The league will get a chance to see Henderson on the biggest stage before his draft, a unique opportunity created by the NBA, which continues to embrace the G-League. Potential lottery picks Mojave King and Leonard Miller are also on the Rising Stars roster for the Feb. 17 game in Salt Lake City . . . The Pacers ended all speculation about the future of Myles Turner by signing him to a two-year contract extension, meaning the team plans on keeping its core together after a surprising season. Turner has been impressive as one of the league’s top interior defenders and has meshed well with All-Star Tyrese Haliburton.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.