Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, and John Wall deals cause NBA optics problem

The money NBA owners are willing to pay part-time excellence or full-time mediocrity defies credulity.

The NBA’s current news cycle is currently dominated by three episodes of head-scratching financial insanity, and I’m trying to keep it from ruining my appreciation for professional basketball.

The first is Kyrie Irving‘s decision to exercise his $36.5-million player option to return to the Brooklyn Nets in 2022-2023.  National media seem to believe that’s good news for the Nets because Irving will be a free agent after next season, and given his desire for another long-term contract he should be motivated to play.

Irving has been paid right at $83-million as a part-time employee the previous three seasons in Brooklyn.  He’s played in 103 of a possible 226 games since signing with the Nets, so he’s shown up for work 46% of the time.  He missed 53 games last season, most of them do to his decision not to be vaccinated against COVID.  He forfeited $17-million for not playing due to vaccine status.

The comment from Irving that accompanied the news of his intention to return to Brooklyn reads, “Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow.”  This is an incomplete take on Irving’s own unique behavior.  A more complete and accurate version of that statement would be, “Normal people keep the world going, but a thin sliver of those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow – while the rest tend to ignore the obvious to their own detriment and make it harder for normal people to keep the world going.”

Second, and less troubling is Russell Westbrook‘s decision to exercise his player option worth $47.1-million to remain to the Lakers – a team with which he has not clear role.

Westbrook was long a marvelous player and double-double machine with the Oklahoma City Thunder.  In subsequent stops with the Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards, and Los Angeles Lakers, his gifts eroded.  With his 34th birthday coming early in the 2022-2023 season, Westbrook seems unlikely to regain his excellence.

His employers’ rewards to date have not included a trip to the NBA Finals, but his nearly $300-million in career earnings has not been utterly pissed away as has been the case with our next entrant.

On December 2, 2020, John Wall was traded by the Washington Wizard for the aforementioned Westbrook.  He played 40 games in his first season with the Rockets before entering into an agreement to sit out the 2021-2022 season while being paid his full salary – $44.3-million.  Following that financial boondoggle for the Rockets, Wall negotiated his release for $6-million less than his $47.4-million salary.

For those of you in need of an accounting of the debits and credits, Wall has played 40 games in the last three seasons for the Wizards and Rockets, and will not play for the Rockets this coming season.  For those 40 games, Wall has been paid approximately $163-million.

I can write the numbers, check my math, and have a basic understanding of the concept of cash being transferred from one bank account to another, but I cannot make sense of a player like Wall, who has never played in a conference final being worth a deal that pays a man roughly one-sixth of a billion dollars to play 40 games.

NBA franchises appear incapable of operating in their own best interest.  Owners continue overpaying because the media money (both domestic and international) pours in faster than it can be spent.  Meanwhile, the recent economic unpleasantness makes it difficult for many families to keep gas in the tank and food on the table.  Those are the people who buy tickets and watch games, by the way.

Locally, the Pacers aren’t paying anyone $40-million not to play, and that is a good thing until you kind of shake your head around until it dawns on you that paying Myles Turner $18-million to sit for 40 of 82 games and averaging 13 & 7 in the other 42 is also absurd.  It’s not as crazy as $40M, but it’s still plenty bonkers.

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