Kevin Durant, the Nets and an inflection point for the NBA's player empowerment era

·8 min read

Kevin Durant is overplaying his hand, and the Brooklyn Nets are calling his bluff.

Some six weeks after he first requested a trade, Durant again met with Nets owner Joe Tsai to deliver an ultimatum, per The Athletic's Shams Charania: Grant the request or fire both general manager Sean Marks and head coach Steve Nash. It has been another week since Tsai all but confirmed the report on Twitter.

"Our front office and coaching staff have my support," he said soon after the news broke, essentially siding against a pantheon player in his prime. "We will make decisions in the best interest of the Brooklyn Nets."

Whether or not this marks the beginning of the end of the player empowerment era, an NBA team owner finally seems willing to say the one word superstars so rarely hear: "No." Over the past five years, Tsai's fellow club owners have catered to the demands, often begrudgingly, of All-NBA talents Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler (twice), Kawhi Leonard, Paul George (twice), Anthony Davis, James Harden (twice) and even Ben Simmons.

This does not appear to be a negotiating ploy because Tsai is now engaging in trade discussions with opponents who know a) Durant wants out of Brooklyn, and b) the Nets are not willing to do what it might take to keep him. Tsai is, however, using what leverage he has left — that which he owns over Durant.

Tsai holds the rights to the remainder of Durant's prime. The one-time league MVP's four-year, $192 million contract extension started last month, and he turns 34 years old next month. Players may think it spiteful to leave Durant's legacy hanging in the balance, but team owners must be applauding Tsai behind closed doors, even as they keep their trade offers to a bare minimum, knowing full well superstars hold the trump card: They are the product the NBA sells, and without them teams risk losing millions. If players are willing to sit out games to force a franchise owner's hand — or, in Harden's case, willing to subvert the team — the NBA suffers.

This was the crux of the Simmons saga, which was made more complicated by the 26-year-old's mental health struggles. The Philadelphia 76ers swapped one disgruntled star for another, trading Simmons to the Nets for Harden. Philadelphia also paid a price for value lost from Simmons' prolonged holdout, dealing Seth Curry and two first-round draft picks in addition. It took another sixth months after the trade for the Sixers to reach an undisclosed settlement with Simmons regarding the roughly $20 million they withheld from him.

It would be interesting to know the terms of that settlement. If players can sit out games following a trade request and get paid, what recourse do teams have, other than trading them for pennies on the dollar? The Nets are now on the flip side of that coin, having paid Durant more than $10 million the day after he asked for a trade, according to longtime NBA scribe Marc Stein. He is owed $10 million before the season starts.

This will make for some fun collective bargaining sessions when the current agreement expires either before next season, when the league and its players' union each have the option to terminate it, or in 2024. And Tsai is in unique position to test the will of his players as a precursor to the next round of CBA negotiations.

Has Kevin Durant played his last game in a Brooklyn Nets uniform? (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Has Kevin Durant played his last game in a Brooklyn Nets uniform? (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Durant is clinging to the last vestiges of his peak as a player. After winning consecutive Finals MVP awards for the Golden State Warriors and tearing an Achilles' tendon in the 2019 Finals, he has played fewer than 40% of his regular-season games in the past three years, also nursing hamstring and knee injuries. He just submitted his worst playoff performance since 2010. His legacy can hardly afford any more lost seasons.

Except, Durant's lone leverage left is a looming holdout of training camp. He can say, Fine, you don't want to trade me or acquiesce to my ultimatum, good luck fielding a competitive and profitable team without me.

To which Tsai can respond, Well, we lost between $50 million to $100 million with you on the roster last season, largely because the friends you wanted to play with sabotaged the title contender we built, and I'm conservatively worth $8 billion to $9 billion, so whatever portion of your $43 million salary I get to keep is just more pocket change.

You cannot consider Marks a failed GM unless you consider his entrustment of the team to Durant the failure, which means Durant's ultimatum is a plea to the Nets to save him from himself. Durant picked Irving over everyone else, DeAndre Jordan over Jarrett Allen, Harden over depth and Nash over Kenny Atkinson. He recruited Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Goran Dragic to fill roster spots that yielded little of value.

Durant created a mess, and now he wants Brooklyn to clean it up for him.

Durant, Irving and Harden played just 16 games together. Why is that again, other than their unavailability? Theorists around the league believe Irving's aversion to COVID-19 vaccines soured Harden on the pairing. He forced his way out, and the Nets landed Simmons in return. That happened in a span of three months.

After they were swept in the first round of the playoffs, the Nets refused to offer a maximum extension to Irving, who has missed more than half of his games on his current max contract. Irving reportedly sought a sign-and-trade deal, but he could not find one that satisfied Brooklyn, so he picked up his $36.5 million option to play for the Nets this season. Then, Durant requested a trade and issued his ultimatum, leading to questions about whether he still wants to play with Irving or is just upset that his friend did not get paid.

If Durant, Irving and Simmons actually wanted to play together, they could be a contender. Marks has been busy building one around them, retaining Nicolas Claxton and Patty Mills and acquiring Royce O'Neale and T.J. Warren. But what is Tsai to do with a paper tiger that operates as if its only interest is setting itself afire? It's not as if Nash or another coach has any hope of building cohesion if Durant and Irving stay in Brooklyn.

It is remarkable how much power the Nets ceded to Durant and Irving and how quickly the team devolved from what it was for a few glorious midseason games in 2021. All the while, Durant and Irving are chastising the media for not revealing the truth about Brooklyn's collapse, without providing any answers themselves.

Durant remains an amazing player, but he is far from his free agency in 2016 or even 2019, when the Nets signed him knowing he would miss a season with a ruptured Achilles. Teams aren't lining up to mortgage their futures for a 34-year-old with a history of compounding injuries and leaving his teams to hypothesize about what might hold his attention for more than two or three seasons. If Durant doesn't want to play with his chosen co-star on a talented roster, why should any team believe it can navigate the same uncertainty?

Likewise, the Nets are demanding an enormous return for Durant. Most teams, if not all, do not have enough to satiate Brooklyn's asking price and still contend with Durant. Marks reportedly rebuffed a fair offer of Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and a draft pick from the Boston Celtics — instead asking for either Jayson Tatum or Marcus Smart and a wealth of draft picks in addition to Brown, per multiple reports.

These are not serious asks. Brooklyn knows it cannot get equal value for the player Durant is today, since peaks get lower the further you age from 30, and he may not be healthy or committed to reaching his peak before its decline. The Nets are also aware their championship drought will reach Sahara levels if they do not extract maximum value for Durant, since they mortgaged their future to pair him with Irving and Harden.

Russell Westbrook has crammed himself into a similar situation with the Los Angeles Lakers, albeit more dire, considering he has fallen out of the All-NBA rotation. Father Time comes for us all, and the generation that ushered in the player empowerment era is reaching an inflection point for the power they once wielded.

So, Durant and Tsai are in a staring contest, wondering who will fold first. A training camp holdout would raise the stakes between the half-billionaire and the billionaire before they are eventually divided at the CBA negotiating table. The only real losers at this point are those of us who still care who wins in Brooklyn.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach