Winning counts in the NBA, just not as much as a bunch of other stuff

What matters is who’s going where, who can’t get along with whom and how a title would add to someone’s legacy.

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Mavericks teammates Kyrie Irving (right) and Luka Doncic looking on during a recent game.

Mavericks teammates Kyrie Irving (right) and Luka Doncic look on during a game against the Timberwolves on Feb. 13.

Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Does winning matter in the NBA? At face value, that might seem like a ridiculous question. Players compete in games, scoreboards keep track of who’s ahead, standings reflect teams’ relative success and champions end up with rings on their fingers. So of course winning matters, right?

Right. But if appearances and public discussion mean anything, winning isn’t the most important part of the NBA. What matters is who’s going where, who can’t get along with whom and how much a championship on the resume would add to someone’s legacy. If the league could be boiled down to one emotion, it would look like a Taylor Swift fan not getting a concert ticket.

When the Nets gave in to Kyrie Irving’s demands and traded him to the Mavericks earlier this month, the talk wasn’t about whether he had a better opportunity to win in Dallas than he had in Brooklyn. The talk was about how in the world he and Mavs star Luka Doncic could possibly coexist, there being one ball allowed on a court at any one time. The talk was about two corporations passing in the night.

Luka, Kyrie, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, et al – they’re individual brands who happen to play for teams. Whether those players win or lose is part of the drama, and drama is the lifeblood of the NBA. But winning matters only in the sense that it adds to their personal stories. Durant had to go to Golden State to win a championship (two of them, in fact), and that’s a chapter in his story – not the titles themselves but the fact he needed to piggyback on the success of Steph Curry to do it. Now Durant jumps from team to team in search of a title he can call his own. It’s lonely out there for a brand.

We watch Irving because he’s a fantastic basketball player and because we know that, however it ends for him on any particular team, it’s going to involve a mighty ball of fire and a mushroom cloud. We watch the games, but we watch the headlines even more.

Winning? Winning has about as much to do with Irving’s allure as cowboy boots and a Stetson do.

The vast majority of players in the NBA are not superstars, and many do want to win. But how to put this delicately? They don’t matter. They don’t make the league go round. Commissioner Adam Silver can bemoan the KD-Kyrie public trade demands as bad for the Nets’ bargaining power, and thus bad for the league, but he knows they’re great for business. An argument can be made that the Chiefs didn’t win the Super Bowl, the NBA did with the drama involving Durant, whom the Nets traded to the Suns the week leading up to the big game. The Super Bowl was played in Glendale, Arizona, a short car ride from Phoenix.

Durant recently defended his and Irving’s decision to go public with their desire to get out of Brooklyn. In doing so, he perfectly summed up the essence of the NBA.

“I don’t think it’s bad for the league,’’ he said. “It’s bringing more eyes to the league, more people are more excited. The tweets that I get – the news hits that we got from me being traded, Kyrie being traded – it just brings more attention to the league, and that’s really what rakes the money in, when you get more attention. So, I think it’s great for the league, to be honest.”

Tweets, news hits, attention and money: the NBA’s four-corners offense.

Irving was more pragmatic.

“When did it become terrible to make great business decisions for yourself and your happiness and peace of mind?’’ he said. “Not every employer you’re going to get along with, so if you have the chance to go somewhere else and you’re doing it legally, I don’t think there’s a problem with it.”

I won’t step too high on my old-guy soapbox here, but when travel teams and AAU ball became more important than high school teams, basketball changed from being about team success with people you go to school with to being about individual advancement with people you text with. If a player wants to get somewhere in his basketball life, it’s during the summer with a collection of talented players who want to be seen and noticed by college coaches. Winning games is beside the point.

With that mindset now ingrained in players, it’s no wonder the NBA has moved toward something that’s part reality show, part infomercial and part music festival, with some basketball thrown in.

We talk a lot more about Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles than we do the Bulls dynasty. It’s gotten to the point where those championships are MJ’s private possessions, things that define him and nobody else. If memory serves, there were other players on those Bulls teams. But they’re not brands. Jordan is. 

Everybody wants to be like Mike, who is still moving product. To be talked about all these years later. He really is the dream. 

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