Keeping up with the NBA: the 75th anniversary
Recapping the best of the league’s drama and storylines as the 2021-22 NBA season continues.
Nov 11, 2021
Phoenix Suns: Drama in the desert: Sarver’s last stand with the NBA
The Phoenix Suns’ sudden accession last season caught the entire league by surprise. They ended a decade-long playoff drought en route to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993 — before the Suns’ 2020-21 leading scorer Devin Booker had been born.
While this season had momentum for the team to succeed, all eyes have fallen on the Suns for all the wrong reasons. Team owner Robert Sarver is being investigated for allegations of a toxic work environment marked by rampant racism and sexism. Sarver’s story flies in the face of any progressive nature that the NBA tries to project.
Sarver faces the possibility of being forced by the league to relinquish his control of the Suns. There is a precedent for such a situation: Former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was forced to sell his team as part of a lifetime ban from the NBA in 2014 after the release of an audio recording of his racist remarks.
Despite the workplace drama, the Suns are attempting to build on last season’s success, as they currently stand at 6-3. However, with 2018’s first overall pick Deandre Ayton’s future with the team uncertain, the Suns run the risk of returning to the mediocrity that plagued the valley for so long.
New Orleans Pelicans: Big problems in the Big Easy
After the drawn-out departure of eight-time All-Star forward Anthony Davis for the Los Angeles Lakers, the New Orleans Pelicans seemed primed to rebound from the breakup. With the Davis trade package, the Pelicans embraced a youth movement headlined by All-Star forwards Brandon Ingram, age 24, and Zion Williamson, age 21. The abundance of talent has failed to mask the inexperience of the team, as the Pelicans sit at the very bottom of the NBA with a record of 1-10.
Williamson’s durability issues have persisted this season. He’s unable to right the ship because he is sidelined with a multi-week foot injury. Moreover, rumblings about Williamson’s discontent over his current situation makes success this season even more imperative. After Friday’s 41-point blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors, the Pelicans seem likely to continue their downward spiral.
Los Angeles Lakers: Stars collide in Hollywood
The additions of superstar LeBron James through free agency and Anthony Davis via trade sacrificed the carefully cultivated roster of younger prospects for a team designed to compete for a title immediately. The strategy revived Lakers basketball, as they captured their 17th championship title in their first playoff appearance since the 2012-13 season, tying the Boston Celtics for the most in league history.
After a disappointing first round exit in last season’s playoffs, the Lakers doubled down on a star-centered team building approach. Three-time All-NBA team selection DeAndre Jordan is making his return to Los Angeles. Jordan was an integral part of the gravity-defying “Lob City” L.A. Clippers, which took the NBA by storm in the 2010s. Carmelo Anthony, one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, has also joined the Lakers after resurrecting his career the past two seasons as a key contributor to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Eight-time All-Star selection Dwight Howard is returning for his third stint with the Lakers as he enters the twilight stages of an 17-year career.
The Lakers’ most notable offseason acquisition was the popular but polarizing point guard Russell Westbrook. His highly virile style of play has garnered a cult-like following over the course of his illustrious career. Consequently, he also brings an added layer of scrutiny, if such a thing is possible for one of the most popular teams in the league.
The trade for Westbrook required losing key role players Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma. Sacrificing depth and versatility makes the Lakers more liable for an ugly implosion: Increased injury risk, season-long exhaustion and volatile locker room chemistry could create a season as disappointing as the last. Teams led by LeBron James have historically undergone drastic roster changes in response to underperformance. All eyes will be on the powder keg that is the 2021 Lakers team.
Brooklyn Nets: Doing the right(-wing) thing
In a league so saturated with drama that it feels more like a reality show for individual players than a team sport, Kyrie Irving stands at the center of the attention — and for all the wrong reasons. The Brooklyn Nets’ point guard has proven that his innate ability to provoke controversy rivals that of any Fox News anchor.
Given that defense has never been the hallmark of his skillset, Irving’s lack of understanding of preventative healthcare shouldn’t be too surprising.
In 2017, Irving made global headlines by revealing his belief that the Earth is flat — a stance he would later apologize for. At that time, Irving said he would keep his more controversial beliefs out of the public discourse and to reserve them for more “intimate conversations.”
Evidently, he did not learn from this experience and has now come under intense scrutiny for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. A number of other players in the league have expressed similar anti-vaccine sentiments or refused the vaccine outright, meaning that Irving’s decision has drastic implications.
While the NBA does not have a vaccination mandate for its players, New York City’s current COVID-19 mandates prevent Irving from playing in Nets home games at the Barclays Center. In addition, Mayor-elect Eric Adams has no plans to alter current public health policies to accommodate Irving’s situation. The NBA has accepted this predicament. The organization made an internal decision to rule him ineligible to participate in team games and practices until further notice.
Despite having to forfeit $380,000 per home game missed this season, Irving remains committed to his stance, seeing himself as a martyr for the unvaccinated. Given that defense has never been the hallmark of his skillset, Irving’s lack of understanding of preventative healthcare shouldn’t be too surprising.
Philadelphia 76ers: Bad breakup in the city of “Brotherly Love”
Only five years ago, Ben Simmons was Philadelphia’s beloved prodigal son. He seemed destined to be the savior that would lift the 76ers out of the NBA’s basement cellar.
There was good reason for the fanbase to worship him. Simmons was compared to LeBron James when he left high school as the consensus top-ranked player, and was widely expected to be the first overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Simmons seemed poised to live up to these grandiose projections after earning Rookie of the Year and an All-Star selection in back-to-back seasons.
However, as the expectations for the 76ers grew, the honeymoon phase between Simmons and the fanbase came to a close. As in a failing marriage, fans grew resentful of Simmons’ refusal to change. Audiences instead began to resent Simmons for being perpetually incapable of shooting the basketball in a league that necessitates three-point shooting for success.
This underlying tension came to a head in the 2021 NBA playoffs. The top-seeded 76ers were eliminated in the East Conference semi-final round by the upstart fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. Simmons’ pronounced passivity during the playoffs was publicly criticized by both head coach Doc Rivers and star teammate Joel Embiid, which likely contributed to Simmons’ subsequent trade demands despite four years left on his contract.
Relations between both parties have reached a point of no return as the drama continues to escalate. Simmons’ brief reappearance on the team ended with Rivers kicking him out of practice. General manager Daryl Morey has reiterated his refusal to back down and comply with Simmons’ trade request.
The standoff in Philadelphia is representative of a broader trend of players exerting power over front office decisions and negotiations. This has the potential to cause another league lockout after the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2024. For now, the 76ers have cruised through the early season with a record of 8-4.
Contact Mitesh Shrestha at [email protected].