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Kevin Durant and LeBron James are in a Cold War, of sorts

Holding their current employers hostage by refusing the continuation of their services until their demands are met, it may not be possible for both stars to remain in place, appeased.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

After years of duking it out on the biggest of stages for supremacy of the league itself, LeBron James and Kevin Durant appear locked in an offseason arms race taking place entirely either behind closed doors or on Twitter.

If Round 1 culminated live on national television with the 2012 Finals showdown between Miami and Oklahoma City, before Round 2’s rematch spanned a pair of matchups featuring James’ Cavaliers and Durant’s Warriors in ‘17 and ‘18, then Round 3 is a Cold War of sorts between the game’s top two superpowers, with Durant and James each apparently refusing to commit long-term to their respective teams lest they meet their semi-private demands.

On Monday, Kevin Durant, by way of The Athletic’s Shams Charania, issued an ultimatum to his employers: “Keep me — or the GM [Sean Marks] and coach [Steve Nash].”

And while Durant’s demands of the Nets’ are now explicitly clear, the explanation for his desires is less obvious. Any attempt by Brooklyn to appease Durant would inevitably require answers to the following questions:

  1. What does Durant believe is (Charania’s words) “the Nets’ direction?”
  2. Why exactly does he lack (also Charania) “faith” in it?
  3. And reflexively, what, beyond simply cleaning house, would restore his faith in the organization?

On the opposite end of the continental United States, LeBron James is pulling a similar stunt with the Lakers. Despite repeated public and private protestations of his love for both the Lakers and his life as an Angeleno, LeBron has yet to officially re-up with the team following “productive” talks which may or may not have been about an extension on August 4, the first day they were legally allowed to do so, per the NBA’s collectively bargained Constitution and Bylaws.

And while LeBron and the Lakers will be allowed until June 30 of 2023 to potentially agree on that extension, his failure to do so will likely increase the noise of the sideshow surrounding the team’s 2022-23 campaign and become a potential distraction to their ability to win actual basketball games.

Like Durant’s, LeBron’s proclamation by proxy raises a big unanswerable question:

  1. If LeBron is thrilled as ever to be a Laker, why is it that he’s holding out on locking in his future with them?

In order to find the answer connecting the subtextual inquiries regarding Durant and James’ respective holdouts, one needs look no further than the nuclear option that both Durant and James have each weaponized in past seasons: Kyrie Irving. Occam’s razor — the philosophical rule stating that the simplest explanation is also the most likely one — suggests that Irving may be at or near the center of each superior star’s present pause.

Circling back to Durant’s implied and unanswered questions, it’s impossible to know precisely how he feels without hearing him respond himself. However, due to Irving’s conspicuous nominal absence from Durant’s public blame game, it may be that Durant is more frustrated with the franchise’s handling of Irving’s vaccination status than Irving himself for choosing to remain unvaccinated.

Further, if Durant is indeed committed to playing with Irving so long as he remains a Net, it could follow logically that Durant’s distaste with the franchise’s “direction” has more to do with owner Joseph Tsai’s refusal to extend his equal parts mercurial and magisterial co-star to a long-term contract this offseason than anything Marks or Nash have actually done, as suggested by Dave Early of SB Nation’s own Liberty Ballers Sixers site.

Early went on to contend that without a long-term deal for Irving to at least match the remaining four years on Durant’s own contract that Durant feels less inclined to buy-into a future with the Nets. Perhaps Durant’s potential perception of the team’s inability to field a competitive roster around him, leading to their first round sweep at the hands of the eventual Eastern Conference champion Celtics, has played a part in his frustration.

And considering the fact that the Nets surrounding Durant have tended to be in street clothes or absent entirely over the past season, even beyond Irving’s uniquely irregular availability, it makes sense that Durant might not trust the infrastructure around him. Seth Curry and Ben Simmons — the primary return for James Harden from the Sixers — each needed offseason surgery, and the latter of the pair has yet to suit up in 16 months, or even once as a Brooklyn Net.

If we are to take Early’s postulations as fact, it follows that the Nets will begin the 2022-23 season with either both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving or neither, as Irving’s continued presence on the Nets would likely be at least a part of Durant’s potential appeasement. If Durant proves inconsolable, then it might be in the Nets’ best interest to move on from Irving for some sort of return in a trade, especially with Irving eyeing the Lakers in the 2023 offseason.

LeBron’s been far less opaque or extreme than Durant when telegraphing the cause of his holdup. James has long wanted to play with a third star, and after purging the supporting cast of his championship Lakers to bring in Russell Westbrook, he wants to swap out the future Hall of Fame point guard for another one in Kyrie Irving.

But since the Nets won’t deal Kyrie without clarity on KD, for the first time in the history of their rivalry, it’s Durant who is in charge of LeBron’s future. In contrast with how LeBron shut the door on Durant’s first championship aspirations in the 2012 Finals, or the way he beat the Warriors in 2016 which opened the door for Durant to join them in free agency, it is KD who has total control over whether LeBron gets what he covets most this offseason.

In all likelihood, the Lakers won’t have a chance to make a deal for Irving, regardless of whether they decide to include both available future first round draft picks, if Durant caves on his demands and decides to happily return to Brooklyn. If the Nets are able to find a trade partner and deal Durant for all 100 cents on the dollar, then maybe the Nets will find a way to send Irving to Los Angeles. But still, if LeBron were to agree to an extension with the Lakers tomorrow, it would have no bearing on the Nets’ ongoing negotiations with their disgruntled superstar.

The only thing that can trigger a detente, or an easing of tensions, in LeBron and Durant’s proxy war is an agreement between Durant and the Nets, not the Lakers and LeBron.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.