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NBA

So I Guess We’re Doing This Again

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 26: Kyrie Irving attends the 2022 BET Awards at Microsoft Theater on June 26, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images,)
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Kyrie Irving, a man who has played 103 regular-season games over the last three seasons, reportedly wants out of Brooklyn. Irving has one player-option year left on the four-year max deal he signed with the Nets in the summer of 2019, and the source of his discontent with the team has grown out of talks of extending said contract. As Irving has only played in 40 percent of their games over the past three seasons due to a combination of vaccine idiocy and corporeal frailty, the Nets obviously do not want to pay him another $160 or so million for a deal that won’t end until he’s 35. Irving would not seem to have much leverage here—most NBA teams have neither the cap space nor the organizational fortitude to deal with the headaches and unavailability inherent to the Kyrie Irving experience—except he’s tied himself to Kevin Durant, who rules, so the Nets have a rotten situation on their hands.

Before we get too deep here, I should reiterate that Kyrie Irving the basketball player is still a legitimate star. Despite playing almost exclusively on the road this past season, he averaged career highs in scoring and three-point shooting, and he nearly broke the eventual Eastern Conference champs with a sensational Game 1 performance in Boston. It’s easy, maybe even inevitable, to overlook his on-court excellence because of the off-court spectacle, though when he plays, he’s very good. The problem is he rarely does so. He has only played more than 70 games once in the past seven seasons, and the geologic record of small, twitchy point guards north of 30 is a grim one. Irving will not have the opportunity to perform another vaccine holdout, though the damage has already been done as it helped push James Harden off the team and doomed the Nets to a terrible playoff seed and a quick exit.

Reliable Irving mouthpiece Shams Charania proceeded towards the reporting of news last week that an “impasse currently exists among the parties that clears the way” for Irving to leave the Nets. Irving handed Brooklyn management a list of six teams—the Mavericks, Knicks, Clippers, Lakers, Heat, and 76ers (lol)—that he would be cool playing for, and today the New York Daily News reported the Nets have given him permission to find sign-and-trade offers with other teams. Unsurprisingly, he’s getting few takers. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the only team that really thinks he’s worth a max contract is the Lakers, who already have the league’s most onerous contract on their books and can only offer the Nets Talen Horton-Tucker, who is butt, and a bunch of signed LeBron James jerseys. The Nets don’t want that, and no other team on Irving’s list wants to move the necessary mountains to trade for a guy who is the midst of flaming out of his third team in five years. Even if you have a championship ring, at some point you have to prove that you’re still worth it.

This is where Durant changes the equation. Irving alone might not be a worth a max, but he is a significantly more valuable player if he comes as a package deal with Durant. It’s a somewhat cynical ploy by Irving, who doomed his team’s title chances because he watched too many of the wrong kind of Instagram videos, to imperil his team’s standing with their actual best player in order to get himself paid, though this is the gambit the Nets accepted when they signed both players in 2019. Ominously, Durant is said to be “monitoring the situation,” which is never a good sign. He extended his deal last summer, so he’s on the books until 2026, though he is very close with Irving and also nearing the tail end of his prime. In this sense, Irving has leverage on everyone, since Durant might credibly believe an Irving-less Nets are not a real title contender and could then ask for a trade. Durant is still one of the very best players in the NBA, and the Nets could expect a mondo haul for him, but also, they do not want want any damn mondo haul since they tooled up as title contenders just three years ago and already owe a shitload of picks to the Rockets for the Harden trade. If it all falls apart for Brooklyn, this would be a disaster in both the short- and long-term.

Only two months ago, Irving said he was committed to Brooklyn, and hoped to have a hand in “managing the franchise” alongside Durant. It is bold for a guy who destroyed his team because he was microchip-cautious to get his ass handed to him in the playoffs then immediately be like, I need more organizational power here, and it is especially bold to do all that and then two months later flee the team and take Durant with him. The looming immolation of the Nets project would feel like more significant news if it hadn’t been slowly unspooling for a year now. This team had all the potential in the world, the most formidable trio of scorers in the league, and it is all on the brink of ending without ever getting started.

But this is Kyrie Irving, who’s dipped out of cushy situations in Cleveland and Boston before. The Nets knew signing him was a necessary precondition for signing Durant, which means it was still worth it, though they have backed themselves into a lose-lose situation: Either pay Kyrie Irving more than he’s worth to keep Kevin Durant happy, or press the reset button and destroy a would-be super team that won one playoff series in three years. The deadline for Irving to opt in to the final year of his contract is Wednesday, so a resolution to this saga is not far off. Another scenario we haven’t touched on is one where Irving opts out and signs for the mid-level exception, though seeing as how he ceded half his salary and lost his Nike deal last year, I doubt he’d voluntarily take a $30 million pay cut. At least the Nets have another former all-star on the team. Unfortunately, that guy is one of the few players in the league who is even less reliable than Irving. Oops!

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