Kyrie Irving and the Nets are reportedly at an impasse over his next contract.
Now who could have seen that coming?
The signs were there. In May, shortly after Brooklyn was broomed out of the playoffs by Boston, Nets GM Sean Marks declared the team was looking for guys who were “selfless” and “want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.” Without singling out Irving, Marks said Brooklyn wanted players who would “be available.” When asked specifically about an extension for Irving, Marks said there would be conversations, after which “we’ll see if it’s the right fit for both sides.”
The latest reporting, from The Athletic, suggests those conversations have not gone particularly well.
This offseason is chock full of interesting storylines. There’s Bradley Beal, the Wizards free agent to be who said this week he has made up his mind about his future in DC—though he wasn’t ready to reveal it. There’s Damian Lillard, the Blazers mainstay, who will be looking for Portland to make major improvements this summer. There’s the Sixers contract talks with James Harden, the Pelicans extension talks with Zion Williamson and how the Jazz move forward with its roster.
Then there’s Irving. All things being equal, Irving would be a lock for a max level contract. He’s 30 and coming off a season where he averaged 27 points, handed out six assists and shot 42% from three. He's got a history, albeit now a dated one, of strong playoff performances. And he’s close with Kevin Durant.
But all things are not equal. In 2019, Irving was signed to complement Durant, to form one of the NBA’s elite scoring duos. It hasn’t worked out that way, largely because of the duos inability to share the floor. In the 247 scheduled games the Nets have had, Durant and Irving played in 58 of them. They are 34-24 in the regular season. They are 7-13 in the playoffs. A chunk of those games missed came in ’19-20, when Durant missed the entire season recovering from an Achilles injury. But another chunk of them came last year, when Irving’s decision not to get vaccinated—in defiance of New York’s vaccine mandate—derailed Brooklyn’s season before it started.
So here we are. The Nets knew it would come to this. It was always going to come to this. Brooklyn doesn’t want to offer Irving a max extension, not without assurances from Irving that if New York reinstates a vaccine mandate—while COVID-19 numbers, particularly hospitalization numbers, are down, the threat of a winter surge that could cause city officials to tighten restrictions again remains very real—Irving will comply with it. And Irving, who can opt-in to a $36.5 million contract next season, isn’t looking to take a pay cut.
Yet as inevitable as this point was, so too feels the conclusion. “They both need each other,” said Bobby Marks, ESPN’s front office insider. Indeed, this is an arranged marriage neither can exit, not without absorbing some pain in the process. Take Irving. Where is he going to go? Portland? Orlando? San Antonio? The Knicks could make (another) run at Irving but they would have the same availability questions the Nets do. The Lakers and Clippers don’t have the cap space to pay him. Irving has played 103 games in the last three seasons. What team is making a major investment in a player like that?
And what about the Nets? Brooklyn has $111 million committed to six players next season, not including Irving. The NBA’s salary cap will be around $122 million. With or without Irving, the Nets financial flexibility will be limited to exceptions. As unpredictable as Irving is, a core of Durant, Irving and Ben Simmons—complemented by Joe Harris, Bruce Brown and (hopefully) some athleticism in the frontcourt—remains a championship threat. Without Irving, Durant, 33, could spend what’s left of his prime years on a fringe contender.
This feels like posturing. Irving claims to want to stay in Brooklyn. After the season, Irving told reporters, “I don’t really plan on going anywhere.” He added that he was “looking forward to the summer and just building with our guys here.” The Nets, as frustrated as they have been by Irving, know that the disastrous decision to deal away key assets (Jarret Allen, Caris LaVert) and draft capital for James Harden has left them with limited options.
Irving needs Brooklyn to get paid.
The Nets need Irving to have any chance to win.
Both may want a change. It’s likely neither will be willing to absorb the hit that comes with making it.
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