For all the speculative, high-level drama of this past week with Kyrie Irving, Monday’s events indicated nothing had fundamentally changed yet as far as his NBA future is concerned.
Forced to consider his options after Brooklyn refused to lay out a max extension, Irving, who began indicating which teams he’d agree to be dealt to following a choice to opt out, decided to opt in at his $36.5 million number for the final year of his deal with the Nets. That and the remote and risky possibility of his leaving $30 million on the table to join the Lakers for the midlevel exception—a somewhat inconceivable one, since Irving is north of 30, with no other guaranteed paydays in the offing and a Nike shoe deal on the fritz—were really the only two outcomes that existed.
So now we end up with what should have been relatively obvious at the conclusion of last season: with Brooklyn and likely 29 other NBA teams that would currently be unwilling to shell out a long-term commitment to someone who’s been as unpredictable, unreliable and flimsy as Irving. And it leaves him with a massive opportunity to show this coming season he’s worth a bigger commitment for his next contract, despite what’s happened in the recent past.
Just in case you needed a brief rundown: That largely stems from Irving’s infamous choice not to get vaccinated, which left him unavailable to play at all initially. (The Nets originally said they wouldn’t let him play until he did, but then reversed course and allowed him to when the caseload picked up and took a toll on the roster. Then, for a long stretch, he was allowed to play only in road games due to a New York City vaccination mandate for private employers.) Irving’s choice had an enormous sweeping impact on the Nets, who saw their season unravel after never seeing their full roster of stars together simultaneously.
Superstar Kevin Durant got injured and missed a month and a half. As a result James Harden, who’d pushed to be traded to Brooklyn partly so he could have a lighter lift on his offensive plate while playing alongside a star duo, suddenly had been thrust right back into being a full-time fulcrum because Irving refused to get vaccinated, leaving him as a part-time player. So as the losses piled up, and things tightened around the team as a result, Harden eventually pushed to be traded to Philadelphia, which in turn sent over a banged-up Ben Simmons, who never played a single second for the Nets this season.
It was an amazing, unacceptable fall from grace for Brooklyn, which entered as a title favorite, but then exited without a single postseason victory. What’s more: A great deal of the strife from the season could be connected back to Irving’s choice, which, despite being a personal one on some level, also could be perceived as one that ultimately put himself before the team as a whole. And by allowing him to do so—then organizationally backtracking to allow Irving to play despite doing so—the Nets undoubtedly put their cultural principles on the backburner.
Perhaps that’s what made this week interesting in some ways. On his own, Irving—a 25-point-per-game player, 50/40/90 threat and incredibly skilled dribbler and finisher—is talented enough to put a contender over the top while also being a bigger question mark than The Riddler. It’s precisely the conundrum my teammate Chris Mannix wrote about last week.
Still, as consequential as he is single-handedly, the domino effects involving Irving seem to matter even more. We already saw the Harden scenario play out, yet were left to wonder earlier this week: How would Durant, who originally came to Brooklyn with Irving as part of a package deal, feel about the team essentially moving on from the star point guard (even if such a move, in a vacuum, could easily be justified, given the events of last season)? Durant will turn 34 ahead of this coming season, yet still stands as one of the best players in the world—if not the best—when fully healthy. He’s under contract until the summer of 2026, and a vast swath of the league would look into moving heaven and earth for him if there were indications he wanted out of Brooklyn, because of the Irving scenario or any other reason.
For now, though, the Nets seem to have dodged that treacherous bridge-crossing involving Durant. In the meantime, the enigmatic, ever-talented Irving will get perhaps one last opportunity to illustrate he’s worth the trouble despite having missed more games as a Net (118) than he’s actually played in (116) since joining the club back in 2019. And come next summer, if there’s no long-term deal on the table for him, it would simply speak to the fact that no one—not even a contending team with Kevin Durant—feels like it can absorb the size-72 font question mark that comes along with Irving’s dazzling skill level.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI this past week
Just in case you missed anything late last week with the draft, we’ve got you totally covered.
And anything you need to know concerning free agency later this week should be here, too.
- Jeremy Woo, SI’s NBA draft analyst, was a machine and pumped out a number of pieces on draft night, including in-depth grades that analyzed each team’s selection process and a preview of the draft prospects in 2023. He also wrote a behind-the-scenes story, dishing on how some of the biggest decisions of the night were ultimately made.
- Michael Pina compiled a list of draft-night winners and losers, featuring the Knicks, Pistons and Thunder, among others. He also wrote a compelling piece about Duke product Mark Williams, a center who—with a 9'9" standing reach that’s two inches more than Rudy Gobert’s—has the potential to blow up the idea of small ball. The Hornets are certainly hoping that’s what he develops into.
- Rohan Nadkarni graded draft-related trades, one involving Jerami Grant becoming a Blazer, and a few the Knicks swung hoping to clear ample cap space ahead of free agency.
- Rohan also ranked the 25 best players who are, or could be, available in free agency.
- Howard Beck spoke with Giannis Antetokounmpo and his family on SI’s Crossover podcast about the film Rise, which chronicles the Antetokounmpo family’s challenging, yet uplifting backstory that preceded them coming to the states. (I would fully encourage anyone and everyone interested in this to pick up Mirin Fader’s New York Times best-selling biography on Antetokounmpo, which fully digs into those complicated crevices, too, particularly as it relates to the racism and questions of identity that Giannis has faced throughout his life.)
- In the WNBA, there was the somewhat shocking news that Tina Charles, the league’s scoring champion in 2021, was parting ways with the Phoenix Mercury, who also have Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith on the roster. (Robert O’Connell wrote a Daily Cover for SI on this development, and Charles is now with Seattle instead.) Much of that choice stemmed from who isn’t currently with the Mercury: seven-time All-Star big Brittney Griner, whose detention was extended six months and now is scheduled to begin standing trial in Russia this Friday after having been detained for 131 days.
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