Same as he ever was, Kyrie Irving. Big talent, bigger headache. Months after detonating the Nets chances of success last season by refusing to take the New York-mandated COVID-19 vaccine—a decision that limited Irving to 29 games and was reportedly among the reasons James Harden asked to be traded—Irving is at it again, a week before the trade deadline, demanding to be shipped out of town.
It was all going so well, wasn’t it? Sure, the Nets have stumbled since Kevin Durant’s injury last month, and Wednesday’s 43-point loss in Boston was a debacle. But Brooklyn was 12–1 in December. It was 18–2 in the 20 games before Durant went out. It had climbed the standings. It was making the Celtics sweat. Nic Claxton has emerged as an elite defender. Yuta Watanabe has become a dependable three-point shooter. Royce O’Neale has been a reliable wing. With Durant set to return around the All-Star break, the Nets had a chance to make a run.
Now it’s over. And for what? Because Brooklyn wouldn’t invest nearly $200 million in Irving? Because the Nets wouldn’t do any deal without built-in protections? Would anyone? Would you? Irving hasn’t played more than 54 games since the 2018-19 season. He will be 31 next month. And he has pro, even that if things don’t go exactly as he wants, he will want out. Ask Cleveland. Or Boston. Or, now, Brooklyn.
Is that the kind of player you make a four-year investment in?
Is that the kind of player you make a two-year investment in?
We should have seen it coming. Irving didn’t return to Brooklyn last summer out of loyalty or to finish what he started. He did it because he surveyed the NBA landscape and quickly realized no one was willing to pay him the $37 million the Nets were obligated to. Opting in wasn’t a basketball decision. It was a business one. As was this. Irving isn’t looking for a fresh start. He’s looking to transfer his Bird rights to a contender that will pay him.
Where will he go? It says something about Irving that the only teams set to make a bid are the ones reeking of desperation. The Lakers have been interested for months in reuniting Irving and LeBron James. And with a good chunk of L.A.’s cap space next summer set to be taken by Rui Hachimura, a trade may be the only way to do it. The Suns know Chris Paul is near the end. Dallas badly needs a reliable scorer next to the overworked Luka Dončić.
But what would the Nets get back? Russell Westbrook? Not without at least one unprotected first-round pick with him. Not to mention a straight Westbrook-Irving swap would cost Brooklyn $56 million more in luxury tax penalties, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks. A Jae Crowder-headlined package? Pass. A Tim Hardaway Jr./Christian Wood combination? I’d want some draft capital with that, too.
It has to be infuriating to Brooklyn brass that this has become public, that the information was disseminated to the NBA’s cadre of news breakers simultaneously mere hours after Irving made the request. Asking out is one thing. But that information getting out is another. Irving has spent weeks, months, talking about leadership and the importance of buying in. How can he walk back into a locker room and lead a team he doesn’t want to be on?
As ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins said on Friday, Irving “is a guy you cannot trust.”
And what about Durant? ESPN reported Durant was surprised to hear of Irving’s trade request. Teams following the situation are far more interested in how Durant reacts than getting in the mix for Irving. The Nets spent weeks canvassing the league for offers for Durant after his trade request last summer and didn’t find an offer they liked. Would Durant renew his request if Irving walks? It’s worth noting that Brooklyn has a better winning percentage in games Durant plays without Irving (69.1%) than with him (63.4%).
What does Irving think happens in new situation, anyway? A three-or four-year extension is going to pop out of Mark Cuban’s pockets? The Lakers seem unlikely to tie themselves to Irving any longer than LeBron is tied to the Lakers. The Mavs once balked at giving Jalen Brunson $55 million. Phoenix has a new billionaire owner but absent a deep playoff run, no one should think Irving is the solution to that team’s problems. Irving is an All-Star starter but his unpredictability and unreliability makes locking him up long term risky.
The Nets knew it, which is why we are here. Instead of accepting Brooklyn’s decision not to offer him the contract he wanted and playing out the season, Irving demanded a trade and has effectively blown it up. As it was in Cleveland and Boston, Irving has again prioritized his needs over those of his teammates, his interests over those of the team. It’s a familiar story. And if Irving signs long term elsewhere, it’s one likely to be repeated.