As the Nets’ disappointing season reached its end after they were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Kyrie Irving made clear that he was committed to the Nets for the long term.
But after a season in which Irving played only 29 of the 82 regular season games because of his refusal to comply with a local vaccine ordinance, do the Nets want him back?
That question loomed over the team’s season-ending news conference on Wednesday held by General Manager Sean Marks and Coach Steve Nash. While Marks was reluctant to give a clear answer, that he didn’t immediately say “yes” spoke nearly as clearly as anything he could have said. The Nets haven’t decided yet if Irving can and should be part of their future.
“I think we know what we’re looking for,” Marks said. “We’re looking for guys that want to come in here and be part of something bigger than themselves, play selfless, play team basketball, and be available. That goes not only for Kyrie but for everybody here.”
That theme of availability persisted throughout Marks’ remarks, and has been challenging for the Nets’ star players.
Irving and Kevin Durant signed with Brooklyn to great fanfare in 2019, but the Nets have yet to reap the benefits of adding two multiple-time All-Stars who had each won championships by themselves. Durant missed all of the 2019-20 season while recovering from an Achilles’ tendon injury he sustained in the 2019 finals with Golden State.
Last season, they added James Harden through a trade with Houston, creating what was supposed to be a formidable lineup. They lost to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season despite 48 points in Game 7 from Durant, who hit a buzzer-beating 2-pointer to tie the game in regulation. His toe was on the 3-point arc — the shot was mere millimeters from being a game-winner.
Rather than building on that near miss, the Nets went backward this season.
Irving declined to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, which meant he would not be able to play in games in Brooklyn or at Madison Square Garden for most of the season. The Nets initially decided they didn’t want a part-time player, and said Irving would not play until he was eligible for all of their games. They abruptly changed course in January and Irving began exclusively playing in road games outside New York and Toronto.
On Wednesday afternoon, Marks declined to reconsider that decision, while again stressing the importance of a player’s availability.
“When you have a player of Kyrie’s caliber, you try and figure out: How do we get him in the mix and how long can we get him in the mix for?” Marks said. “Because the team was built around saying, ‘Well, Kyrie and Kevin are going to be available.’”
Irving’s absences made the Nets’ margins that much slimmer. Any time Durant or Harden were injured, that meant the team was down two starters instead of just one. As they dealt with coronavirus-related absences, like many teams did, they had fewer players on whom to rely.
“There were a variety of teams out there and the teams that are still playing to this day, they may not have had quite the extent of the excuses that we can come up with, but they had to navigate Covid as well, they had to navigate injuries,” Marks said. “And if I’m going to be brutally honest, they navigated it better than we did.”
Harden tired of Irving’s absences and the challenges they posed. He was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, who play in Game 6 of their second-round series against the Miami Heat on Thursday night.
In the trade, the Nets acquired Ben Simmons, who didn’t play a game for them. Simmons had back surgery on May 5 after magnetic resonance imaging showed a “herniation had expanded,” Marks said.
In talking about the team’s big stars, Marks mostly spoke of Durant alone. He said Durant was a draw for other players around the league — that people wanted to play for him. He said Durant is the team’s best player development coach. He talked of wanting to involve Durant in personnel decisions, without asking him to actually make those decisions.
“People think player empowerment means you just let them do whatever they want to do,” Marks said. “That wasn’t the case when Steve was a player. That wasn’t the case when I was a player on any of the teams we’ve been on. That’s not the case here. I think involving players on key decisions at particular points in the season is the right way to do it. There’s nothing worse than having players surprised by something.”
Whether Irving returns to the team is not just in the Nets’ hands. He has a player option for next season worth $36.5 million and is also eligible for an extension worth $200 million over five years. Should he decline his player option, he would become an unrestricted free agent.
He showed his dynamism on the court in several games this season, scoring 50 points against the Charlotte Hornets in March and then 60 a week later against the Orlando Magic.
But what use is that explosiveness if he isn’t playing?
“I think there’s been far too much debate, discussion, scuttlebutt — whatever you want to call it — about distractions, and about things that really are outside of basketball,” Marks said. “Whereas we’d like to focus on doing some of the things that got us here in the first place.”
Marks made that comment in his opening remarks during Wednesday’s news conference, before anyone had asked him about Irving.
It fit, though, with the message he seemed to be sending throughout his news conference. It was a message to Irving about committing in a real way, not just contractually, to a team that could have used more of him this season.