Last summer I got a tip I didn’t want to believe: A source familiar with the inner workings of the Nets roster told me James Harden would leave Brooklyn.
Followed by Kyrie Irving, then ultimately Kevin Durant, a purported course of events that would undoubtedly send the Nets back to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings after just three seasons in the spotlight.
Fast forward one summer and Harden is now an afterthought. And if the Nets aren’t careful, Irving is next.
And we all know where the Nets are after that: The endgame.
If Irving leaves outright as a free agent this summer, disgruntled by the Nets’ hardball stance on his availabilityBrooklyn doesn’t have the cap space to replace him with a starwhich means Durant, entering Year 16, could be playing with a questionable Ben Simmons (back surgery) and a roster full of role players.
That’s a first-round exit at best — if Durant stays to see it, and according to multiple sources, Durant and the Nets front office have not spoken since they were swept out of the first round.
In layman’s terms, if Irving leaves the Nets, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Durant becomes frustrated with the organization’s ability to put championship pieces around him. They failed to do so at the beginning of last season, with none of their top offseason acquisitions — James Johnson, DeAndre Bembry or Jevon Carter — finishing the year in Brooklyn.
This is why the Nets’ championship hopes hinge on an amicable solution with Irvingwhose personal decision not to get vaccinated and unpredictable injury history have left the Nets hesitant, and now, according to a source familiar with the Nets’ thought process, outright unwilling to give him a long-term extension.
Irving played in just 29 games last season, restricted by both New York City’s vaccine mandate and the Nets’ decision not to incorporate him into the rotation for road games until mid-December. The season before, he appeared in only 54 games, missing several stretches for “personal reasons,” and in his first season in Brooklyn, a nagging shoulder injury limited him to only 20 games played.
Yet this is the hand the Nets dealt themselves. They chose to live and die with Irving the second they signed him, Durant and DeAndre Jordan in the summer of 2019. They then surrendered all their cap flexibility in the Harden trade with Houston and still have no flexibility to sign free agents after replacing Harden’s max contract with Simmons’.
That’s the scary reality the Nets face, not four years of Irving’s availability — or lack thereof — but the alternative: coming a half-size smaller shoe away from a trip to the NBA Finals, only to be pegged as an unserious franchise shortly after if both Irving and Durant leave Brooklyn.
For obvious reasons on Irving’s side, a one-year deal is unacceptable. A player widely regarded as one of the most skilled NBA players of all time who has the injury history Irving has would never agree to a one-year deal. If Irving gets hurt on the job, no matter how many consecutive games he played prior to the injury, he would have no long-term security.
This is the part Irving must reconcile with himself. Had he not missed so many games for personal reasons two seasons ago, maybe the Nets would have looked at his decision his not to get vaccinated as an outlier, as a mere personal choice amid a global pandemic no one saw coming. But Irving succumbed to his emotions his after the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection and he missed two weeks ‘worth of games. He later missed additional games for reasons he kept private.
Then he refused the COVID-19 vaccine, leaving his teammates hanging, frustrating Harden and forcing his teammates to play above their means. Had he gotten the jab, three alternate realities are on the table: maybe Harden stays, maybe the Nets go further than a first-round sweep, and maybe Brooklyn’s front office views Irving as reliable and gives him the contract extension he desires.
That, however, doesn’t appear to be on the table, at least not at this juncture of an early offseason. Irving has about a month to make a decision whether or not he will opt into the final year of his contract in Brooklyn or test free agency. The teams that can clear enough cap space to sign him to his max of 35% of the salary cap — four years, upwards of $185M — are not in a position to compete for a deep playoff run.
This is where the Nets believe they have leverage, but in reality, Irving would only need to be creative. A team can trade a summertime free agent acquisition no sooner than Dec. 15, which means Irving can agree to a deal with either the Spurs, Pacers, Pistons, Magic or Trail Blazers, then be re-routed elsewhere, with the initial team compensated in draft assets and young players.
If that happens, Irving’s $36.5M salary would come off the Brooklyn books, but the Nets would still have $121M on the payroll with a $122M salary cap.
Or the Nets can bite the bullet and pray that Irving wants to win a championship as badly as he says he does. Even if they sign him to a four- or five-year deal now, they can refuse a no-trade clause and trade him elsewhere if the availability issues persist.
What they can’t do, however, is replace him if he walks as a free agent. If Irving walks as a free agent, he might not be the only one leaving Brooklyn. That reality is far worse than what the Nets could have if they stick to the plan and ride it out with their stars.