Where Do Brooklyn Nets Go from Here After Kyrie Irving Picks Up Option?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesFeatured Columnist IVJune 28, 2022

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 17: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets and Kevin Durant #7 look on during the first quarter of Round 1 Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on April 17, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Kyrie Irving's decision to opt in with the Brooklyn Nets for the 2022-23 NBA season brought the franchise a modicum of stability.

With him, that's the best you can hope for.

The next unexcused absence, ill-informed political stance or injury is always just around the corner. The Nets executive offices probably have one of those "X Days Without a Workplace Accident" signs you see in industrial plants, only theirs reads "X Days Since The Last Time Kyrie Tweeted Something That Reads Like a Very Strange Philosophy Text."

A11Even @KyrieIrving

Living in The Age of No more secrets. <br><br>No one can hide their hands anymore. <br><br>Pay close attention, Everything is a chess move. <br><br>The TRUTH vs THE LIE

For now, though, it seems as if Brooklyn can operate as much like a normal team as possible, given the abnormal circumstances. That means its offseason focus can move from calling bluffs on failed superstar leverage plays to the comparatively mundane tasks of navigating free agency and preparing for a season that could very likely include a deep playoff run.

That'll mean figuring out what to do with Patty Mills, who could decline his player option and hit the market. The unrestricted free agency of Bruce Brown looms large, as does the restricted free agency of Nic Claxton.

And...actually, let's just stop for a second and consider how quaint and simple those issues seem in the aftermath of Irving's long-odds flirtation with the Los Angeles Lakers and the potential for a Kevin Durant trade that might have followed.

Mills, Brown, Claxton and whomever the Nets target with the taxpayer's mid-level exception are important, but maybe the real top offseason priority should be to enjoy a deep sigh of relief. Brooklyn should feel positively serene about how much control it has over matters not involving its superstars.

It has Bird rights on both Brown and Claxton, which means it can exceed the cap and beat outside offers to retain both—if governor Joe Tsai is willing to add to a projected luxury tax penalty exceeded only by the champion Golden State Warriors.

The Nets shouldn't let their guard down for long, though. After addressing their basic offseason concerns, they'll enter 2022-23 as a true high-wire act, riddled with all the same uncertainties. And that's not even including Ben Simmons' health and interest in playing basketball, unknowns that would have otherwise been among the top offseason storylines in Brooklyn.

Ian Begley @IanBegley

Nets say Ben Simmons is expected to make full recovery prior to 2022-23 training camp: <a href="https://t.co/IrJOd8f3E5">pic.twitter.com/IrJOd8f3E5</a>

The possibility of an Irving trade remains. It's unrealistic to think something would happen quickly on that front, but Brooklyn will have to consider moving Irving as an expiring deal all the way up to the February deadline.

If his typical unreliability persists, or if the Nets simply determine they could better fill out a championship roster with $36 million worth of depth pieces, moving a lame-duck superstar could still be the right decision. Nobody wanted Irving in a sign-and-trade swap in June, but things will change over the next eight months.

Of course, any revisitation of an Irving trade would logically put a Durant move and a more robust rebuild back on the table. That's assuming KD will continue to tie his professional fate to Irving, which, in the wake of the last three years, is only getting harder to understand.

If we're going to be thorough, Irving might even put together a career season that doesn't include any non-basketball distractions and force the Nets to think about bringing him back on a new deal in unrestricted free agency. Brooklyn can also still extend him until June 30, 2023. Wait, why are you laughing?

Irving is as frustrating as stars get, but that's only because of his supreme talent. He racked up 27.4 points per game on 59.2 percent true shooting last year while never playing often enough to catch a rhythm.

Even for those of us who suspected a rough ending for this Brooklyn experiment from the start have had to acknowledge that Irving's skill is one of the reasons to hold out hope. And hey, it's never too late for anyone, even a player as seemingly incorrigible as Irving, to reform. The lack of a guaranteed max deal waiting for him at the end of the season might have a motivating effect.

For the first time in a while, Irving could feel as if he has something to prove. Maybe he'll stay healthy, keep the galaxy-brain nonsense to a minimum and just ball out. The Nets should be hesitant to renew their commitment even in that scenario.

The "fool me once, shame on you..." reservations may be impossible to overcome. But Brooklyn has Durant under contract for three years after this one, and if he pushes for a seemingly matured Kyrie to stay, a re-up could be in the cards.

Ultimately, Irving, Durant and the Nets ran through a year's worth of news cycle in a matter of hours this week. One of the main conclusions from that whirlwind stretch is that Brooklyn is at least comfortable acting as if it has no problem moving on from Irving—and possibly even Durant.

ESPN @espn

"[The Nets] are prepared to lose both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant."<a href="https://twitter.com/WindhorstESPN?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WindhorstESPN</a> on the state of the Nets. <a href="https://t.co/7faWTkbl9j">pic.twitter.com/7faWTkbl9j</a>

Whether or not that's truly how the Nets would act in a position with less leverage remains to be seen, but it feels like the events of late June will hang over the upcoming season. The bonds between the team and its stars don't seem any stronger after this abbreviated struggle.

Trust and affinity can only be in shorter supply now. At least as far as Irving and the Nets are concerned, this relationship is officially a marriage of convenience. There are no illusions now.

Even for a group with as much on-paper talent as the Nets have, winning at the highest level will be tricky with vibes like that.

Then again, that's what you get with superteams: tenuous unions and short shelf lives. The Heatles got four seasons, and it might have been fewer if not for their 2012 title. Durant and the Warriors got three. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook have one in the books, and all parties involved probably wish that number were lower.

Irving and Durant have been together for three years, actually sharing the court for only 44 regular-season games and, perhaps, nearly seeing the whole thing come to an end on Monday.

With the crisis averted for the moment, Brooklyn can continue down the path it chose three summers ago. That path will still terminate the same way, with one or both stars moving on and the franchise rebuilding afterward. The end will probably be messy, the predictable result of substituting mercenary talent for chemistry, loyalty and team-first principles.

But before that conclusion, Brooklyn will have a chance to make all the hassle worthwhile. A championship is a more realistic goal for the Nets than it is for all but a handful of other teams in the league.

Brooklyn showed some backbone in its dealings with Irving, daring him to find a sign-and-trade partner and holding strong on its refusal to offer a max extension. But how much has really changed? Down the line, the frightening answer to the question of where the Nets go from here might still be "Wherever KD and Kyrie want."

Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.