B/R Staff Makes Sense of Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving Debacle
The Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving situation came to a head Tuesday when general manager Sean Marks announced that the star guard will not play or practice with the team until he is "eligible to become a full participant."
"It's sad that it came to this," said one Eastern Conference scout, who spoke with B/R's A. Sherrod Blakely. "I always find it funny that Kyrie tells [the media], 'I don't want to be a distraction' and everything he damn near does is a distraction."
The situation has created a storm of questions around the NBA community.
*Editor's note: Kyrie Irving hasn't revealed his vaccination status, although the Nets' announcement Tuesday suggests he remains unvaccinated.
1. What Have the Brooklyn Nets Decided to Do, Technically? Is Kyrie Suspended?
Nets GM Sean Marks told reporters on Tuesday morning that Irving would only lose salary for the home games he's ineligible to play in. So as it stands, it would appear that he'll be paid for half the season while not having to play or practice at all.
It's somewhere between a suspension and what is known in other lines of work as "administrative leave."
It's actually a pretty good deal for Kyrie. Getting paid even a reduced salary to not have to come to work at all makes it less likely in my view that he's going to reverse course and get the shot anytime soon.
2. Can He Rejoin BKN If He Gets Vaccinated? Can He Show Up to Team Activities?
Prior to Tuesday's announcement, New York City officials had deemed the Nets facilities as a private business, which therefore allowed Irving to join Brooklyn for practice sessions, medical treatments and film study, et al.
It seems that Tuesday's decision is simply Nets management's effort to urge Irving into complying with New York City ordinance, and Brooklyn team figures have suggested that Irving will be able to rejoin the Nets the moment he receives his first dose.
If this effort by Sean Marks and team governor Joe Tsai has its intended effect to steer Irving toward an inoculation, yes, it would appear that he would then be able to show up for team activities right away.
3. Why Wouldn't BKN Let Him Play Part-Time When Stars Load-Manage All the Time?
Even though some teams will load-manage players, no team has had a healthy player of Irving's magnitude miss half a season. That is precisely what Irving was planning to do. That type of disruption hinders chemistry building.
The Nets have an overwhelming amount of talent, but learning to play together is paramount. That is what the regular season is for. It is about going through adversity as a team and learning from it. Irving will miss out on those games and those lessons.
The Nets have championship aspirations. Their odds increase massively with Irving, but only if he's a full-time player, not a part-time one.
4. Will (or Should) Nets Look to Trade Kyrie? Is There a Trade out There?
Regarding the first question, I don't think so. The fact that Marks announced on Tuesday that Brooklyn will only withhold Irving's payment during home games, and that there won't be a series of fines for missed practices, buses, flights, etc., indicated that Nets officials aren't hoping this situation becomes antagonistic to the point it pushes Irving out the door.
By all accounts, Kevin Durant and James Harden want Irving in Brooklyn at their side, aiding the All-Stars' chase for a championship. This move seems solely designed to urge Irving to get vaccinated to reunite with that collective effort.
The trade market would likely be as muddied as that pertaining to Ben Simmons, and maybe even more so. The Nets would not be operating from a position of strength, regardless of Irving's talent, and his looming contract opt-out in 2022 would make Irving's long-term stability with any franchise that acquired him all the more questionable.
5. Are the Nets a Title Contender Even Without Kyrie?
In a word, yes. Even without Irving, the Nets still have two consensus top-10 players. Most preseason player rankings around the internet (including Bleacher Report's) have Kevin Durant at No. 1 and James Harden around the 7-8 range. And honestly, that might be selling Harden short. Even with his highly publicized individual tank job in Houston, Harden finished the season with averages of 24.6 points and 10.8 assists. No one is all that close to his total wins over replacement player over the last five seasons. And with Harden willing to cede No. 1 option status so easily to KD last season, it's easy to see how those two fit together.
The only team in the league with a duo that might rival that one is the Los Angeles Lakers, but Brooklyn has more depth. Patty Mills can easily slide into the starting lineup to provide floor spacing for the stars. A couple more three-point attempts from Joe Harris wouldn't hurt. Blake Griffin looked rejuvenated as a playmaking 5 after joining the Nets last season. Bruce Brown should once again be a unique rim-runner. And James Johnson offers an intriguing option in the frontcourt as someone who can guard multiple positions and distribute the ball to teammates. If they get anything from LaMarcus Aldridge and one or two of the young players outperforms expectations, that's a solid rotation.
Of course, injuries could derail them, but we could say that of any team (especially another older squad like the Lakers). Losing Kyrie might knock the Nets out of the "clear favorite" tier that they previously sat in alone, but they're definitely still a contender.
6. Could This Actually Work Out in the Nets' Favor Somehow?
Irving missing games due to being unvaccinated could wind up benefiting Brooklyn financially.
The league has yet to rule whether a player's docked pay due to their vaccination status will be relieved from their team's luxury-tax bill. That could present a massive savings opportunity for team governor Joe Tsai, as the Nets have compiled one of the most expensive rosters in the NBA.
Because of his lengthy injury history, the All-Star point guard might also benefit from 41-plus games on the sideline to get his body ready for a deep playoff run. However, Brooklyn officials would clearly prefer him to get vaccinated and join the team for the full 82-game season.
7. What Does Kyrie's Ongoing Refusal Tell Us About What's to Come?
Irving's refusal to meet New York City's vaccine requirements to be available to play a full season with the Brooklyn Nets is sad but very predictable. More often than not, he marches to a beat that only he can hear or comprehend.
But this is different. He put the Nets in the uncomfortable position of acquiescing to his wishes or doing what's in the best interest of the team as a whole.
Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks picked the latter Tuesday. The Nets releasing a statement making it clear that they're ready to move on without Irving, but they will welcome him back when he's ready to be a "full participant."
That will require Irving to pivot in a way he's never done before. That's why there's still a real possibility of the 29-year-old retiring rather receiving the vaccination and returning to the NBA.
Even before the pandemic, Irving walking away from the game at or near his prime was something league executives long suspected as a possibility. A league executive told Bleacher Report he still believes it's a long shot.
"But with him, you never really know, right?" the executive said.
8. Could NY's Vax Mandate Change Soon? Is That the Likliest End to This Saga?
Even after almost two years, it's impossible to predict how the pandemic is going to play out in the future.
It's typically gone like this in major cities like New York: COVID-19 cases go up, new restrictions are put in place, cases start to decline, some of the restrictions are lifted, cases go up again, more restrictions are added back in.
Right now, 64.8 percent of the population of New York City is fully vaccinated and 71.6 percent has received at least one shot. That rate is impressive, but it might not be high enough for them to consider lifting the mandate, especially with winter coming.
Who knows where things will be by the time the playoffs roll around, but the Nets shouldn't bank on the situation changing anytime soon.
9. KD and Harden Have to Be Upset, Right?
This is not what Kevin Durant had in mind when he left Golden State for Brooklyn in 2019.
When James Harden declined a two-year, $103 million extension to stay in Houston, he did so with the intent of being able to play with Durant and Irving in Brooklyn.
Neither Durant nor Harden have expressed public frustration with Irving's decision not to get vaccinated. That isn't likely to change, either.
With Irving, the Nets are the overwhelming favorite to win this year's title. They're still the team to beat without him, too, but the gap is much closer.
At the end of the day, it's all about winning a championship. That's a strong possibility for Brooklyn, with or without Irving.
10. Is This Better or Worse Than Philly's Ben Simmons Situation?
Ben Simmons requested a trade this offseason and refused to report to the Philadelphia 76ers until Monday. He only returned upon facing the stark realization that he can't recoup the roughly $1 million that the Sixers fined him during his holdout.
This isn't a permanent solution, though. It's just a temporary state of detente so the Sixers can wait out other teams who might get off to slow starts and try to rebuild Simmons' trade value.
Meanwhile, Irving staying true to his worldview. At this point, he'd rather sacrifice the money from home games than go back on his core beliefs. He hasn't demanded a trade, nor has he cut off communication from fellow stars Kevin Durant and James Harden.
In a sense, that's better than the negativity surrounding Simmons in Philadelphia. But at least the Sixers have an end game: They'll eventually trade Simmons.
The Nets are hoping to win a title with their three stars, and there's buzz around the league that Irving may retire if Brooklyn agrees to trade him elsewhere.
"I'm glad we're not dealing with that," a competing NBA executive said of both "messes."
They're both bad situations, but the Nets have it worse.
At some point before the trade deadline, the Sixers will get both closure and talent back for Simmons. The Nets may not have Irving or a replacement for the entire season and playoffs.