As the Nets’ disappointing season came to an end when they were swept away by the Boston Celtics in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Kyrie Irving has made it clear that he will be dedicated to the Nets for the long term.
But after a season in which Irving played only 29 of 82 regular season games for refusing to comply with local vaccine ordinances, do the Nets want him back?
That question loomed over the team’s end-of-season press conference on Wednesday, hosted by general manager Sean Marks and coach Steve Nash. Marks was reluctant to give a definitive answer, but not saying “yes” immediately was as clear as he could say. Nets has not yet decided if Irving can and should be a part of the future.
“I think we know what we’re looking for,” Marks said. “We are looking for people who come here to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to play disinterestedly, to play team basketball, and to have something to spare. It’s not just for Kyrie, it’s for everyone here.”
That topic of availability persisted throughout Marks’ remarks and was a challenge for the Nets’ star players.
Irving and Kevin Durant signed to Brooklyn in 2019 and generated huge fanfare, but the Nets haven’t yet taken advantage of the multiple additions of their two All-Stars, who each won the championship on their own. Durant missed the entire 2019-20 season while recovering from an Achilles tendon injury sustained in the 2019 Finals at Golden State.
Last season they made a strong lineup by adding James Harden through a trade with Houston. They lost last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals to Milwaukee in Game 7 despite Durant’s 48-point lead but tied with a buzzer two-point shot. His toes were in a three-point arc. The shot was only millimeters away from winning the game.
The Nets have stepped back this season, based on little failures.
Irving refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, which meant he could not play in Brooklyn or Madison Square Garden for most of the season. The Nets initially decided they didn’t want a part-time player and said he wouldn’t play until Irving was qualified to play in every game. They suddenly switched courses in January, and Irving started playing road games exclusively outside of New York and Toronto.
On Wednesday afternoon, Marks re-emphasized the importance of the player’s availability while refusing to reconsider the decision.
“When you have a player on the same level as Kyrie, we try to figure out how we can include him in the mix and how long we can have him in the mix.” said Marks. “Because the team is built around a saying, ‘Well, Kyrie and Kevin will be available’.”
Irving’s absence made the Nets’ margins even tighter. Every time either Durant or Harden got injured, that meant the team drove away two starting pitchers instead of one. As many teams have done, they have fewer players to count on as they deal with coronavirus-related absences.
“There have been a lot of different teams, and there are teams that continue to play to this day. We may not have had enough excuses that we could come up with, but we had to get through Corona too. Explore the injuries,” Marks said. “And I am brutally honest. To put it bluntly, they navigated better than us.”
Harden is tired of Irving’s absence and the challenges they pose. He was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers playing Thursday night in Game 6 of the second round series against the Miami Heat.
In the trade, Nets acquired Ben Simmons who didn’t play for them. Simmons underwent back surgery on May 5th after magnetic resonance imaging revealed “an enlarged hernia”.
When talking about the team’s big stars, Marks mostly only talked about Durant. He said Durant had a draw against the other players in the league. People wanted to play for him. He said Durant is the best player development coach on the team. He said he wants to get involved in personnel decisions without actually asking Durant to make those decisions.
“People think that empowering players means letting them do whatever they want to do,” Marks said. “It wasn’t when Steve was a player. It wasn’t when I was a player for any team we were on. Not here. “I think it’s the right way to get players involved in key decisions at some point in the season. There’s nothing worse than being surprised by something.”
Whether Irving returns to the team is not in the hands of the Nets. He has a player option for next season of $36.5 million and is eligible for a $200 million extension over five years. If he rejects his player option, he will become an unlimited free agent.
He has shown his dynamism on the court in several games this season, scoring 50 points against Charlotte Hornets in March and then 60 against Orlando Magic a week later.
But what good is the explosion if he doesn’t play?
“I think there’s been too much discussion, debate and bland, whatever you call it distraction and anything other than basketball,” Marks said. “On the other hand, we want to focus on a few things that got us here in the first place.”
Marks said that before anyone even asked him about Irving in his opening remarks at a press conference on Wednesday.
But he matched his message throughout the press conference. It was a message to Irving about committing himself in a practical way as well as a contract to a team that could have used him more this season.