Will Kyrie Irving stay at the Brooklyn Nets? The $247m question
Kyrie Irving says he wants to stay at the Brooklyn Nets, but it’s a tricky situation for the NBA franchise, who could end up a hostage to a 30-year-old who’s growing increasingly erratic.
At this stage, no-one can be in any doubt as to who exactly Kyrie Irving is. We all know only too well. Hell, he himself makes no effort to hide the way things are going to be if you want to have his captivating talent in your ranks. When it comes to ball handling and sinking baskets, the A-B-C of the game of basketball, he’s one of the best in the history of the NBA. Irving’s talent is such that, with the point guard alongside Kevin Durant, few dared to rule the Brooklyn Nets out until there could be no doubt left that the franchise’s dereliction of duty had consumed everything, had eaten away any hope of late reaction. His talent is such that, at least until now, there was always going to be a long list of teams ready to put up with his idiosyncrasies, his ups and downs, and hope Kyrie gets in the groove. The Nets did just that, and have ended up being the first team in history to spend more than $170m on salaries yet fail to win one game in the Playoffs. They’re also the first team to start the season as favourites for the championship in the Las Vegas betting houses, and to not even get past the first round.
Irving has played less than half of the Nets’ games
Irving will be 31 by the time the next Playoffs come around. In the last five years, he has missed 41% of his team’s games. In the three he has been at the Nets, he has sat out 123 and played 103 of a total of 226. As we all know only too well, this season he refused to get vaccinated, sparking a media storm that had New York City’s covid-19 regulations mixed into it. As he could only play on the road, the Nets left him out altogether in an attempt to avoid creating a circus. But when things weren’t going very well (although the season would only get worse), and Durant had to run himself into the ground every night to get the team through games, the Nets relented and accepted Irving back into the fold. Everyone except James Harden, whose nose was already out of joint and for whom, it has since been said, Kyrie’s non-vaccination was a major source of disgruntlement. When Irving returned in January, after 35 games on the sidelines, he spent a few months only playing away from home. He ended up appearing in 29 out of 82 games, and in just six on home court, after New York’s rules were relaxed. And he played too many minutes - 37.6 per game, a career high - because his team needed every win they could get to squeeze into the Play-In Tournament, in no small measure as a result of his unavailability for much of the campaign. In his time in Brooklyn, he has also had a number of injury absences, and in the 2020/21 season he missed two weeks for personal reasons that have never been fully clarified.
Having selected Irving as first overall pick in the 2011 Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers never managed more than 33 wins per regular season in the three years he led the team, before LeBron James returned. After winning the championship ring in 2016, and playing superlatively as right-hand man to King James in the greatest comeback in history, Irving grew fed up at living in LeBron’s long shadow, and went to the Boston Celtics. There, too, he grew fed up; of what, we can’t be too sure. So, in 2019, he decided to team up with Durant at the Nets, a franchise that had hit a truly low ebb on the court and which bowed to whatever its two superstars wanted, believed, or believed they wanted.
Irving is a superlative, unique, irrepressible player. Despite everything that happened this season, he averaged 27.4 points and 5.8 assists. In March, he scored 50 points from just 19 shots and, a week later, racked up 60. In the Playoffs, he was fabulous in Game 1, but was too much of a passenger in the next three. He says it has been a very tough, emotionally-taxing year, that he feels like he has let his team-mates down and that - he’s not wrong - he has been a distraction. He has also said he wants to stay in Brooklyn, because - ominously for the Nets - his job is to “manage the franchise” together with Durant, the owner Joseph Tsai and the general manager Steve Marks.
Executives balk at outlay with Irving eligible for $247.6m deal
But there’s one problem: Irving is a free agent - or, at least, he can choose to be one, if he doesn’t take up his $36.9m player option for next season. The Nets, who initially gave out sermons about team chemistry and morale as they explained the decision to sideline the point guard, and then changed their tune entirely when they opted to reintegrate him, did not consider offering him a maximum four-year extension worth $191m at the start of this tempestuous season. Now, if he doesn’t go for his player option, Irving will be eligible for a five-year, $247.6m contract with the Nets, or can go to another team on a four-year deal worth $183.6m.
In theory, there shouldn’t even be a debate about giving a maximum contract to a player of his ability. But remember: he’s the wrong side of 30, he’s missed 41% of his team’s games in the last five years, and his behaviour has been more and more erratic. He hasn’t been reliable, certainly not as a leader in the locker room, and has become the source of problems. It’s also not clear whether he’s up for spending many more years in the NBA, with everything that the league entails off the court. So in the US media, unnamed executives are talking about the doubts that surround investing so much money and committing for so many years. It’s not about Irving’s talent; it’s about everything that comes with it. In situations like this, a franchise can end up hostaging itself; if, indeed, the Nets haven’t already. Because perhaps the question - the $247m question - isn’t so much what they’re going to do in the Brooklyn front office, but having committed themselves to this ambitious project two years ago and with Durant’s eyes fixed firmly on them, what they actually can do. They’re in a tricky predicament.