They had a 21-9 record, were fresh off an impressive win against the Philadelphia 76ers that Kevin Durant completed with a dagger jumper over Joel Embiid that was followed by him gesturing toward players on the visitors bench that they should go home. Brooklyn was in first place, three games clear, with Durant and James Harden locking in All-Star nods with their play.
But when Irving returned to the team, the mood changed. Some of it was bad luck — just then the winter COVID wave affected the Nets, forcing them to shut down. Then Durant missed 20 games with a knee injury. Then Irving’s relationship with Harden collapsed and contributed to Harden asking to be traded.
“I think it was just really heavy emotionally this season,” Irving said after the Nets were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics on Monday.
“We all felt it. I felt like I was letting the team down at a point where I wasn’t able to play. We were trying to exercise every option for me to play, but I never wanted it to just be about me. And I think it became a distraction at times.”
For his part, Goran Dragic, who didn’t join the team until late February, said: “Every day there was something different, something difficult.”
Now consider what coach Steve Nash said on Dec. 16 after the win over Philly, the night before the Nets announced they’d changed their mind about letting Irving play part time.
“The spirit has been outstanding,” Nash said then. “These guys are playing for one another, playing the right way and sticking with it.”
Then consider what general manager Sean Marks said on Oct. 12 when he drew a line regarding Irving’s playing status.
“We will not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability,” Marks said. “It is imperative that we continue to build chemistry as a team and remain true to our long-established values of togetherness and sacrifice. Our championship goals for the season have not changed, and to achieve these goals each member of our organization must pull in the same direction.”
The Nets’ failures this season go deeper than Irving’s situation and the New York City laws that forced him to the sideline. Add on the fact that Ben Simmons, acquired for Harden, never played.
Stephen A. Smith blames the Nets’ disappointing first-round sweep against the Celtics on Kyrie Irving’s absence during the regular season.
But Irving, the captivating uber-talented guard, simply hasn’t been available or able to deliver the leadership or sustained play the Nets envisioned when they turned the franchise over to him and Durant in 2019. And it has been a central factor in what has now been a pile of disappointing seasons.
And turning it over to them is exactly what the Nets have done. Irving has made that clear with his actions and, notably, his words. Shortly after Nash was hired in September 2020, Irving famously said: “I don’t really see us having a head coach. You know what I mean? KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.”
Then again on Monday night, Irving laid bare how he and Durant work with team management: “When I say I’m here with Kev, I think that really entails us managing this franchise together, alongside [owner] Joe [Tsai] and Sean, just our group of family members in our locker room, in our organization.”
That isn’t aspirational from Irving, it’s literal. And it helps explain how Marks could make the comments he did in October and then totally change his stance in December, when he gathered player input all while the team was performing well.
“We arrived at this decision with the full support of our players and after careful consideration of our current circumstances” Marks said in a Dec. 17 statement. “We believe that the addition of Kyrie will not only make us a better team but allow us to more optimally balance the physical demand on the entire roster.”
Which brings the Nets to the next order of business: Irving’s contract. The 30-year-old guard can opt out of his contract in June and he expects to. Irving, it seems, has his plans worked out.
“In terms of my extension I don’t really plan on going anywhere,” he said Monday. “This is added motivation for our franchise to be at the top of the league for the next few years. I’m just looking forward to the summer and just building with our guys here.”
Irving can ask for a five-year contract up to $248 million. There have been some questions in the league as to whether the Nets will try to get concessions from him, such as agreeing to a four-year deal that would align with Durant’s current contract and be worth in the $200 million range.
Or, whether Brooklyn could try to protect itself with salary tied to games played; Irving has averaged 55 games per season over his 11-year career. In each of the past two seasons, Irving stepped away from the team for non-injury reasons. In 2020-21, he took an unauthorized leave of absence and missed seven games; and this season it was because of his decision not to get vaccinated.
But for the past three years the concessions between Irving and the team have consistently gone in one direction — a product of Irving securing Durant’s commitment to play with him and bring him to Brooklyn.
Kyrie Irving admits his status was a distraction to the Nets this season and remains adamant he will return to Brooklyn in the fall.
Durant has shown no signs of wavering in his support of Irving. Last summer, Durant doubled down, signing a four-year, $198 million extension, bypassing free agency and a chance to leave this year. He backed Irving’s desire to return as a part-time player this season, then supported a trade of Harden in February after his co-stars’ relationship deteriorated.
The partnership shows no signs of weakening. Durant backed Irving again after Monday’s loss in an interview with Yahoo Sports.
“I would love for him to play more. Life is way more important to me than that. I can’t be pissed off. I can’t end the friendship based on something like that,” Durant told Yahoo. “Our friendship is based off who we are as human beings. The basketball adds to it. If we don’t get along on the basketball court, we can easily talk it out as friends.”
But even when Irving has played, it hasn’t led to wins.
After Durant’s injury, the Nets still had two superstars, but the team was just 2-4 with just Irving and Harden, their relationship cratering during a West Coast trip in February that proved to be the last straw before Harden asked to be traded. When Durant and Irving played together, the Nets went 10-10, including the gutting playoff sweep to the Celtics.
Naturally, the Nets should improve if Simmons is able to play next season and Joe Harris, a key role player who played 14 games due to two ankle surgeries, returns strong. A year from now, the narrative of this season could be repositioned as a learning experience and motivational tool. Giving Irving a massive extension deep into his 30s and assuring Durant sticks around through the rest of his prime might turn out to be a prudent investment.
That’s certainly how Durant and Irving are looking at it
“Everybody in the organization knows what we went through. So no time to feel regret or be too pissed off. It’s about how we can find solutions to get better, proactive, as an organization to get better,” Durant said.
“Didn’t necessarily play as well as I would have liked,” Irving said. “But now we just look for the future as a team and what we can accomplish for the next few years and I get excited about that.”
In the end, it seems, what Durant and Irving think is the only thing that matters.