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The Nets Want Kyrie Irving All in or All Out

After weeks of speculation that Irving wouldn’t be able to play in home games because of New York City’s vaccine mandate, Brooklyn announced he won’t rejoin the team until he can participate in full. What does the move mean for the Nets’ season?

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Sixteen days ago, Kyrie Irving stared at the screen and asserted both his right to privacy and his freedom of choice. He didn’t attend Nets media day due to New York City COVID-19 regulations. When asked by the reporters tuning in to his stand-in Zoom session whether it was because, as Yaron Weitzman of Fox Sports had reported, he remained unvaccinated, Irving said that he “would love to just keep that private, and handle it the right way with my team, and go forward together with a plan.”

But after a couple of stabs at a plan—like holding training camp nearly 3,000 miles away from New York, and petitioning to get their facility designated a private office building to enable Irving to practice in Brooklyn, irrespective of vaccination status—and an admission by head coach Steve Nash that Irving would not be playing home games, the Nets on Tuesday unveiled a new plan: one that effectively removes the seven-time All-Star from Brooklyn’s considerations until he’s able to rejoin the team in full.

“Given the evolving nature of the situation and after thorough deliberation, we have decided Kyrie Irving will not play or practice with the team until he is eligible to be a full participant,” Nets general manager Sean Marks wrote in a team statement issued Tuesday morning. “Kyrie has made a personal choice, and we respect his individual right to choose. Currently the choice restricts his ability to be a full-time member of the team, and we will not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability.”

Irving has yet to offer public comment on the Nets’ announcement. Marks said during a Tuesday news conference that “at the right time, when he sees fit, he can address it in his own words.”

The Nets could have allowed Irving to play only in road games. It would’ve been unprecedented, of course, but there was a path to Kyrie suiting up for 39 games—he’d have to miss all 41 home games, plus two visits to Madison Square Garden to play the Knicks—if the team decided to go that route. Doing so, however, would invite an incredible amount of disruption and distraction.

Off the court, the Nets would almost certainly face the constant crush of media scrutiny that would come with daily questions about what accommodating Irving’s choice means for the team. On it, they’d face the challenge of needing to be able to integrate and feature Irving—a dominant offensive player who’s averaged more than 20 field goal attempts and 77 touches per game in both of his seasons in Brooklyn—for the road stretches when he’d be available, and reorient their approach and rotation for the home games when he wouldn’t be.

Maybe that’d be doable when the Nets were about to have extended periods of one after the other; for example, Brooklyn’s schedule includes a six-game homestand from October 24 to November 3, followed immediately by a six-game road trip from November 5 to November 14. Shorter bursts, though—like a mid-November slate that plops two road games between three- and four-game home stands—would present logistical, rotational, and roster management headaches on top of the PR- and relationship-based issues.

Tuesday’s announcement makes clear that Brooklyn’s brain trust found that plan untenable. Marks said that he and owner Joseph Tsai ultimately made that call, though it’s difficult to believe that just-extended superstar Kevin Durant, potentially-soon-extended superstar James Harden, and Nash, at a minimum, weren’t involved in the process that led to Tuesday’s tectonic-plate-shifting decision.

“We’re not looking for partners that are going to be half-time,” Marks told reporters on Tuesday. “I don’t think that would be fair—not only on the team and staff and ownership and fans, but to be quite frank, not fair on Kyrie, either.”

Marks did, however, emphasize that the Nets would welcome Irving back with open arms—“under a different set of circumstances.” To become a “full-time member of the team,” Irving would need to be able to comply with a New York City vaccine mandate that requires anyone entering an indoor gym or arena to show proof that they’ve received at least one vaccine shot. While Irving repeatedly declined to answer questions about his vaccination status on media day, Marks dispensed with the mystery on Tuesday: “If he was vaccinated, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I think that’s probably pretty clear.”

Also clear: Irving’s choice could cost him a ton of money—“roughly $380,000 per game,” including preseason games, and “north of $17 million” if he misses every Brooklyn home game and the MSG tilts against the Knicks, according to Bobby Marks and Tim Bontemps of ESPN. It’s possible that the National Basketball Players Association, on whose executive committee Irving serves as a vice president, will contest that pay-docking. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts recently told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News that the union “did not agree” with the NBA’s position that it could withhold the salary of “a player who was not able to play because of his non-vaccination status,” and that “if we get to that point, we’ll see.” (Irving will continue to receive game checks for road contests, Marks said Tuesday, since it’s the Nets’ decision not to activate him for those despite his being eligible.)

Beyond the paychecks and power plays, though, lies the actual game on the court—the one that Irving has long insisted we focus on instead of the off-court hype and hoopla, and the one from which he is now removed. How will a Nets team that entered training camp as the odds-on favorite to win the 2022 NBA championship withstand the loss of a player who ranked 10th in the NBA in scoring last season, who became just the fourth player ever to average 25 points per game on 50/40/90 shooting splits, and in whose minutes with Durant and Harden the Nets scored an obscene 128.7 points per 100 possessions—a heretofore uncharted territory of efficiency, explosiveness, and terror?

Well, on this score, it seems like Marks and the Nets have a plan, too—one provided by a rotation replete with options, headlined by Durant and Harden. While the former MVPs will shoulder a larger share of the scoring and initiating load, offseason addition Patty Mills (38.6 percent from 3-point range on nearly eight attempts per 36 minutes of floor time over the past six seasons) can provide complementary ballhandling, playmaking, and on-the-move sniping. Joe Harris is also still around to run his customary half-court marathons and strafe opponents from beyond the arc when they focus on Durant and Harden. Irving’s absence also opens the door for Nash to start do-everything dirty-work maven Bruce Brown, potentially bolstering Brooklyn’s defense by introducing a hard-nosed defender capable of checking opponents’ top perimeter options.

An armada of big men—Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Claxton, Paul Millsap, James Johnson—can provide high-post passing, low-post bulldozing, floor-spacing shooting, off-the-bounce juice, and screen-and-dive options, depending on what flavor of offense Brooklyn might prefer to run on any given night. Rookie Cam Thomas looks like an absolutely natural scorer, and could see more early playing time than anticipated should Nash need another bucket-getter with fresh legs. Keep an eye on Jevon Carter, too: The former Grizzlies and Suns guard, known primarily for his aggressive on-ball defense, shot 37.1 percent from deep last season in Phoenix, including a 39.5 percent mark from the short corners.

As relentless as Brooklyn’s offense was with the entire Big Three on the court, the Nets still pulverized opponents by nearly 20 points-per-100 (in an admittedly small sample) with Durant and Harden on the court minus Irving, according to Cleaning the Glass, and were mere inches away from the Eastern Conference finals with Irving sidelined and Harden hobbled last spring. A version of the Nets that doesn’t feature Irving at all can still win the NBA championship; that’s how good KD and Harden are, and how strong the rest of the Nets’ roster appears to be.

Provided, of course, that Brooklyn’s many long-in-the-tooth vets stay healthy. And that neither Durant nor Harden find themselves on the sideline as much they did last season, when they combined to miss 60 games. And that nothing else goes catastrophically wrong in the run-up to the season … which, given how this whole thing has shaken out, and that Harden doesn’t exactly seem to be rushing to put pen to paper on a new long-term extension, seems like something you wouldn’t necessarily want to bet the mortgage on.

There’s another possibility, too: that Irving, after all this, exercises his freedom to make a different choice, gets vaccinated, rejoins the team as a full-time participant and partner, and sets Brooklyn back on the path to being the prohibitive favorite to accomplish the goal Kyrie and KD set out when they shook the league back in the summer of 2019. Also maybe not something you’d want to bet the mortgage on, but something for which Durant, days before the Nets decided to move forward without Irving (for now), seemed to retain at least a spark of optimism.

“We want him here for the whole thing,” Durant said this weekend, according to James Herbert of CBS Sports. “We want him here for games, home games, practices, away games, shootarounds, all of it. So hopefully we figure this thing out.”

It’s not figured out yet, so Irving (for now) stays away. It remains to be seen whether he’s going to, as promised on media day, “handle it the right way with my team, and go forward together with a plan.” Time will tell, and the clock is ticking.