On Monday, Kyrie Irving, one of the most creative scorers of our time, found himself in a rare position: He ran out of moves.
The Nets reportedly didn’t want to sign Irving, who missed 123 games in his three years with the team, to a long-term deal. Apparently, neither did anyone else—except the Lakers, who didn’t have enough assets to interest Brooklyn in a sign-and-trade. So on Monday, Irving announced he’d be opting into the final year of his contract with the Nets, telling The Athletic’s Sham Charania, “Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow. I’ve made my decision to opt in. See you in the fall. A11even.”
It’s bad spin, but it gets to the crux of the dilemma the Nets must sort out with Irving: He thinks he’s different than everyone else.
In some ways, he is different. Irving’s self-belief and creativity are at their best when he has the ball in his hands. He’ll try things no one else will. He’ll double-clutch midair and find a tiny crevasse between defenders to nail an impossible jumper. He’ll make a defender’s best attempts at drawing charges look foolish with seamless stop-and-pop 8-foot bankers.
For the Nets, the problems arise when he (and to a lesser extent Kevin Durant) imposes the stubborn, necessary confidence of an all-time scorer into areas that aren’t his strengths. Collaboration is a key component of team-building in the player empowerment era, but the Nets’ dealing with their stars—including the battle to get Irving a long-term deal—feels more like a tug-of-war. Irving’s opt-in represents a necessary recalibration of power, but it’s just a start.
For the Nets to succeed, Irving must be an excellent scorer—and admit he’s average at the things he’s average at.
But he’s always wanted to try on every hat for himself, even the ones that are taken.
In 2014, LeBron James announced he’d be returning to Cleveland and eventually changed everything: its fate, its roster composition, its coach, and the role of Irving, then a budding 22-year-old star preparing to take the keys of the franchise.
Instead, he watched James—who kicked off the player empowerment era in Miami—run things. This May, in an interview on the I Am Athlete podcast, Irving made a reference to James’s tongue-in-cheek “LeGM” nickname and said, “He put the squad together. I wasn’t mad at him. I was like ‘All right, bet, so this is how it goes.’”
Watching James made Irving hungry to lead his own team. In the summer of 2017, he requested a trade; he landed with the young Boston Celtics, and vowed to take on a leadership role he ultimately wasn’t ready for. Then, before signing with the Nets two years later, he took LeBron’s playbook—leveraging talent in exchange for fun perks and control over franchise decisions—to a new level.
But the Nets were far more proven than the historically decrepit Cavs that LeBron joined, with a reputable coaching staff and front office on board when they signed Durant and Irving in 2019.
The duo didn’t have much reason to dictate terms, but they did anyway, leading to suboptimal basketball results. The most obvious example was the DeAndre Jordan situation. The duo agreed to take less money so Jordan could sign a four-year, $40 million deal—a figure Jordan, a lumbering 31-year-old center belonging to a bygone era, would be unlikely to command from another contending team. Former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson preferred the younger, more defensively mobile Jarrett Allen, starting Jordan in just six games in the 2019-20 season. According to ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, “the starting assignment at center became a source of internal strife.” In March 2020, Atkinson and the Nets parted ways. (Allen was eventually traded to Cleveland in the deal that landed James Harden in Brooklyn, and was named an All-Star this season.)
The Nets then hired Steve Nash as coach ahead of the 2020-21 season—a decision approved by Irving and Durant. But in October 2020, Irving went on Durant’s podcast, The ETCs, and 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.” By the 2021-22 season, according to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, Irving would conduct his own informal practices after Nash finished up.
It’s one thing to change teams to test out a new role for yourself. It’s another to clip the wings of your coworkers because you think you can do a better job than them.
Though he’s missed more games than he’s played in his three years as a Net—most notably due to his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a decision that also reportedly drove Harden away—and though the Nets got swept in the first round, Irving still didn’t seem interested in relinquishing power, saying in April he “looked forward to managing this franchise together alongside [team owner] Joe [Tsai] and [GM] Sean [Marks].” Meanwhile, Marks recently told reporters he wanted more commitment from Irving, that the Nets were looking for players who “want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, play team basketball, and be available.”
In the years since the Nets signed Durant and Irving, the Warriors, Heat, Bucks, Celtics, and Suns have built Finals runs on well-balanced teams mixing homegrown foundations with acquired talent, finding role players whose strengths make up for the star’s weaknesses. Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo don’t create space, so Tyler Herro and Khris Middleton do. Draymond Green makes up for the physicality and size Steph Curry lacks, while Curry makes up for Green’s lack of shooting range. These are the kind of lock-and-key connections that breed togetherness and turn a collection of 15 players into a team.
The Nets’ new Big Three could tap into a similar yin-and-yang, with Ben Simmons defending, rebounding, pushing the ball up the floor and making plays for Durant and Irving.
Perhaps, in a contract year, after getting a reality check on his value around the league, Irving will buy in.
A top-heavy superteam like the Nets doesn’t have the depth to outsource all the dirty work to Simmons. To help the Nets prosper, Irving would be better suited taking a page out of LeBron’s tenure in Miami rather than his return to Cleveland.
The Heat’s Big Three had to embrace the normal things that keep the world running: sacrificing touches, adapting to a new role, rebounding, and defending.
They blossomed after they lost in their first Finals and Dwyane Wade accepted he was the second-best player on the team. Chris Bosh’s role went from traditional 20-and-10 big man to floor-spacing defensive linchpin, while James often shifted to the 4. They took the regular season seriously, because it was their opportunity to tinker and evolve into the best version of themselves. No matter how much talent they stacked together, they couldn’t avoid this uncomfortable process.
Letting the coaches coach and the front office make roster moves, the Heat harnessed the kinetic powers, bringing their work together in perfect harmony.
The Nets can be just as exceptional. But they’ll have to accept the things that make them normal.