NEW YORK — It’s time to talk worst-case scenario, because that’s where the Nets and Kyrie Irving are headed.
Irving has apparently refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in a city that has mandated it for all indoor gatherings. He has been unable (or unwilling) to practice with his teammates, and unless he can prove he has had his first shot by Thursday, he'll be unable to play in Friday’s home preseason game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
In fact, Irving won’t be able to practice with his teammates at all, nor will he be able to play in any of the team’s 41 home games at Barclays Center, until he can show he has been vaccinated. San Francisco is the only other NBA market with such a mandate, but the regulations only apply to home-team players.
Oof. Big oof.
It’s a big oof because Irving is in the third year of a $136 million contract. He is scheduled to earn $35 million this season, but would immediately forfeit over $16 million of that by missing home games, plus road games at Madison Square Garden. On top of that, it’s a big oof because there is no indication that the Nets would be OK with Irving on the payroll as a part-time player, that is, a Net on the road and a spectator at home.
And to be fair, who would be?
Irving’s options are dwindling before his very eyes. The religious exemption route didn’t work for Andrew Wiggins, who has since been vaccinated because “time was running out,” and New York City offers no such religious exemption, either. Irving hinted toward “a plan” on Media Day, but so far, that plan has not been revealed. That’s if there was a coherent, well-thought-out plan from the jump.
This situation won’t work. The longer Irving holds out on the vaccine issue, the more of a distraction he becomes off the floor. Those Ben Simmons trade rumors don’t seem so farfetched anymore. Actually, Irving and Joel Embiid would be a tough duo to stop, and the Nets don’t need Ben Simmons to score anyway. Defending and running in transition would suffice.
Until you need a bucket from someone other than Durant or James Harden.
This, of course, is the worst-case scenario, not an Irving for Simmons swap, but a deal involving Irving at all. In fact, the offers may not get much better than Simmons for Irving, especially with Irving’s threat to retire if moved.
No. 11 is arguably the most electrifying player in basketball and a big part of the reason Durant — the world’s best basketball player — came to Brooklyn over the Knicks or any other market. He is a hometown hero, raised on the other side of the Holland Tunnel where the Nets used to reside. He is a humanitarian who has given back to communities in this city, across the country and around the globe. He is a good person at heart. There is no doubt about that.
Yet with Irving, there is always something. Those somethings are usually overlooked because even though he can be a headache off the floor, he is magnificent on the court.
But he cannot make the world forget about his vaccination drama without oooing and ahhhing them on the floor. And he cannot get on the floor in front of the fans he reveres without settling the vaccine issue.
“I’m envisioning Kyrie being a part of our team,” Durant said at practice on Wednesday. “Maybe I’m just naive, maybe, but that’s just how I feel. But I think everybody here has that confidence in themselves and our group that if we keep building we can do something special.”
In Brooklyn, it’s almost time to strike a deal, and that’s the ugly, harsh reality of the situation at hand. There is no scenario where the Nets will allow Irving to play as he pleases. He is apparently one of very few vaccine holdouts in an NBA with a 95% vaccination rate, and the only holdout in a city with a vaccine mandate.
This is why Irving’s camp leaked to certain media outlets that he would retire if he was traded to Philadelphia. It takes almost all of the trade leverage from the Nets, who would be hard-pressed to find a good offer from a team that has no assurances on whether or not Irving will play. Not to mention Irving for Simmons might be the best swap the Nets can find. Other teams either won’t want parts of his off-court drama, or won’t believe they can retain him long-term.
This is also what happens when you trade for a star like Irving in the first place. Last season, he took two weeks off of basketball after the insurrection at the nation’s capitol, leaving his teammates and his head coach to fend for themselves in a barrage of questions they couldn’t possibly answer. He also started last season with a pseudo media boycott, opting not to talk to reporters.
It’s happening again, only this time, everyone knows the answer. Kyrie Irving wants the world to respect his privacy. At least Wiggins and Bradley Beal stood their ground and shared their perspective on the vaccine, flawed logic or not. Irving is apparently not vaccinated, does not want to get vaccinated and may not plan on getting vaccinated at all. Moreover, he doesn’t want to speak about his vaccination status or his plan going forward.
And if he doesn’t care about being there for his teammates for the entire season, not just when he so chooses, well, management can match that energy. Some might say they should.