Nets' gravest mistake in losing Kevin Durant was holding Kyrie Irving accountable
There were six weeks in the summer of 2021 when Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden appeared committed to one another on the Brooklyn Nets. All three received offers for maximum contract extensions, and once Durant signed his that August, general manager Sean Marks declared, "I feel very confident that first day of training camp, we’ll be looking at those three, in particular, being signed, sealed and delivered."
Weeks later, Harden "twice reassured Durant" that he would sign a three-year, $161 million extension with the Nets during their vacation together in Greece, according to The Ringer's Logan Murdock. As camp neared that September, Marks maintained, "We've had very positive conversations" with Irving and Harden, and he projected confidence that both would sign their extensions once they reconvened in Brooklyn.
Days later, Rolling Stone reported that Irving was leading the charge among a small percentage of players who were refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Sure enough, as the Nets hosted their media day in 2021, Irving participated via Zoom, unable to join his teammates due to New York City's vaccine mandate.
In the ensuing weeks, it became clear that Irving would be barred from participating in home games. The Nets made the decision to send him home altogether, reportedly revoking their maximum extension offer to him, and Harden soured on signing his, letting the deadline pass and leaving nine figures on the table.
That was the beginning of the end for "the greatest theoretical team of all time."
By January 2022, our own Jake Fischer reported for Bleacher Report that "Harden has been vocal to Nets figures and close contacts alike about his frustrations regarding Kyrie Irving's part-time playing status." Reports that Harden would test free agency, rather than re-sign in Brooklyn, quickly devolved into his trade request. While he publicly downplayed Irving's unavailability as a "very minimal" factor in his decision, multiple reports indicated that it was the final straw, and Harden conceded "it definitely did impact the team."
Following a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics this past April, both Durant and Irving also recognized that the latter's anti-vaccination absence frayed their team's chemistry in Brooklyn.
"I would be mad after a game, not having him out there," Durant told Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill. "Being triple-teamed or whatever, like Kai would definitely help tonight, but [mad at] him individually? Nah."
"I think it was just really heavy emotionally this season," Irving added in the immediate aftermath of last season. "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 be just about me. It became a distraction at times, and as you see, we just had some drastic changes. We lost a franchise player."
More to Irving's point, Marks said in his exit interview from 2021-22, "We need people here that want to be here, that are selfless, that want to be part of something bigger than themselves. There's an objective, and there’s a goal at stake here. In order to do that, we’re going to need availability from everybody." And within weeks, the Nets leaked their unwillingness to revisit a long-term extension for their unreliable point guard.
Discussions dissolved entirely this past June, when the Nets proposed multiple constructs that tied any contract to incentives for games played, and Irving countered with a short-term proposal that included a player option, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. Brooklyn granted Irving permission to seek a sign-and-trade deal, only the rest of the league was also ill-prepared to make a considerable investment into Irving and the Los Angeles Lakers did not have the assets to make a swap worthwhile for the Nets.
The franchise's unwillingness to gift Irving $200 million for services not rendered had the undesired consequence of offending Durant as well. According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, "Clearly, Brooklyn has been hesitant to do a long-term deal with Irving, but they also run the risk of alienating Kevin Durant and perhaps unfastening him from his commitment to wanting to be in Brooklyn if Kyrie Irving were to leave."
In the days and hours before 2022 free agency, Irving picked up his $37 million option to play for the Nets this season, as his preferred alternatives were less lucrative, and Durant submitted his own trade request. As the league's calendar turned to the 2022-23 campaign, Sports Illustrated's Howard Beck chronicled:
As one insider sympathetic to Durant noted, "Kyrie sabotaged everything," but Durant is reacting more to the effects than the cause, and he now views the Nets as unsalvageable. "There’s no use in [him] taking sides when it’s all too far gone," the person said. In essence, the Nets were right in principle, but wrong in practical terms, failing to understand that making Irving upset "was going to drive Kevin away." It's instructive to note that for all the chaos, all the havoc and all the stress, Durant still wants to play with Irving, according to league insiders.
When a worthwhile trade never materialized for Durant, at least from Brooklyn's perspective, attention turned to convincing him to rescind his request. After delivering an ultimatum — grant his wishes or fire both Marks and head coach Steve Nash — Durant reluctantly obliged, rejoining the team for training camp.
"My whole thing was, I want everybody to be held accountable for their habits as a player every day, and a lot of stuff was getting swept under the rug because we're injured or guys aren't around," Durant explained this past September. He continued, "You see what happened with our season, guys in and out the lineup, injuries, just a lot of uncertainty that built some doubt in my mind about the next four years of my career. I'm getting older, and I want to be in a place that's stable and trying to build a championship culture."
The Nets fired Nash seven games into this season, following a 2-5 start.
As Brooklyn met half the terms of Durant's ultimatum, Irving manufactured another self-imposed absence in November. He promoted an antisemitic film on Twitter, repeatedly refused to apologize or condemn rhetoric from the film, which included Holocaust denial, and earned a suspension from the Nets for it. He ultimately apologized and met several more requirements from the team in order to return from an eight-game exile.
The Nets won 20 of their next 24 games, rising from 11th in the Eastern Conference to a game out of first, before Durant suffered an MCL sprain in his right knee. He would not play another game for Brooklyn.
The Nets lost six of their first eight games in Durant's absence. Meanwhile, Irving's agent and stepmother, Shetellia Riley-Irving, went public with their negotiations — or lack thereof, telling Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes, "Around Kyrie and staying with the Nets? I have reached out to the Nets regarding this. We have had no significant conversations to date. The desire is to make Brooklyn home, with the right type of extension, which means the ball is in the Nets' court to communicate now if their desire is the same."
Except the Nets did offer an extension, according to multiple reports. Irving just did not like that it included what 1) Charania described as "guarantee stipulations," 2) Haynes called "an offer that was tied to the team winning a championship" and 3) Wojnarowski dubbed a reluctance "to rush into a long-term commitment without further evidence that Irving could stay reliable, perform at a high level and remain controversy-free."
In other words, the Nets still did not want to guarantee $200 million to a player who had appeared in only 143 of a possible 278 games on their existing four-year, $136.5 million contract, especially since half of those absences stemmed from Irving's unexplained two-week absence in January 2021, his refusal to meet a vaccine mandate during the 2021-22 season and a suspension for platforming hate speech in November.
These appear to be the "principled differences" upon which Irving based his trade request on Friday. Brooklyn washed its hands of Irving within two days, dealing him to the Dallas Mavericks for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, an unprotected 2027 first-round draft pick and two second-round picks.
"I just know I want to be in a place where I'm celebrated and not just tolerated or kind of dealt with in a way that doesn’t make me feel respected," Irving told reporters after his first practice with the Mavericks on Tuesday. “There were times throughout this process when I was in Brooklyn where I felt very disrespected."
Following Irving's departure, Durant reportedly held "ongoing discussions" with the Brooklyn brass "on the direction of the franchise. Ultimately, the Nets conceded defeat in their attempts to serve the interests of their stars, trading Durant before Thursday's deadline to the Phoenix Suns for a massive haul of Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder, four unprotected first-round draft picks and a first-round swap.
Upon hearing the news after Wednesday's Dallas debut, Irving told reporters, "I'm glad he got out of there."
"I just think this was in the works, like, after Year 1," he added. "I wasn't sure about whether or not I wanted to be in Brooklyn long-term, again, because of things that were happening behind the scenes. I just did my best to put my head down and work as hard as I could. There were some unfortunate circumstances that came up there that were out of my control, whether it be the mandate with the vaccine or missing games, being suspended or, you know, just little things that I think, you know, just put wrenches in our journey."
In Irving's mind, he had apparently been preparing to leave the Nets since his initial season with them in 2019-20, before he had ever played with Durant, who missed their first season together rehabbing a ruptured Achilles. Irving's public comments tell a different story. "I don't really plan on going anywhere," he told reporters at the end of last season, adding, "there’s no way I can leave my man [Durant] anywhere." It was only last month that Irving's stepmother/agent informed us, "The desire is to make Brooklyn home."
In Irving's mind, refusing to accept a COVID-19 vaccination or apologize for platforming antisemitism — and in the process, setting ablaze the fabric of the Nets — were "little things" that were beyond his control.
In reality, Brooklyn's gravest mistake was holding Irving accountable.
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Ben Rohrbach is a senior NBA writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach