NEW YORK — The Nets got what they deserved with Kyrie Irving, but like a pushover parent who reached a limit on disrespect, they finally took a stand.
We’ll see if it’s too late to have an impact on Irving, who has been given so much rope by the Nets he could dock the Spanish Armada. The idea of Irving only showing up to road games — or whenever the mood struck him — was always so ridiculous, so silly, so illogical and counterproductive to anything important to chemistry and team building.
But the Nets were considering such an absurd arrangement, as GM Sean Marks confirmed Thursday, and it was believable because we’ve seen their rollover act before. We’ve seen Irving disappear for two weeks and resurface at a party breaking COVID-19 protocols. We’ve seen him turn ghost after a shoulder injury, flying across the country during the season without informing his team of his whereabouts. We’ve seen him defy the media access rules because he couldn’t be bothered. Each time, Irving has returned to the coddling, enabling, comfortable arms of the Brooklyn Nets.
The team finally confiscated Irving’s ball and sent him home, issuing the statement it should’ve released two weeks ago: get vaccinated or stay away. It was the right message in a city that became the epicenter of the pandemic 19 months ago, and now sits at nearly 35,000 COVID-19 deaths within the five boroughs.
The next message should be trading Irving, but the mercurial guard has successfully made himself untradeable because opposing teams fear he’ll either no-show or retire. In other words, Irving held all the power.
“[Irving] had a choice to make, and he made his choice,” Marks said.
Since nobody seems to know what Irving is thinking or doing, here’s a speculative guess on his next move: the missed game checks — at nearly $400,000 a pop — will prompt Irving to get vaccinated.
His anti-establishment counterculture persona falls on its head when you remember Irving’s feature film was based on a Pepsi commercial and his only apology recently was to Nike for criticizing a signature shoe design.
“It was unfair to put the blame on Nike or any one person,” Irving said in August.
He knows to which side of the bread the butter belongs.
Irving’s vaccination, if it ever happens, could be spun as some great gesture, as evidence of him buying into Brooklyn’s championship aspirations. But we should know better. If it’s not vaccination conspiracy theories holding back Irving from playing, it’ll be something else. In his two seasons with the Nets, he’s totaled just 74 regular-season games and missed seven of 16 playoff contests.
The Nets knew about the potential pitfalls and distractions of acquiring Irving, who was similarly erratic and unreliable in Boston. But the Nets also viewed it as a necessary risk to capitalize on Irving’s exquisite talents and, more importantly, to convince Kevin Durant to sign in free agency.
It could still easily work out. With or without Irving, the Nets are among the championship favorites. But they’ve also redirected from a near guarantee to highly combustible, and some of this is predictable because the franchise sanctioned player empowerment to the extreme.
In the first season after signing Durant and Irving, the players uprooted Kenny Atkinson, the same coach who was responsible for turning a roster of castaways into playoff contenders. Ownership and management quickly went from pushing a “team culture” to taking all its cues from the stars. Among the gripes against Atkinson was benching Durant/Irving buddy DeAndre Jordan for Jarrett Allen, a move that made all the basketball sense but wasn’t approved by the right locker room side.
Ultimately, Jordan became so unplayable he was dumped by the Nets in September (Allen, meanwhile, recently signed a $100 million contract with the Cavaliers). It reached the point of Atkinson, who understood his fate, telling management, to paraphrase, “Just get it over with.”
The Nets obliged.
More recently under Steve Nash, the players pushed Joe Harris out of the starting lineup by lobbying the coaching staff early last season, according to sources. Harris was replaced by Jeff Green before injuries and the James Harden trade sent Harris quickly back in the lineup.
This is all to say the Nets’ only structure was the star player empowerment system. But with Irving, the limit was finally reached.