NEW YORK — No matter which side of the Kyrie Irving fence you sit on, it’s important to remember one thing:
If he leaves as a free agent this offseason, so do the Nets’ championship hopes because they don’t have the cap space to outright replace him.
That’s the gamble the Nets made in the summer of 2019, and what Nets GM Sean Marks must keep in mind when insinuating it’s unclear whether or not Irving “is the right fit” in Brooklyn.
There is no more right fit. The only right fit is whatever it takes to bring an NBA championship to the borough, and Irving, one of the most skilled players of all-time who hit the shot to deliver Cleveland the title in 2016, gives you a real chance when he’s on the roster.
And when he’s on the floor, which understandably is the Nets’ sticking point here. That is what substantiates Marks’ stance, and is the pill Irving himself must swallow: Chalk Year 1 up to the nagging injuries, but sitting games for personal reasons including the riot at the Capitol in Year 2 — and then also getting hurt in the playoffs — couldn’t have been a worse precursor to effectively abandoning his teammates by deciding not to get vaccinated in Year 3.
For a player seeking a long-term extension in an attractive market on a championship-caliber team, Irving’s pattern of absences is simply a bad look. Few other players could pull what he did and still be in the conversation for a max contract.
But few players in the league are as skilled or as capable of doing what Irving can with a basketball. Irving is spectacular to watch on television and even more so in person. To lose that is to lose the very thing the Nets built this contender on in the first place — star power, and Irving’s is almost irreplaceable.
Not to mention the numbers, which are ugly: Durant makes $44M, Ben Simmons gets $34M, Joe Harris takes home just under $19M and Seth Curry’s on the hook for $8.5M. There’s also Patty Mills’ $6M player option, Jevon Carter’s dead cap hit of $4M, $2M each for rookies Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe, plus $10M in cap holds on free agents Bruce Brown and Nic Claxton.
That’s $129M on the payroll with a $122M projected salary cap, which would render the Nets handicapped in signing free agents. The alternative would be to find a sign-and-trade scenario Irving would agree to, with a team that knows the Nets are running short on options.
Sticking to the plan is the best course of action, and whether they like it or not, the Nets are stuck with Irving. To choose the alternative, in many ways, would be to forfeit the best chance this franchise has had at winning a championship since Jason Kidd steered the ship from New Jersey to back-to-back NBA Finals losses at the turn of the century.
Every season Irving and Durant are on the roster is a season an NBA Finals appearance is on the table, and the Nets aren’t as far off from winning big as a first-round sweep would suggest. They have the tools to build a coherent, dare one say complete roster around both Irving and Durant for the first time since they arrived in Brooklyn three summers ago. To mess that up to prove a point, would be prioritizing the point over the goal.
That’s why the charade between Marks and Irving’s camp should end. The Nets are well within their rights to demand an incentive laden contract with multiple team options to maintain their future flexibility. They must insulate themselves against random acts of Ky-ness to every extent allowed in the collective bargaining agreement, and Irving must accept that it’s his decisions that made the organization feel the need to move this way.
But to suggest Irving isn’t the right fit is to suggest the alternative fits better, and the alternative, under most scenarios, is a step backwards. Another step backwards puts the Nets in a fourth consecutive season below expectations, having mortgaged its entire future on star power with nothing to show but luxury tax payments and a list full of what-ifs.©2022 New York Daily News. Visit nydailynews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.