Kyrie Irving drew his line in the concrete, and the team that employs him realized its line was in wet cement.
But who’s gonna tell either side this won’t work?
Because it can’t, and anyone who believes Irving and the favored Brooklyn Nets will walk this tightrope to perfection is fooling themself. Never mind this team has designs on winning a championship. Even if this was a lottery-bound team trying to scrape the end of the playoff plate, it couldn’t be tenable.
Steve Nash essentially conceded ground to Irving Sunday, saying the Nets realize Irving won’t be available for home games this season, as New York City mandate would require Irving to be vaccinated from COVID-19.
“I think we recognize he’s not playing home games,” Nash told reporters Sunday. “We’re going to have to for sure play without him this year. So it just depends on when, where and how much.”
For Nash to say that so definitively, in such an acceptant manner would illustrate Irving has told them he’s not taking the vaccine under any circumstances as opposed to something he has to work through.
And whether Nash agrees with Irving or not, or even the front office’s reasoning, the company line seems to show the Nets will try to make an impossible situation workable.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the motive is, if it’s organizational arrogance, naïveté or if they are being held hostage by an unintended consequence of player empowerment.
That fine line between enablement or empowerment is being straddled by the Nets, who know very well where the power sits — in the hands of Kevin Durant. But even in that case, an organization has to show a compass, a sense of leadership in the way that makes this a partnership.
The misnomer of this era is that players don’t want to be challenged to be better or held accountable, but in most cases, they want that extra push, they want the guard rails even when they claim they do not.
Even if Sean Marks was an empty suit — which isn’t being suggested here — he still has to comport himself as someone worthy of respect, as someone who needs to be believed and trusted with the organization’s short- and long-term interests in mind.
That means hard conversations with players who might only see supporting Irving as the best solution and not turning their backs to him, even if Irving’s choice in refusing to take the vaccine is exactly what he’s doing to them.
Irving claimed he didn’t want to be a distraction, even though he has to know this is exactly what’s going on.
His teammates have to carefully tread when speaking about him, being supportive even if they feel otherwise. Nash knows how fragile a locker room is, and even with what he lacks in coaching acumen and experience, understands the mood of a team has to be nurtured by its best players and fostered with some level of consistency.
How can Nash earn and keep the respect of players he supposedly demands full commitment from when Irving won’t be around full time? It’s a recipe for conflict even in the most seasoned locker room, let alone one that doesn’t have sweat equity in the traditional team sense.
Gifted players always operate under different circumstances than the rest, and Irving is so dazzling when on the floor one can understand dealing with him — to an extent.
Perhaps the Nets believe they’re taking a mature approach by “understanding” Irving and maneuvering around the circumstance, but maturity would also seem to recognize when all parties are moving in a common direction.
The NBA’s rules mandate unvaccinated players will have a tough, if not impossible time on the road. He’ll be isolated from teammates and largely, unable to bond away from the court. On it, can continuity be developed when there are essentially two Nets teams — one with Irving and one without him?
Irving won’t be controlled, as he shouldn’t be. But there’s no bargaining with him, no negotiation, no compromise. He’ll play on his own time, in his own space and when he feels like it. He understands the power structures in the NBA. He lived it and abhorred it in Cleveland when LeBron James returned and used his corporate knowledge to cultivate a championship team. So it’s clear he knows that being aligned with Durant gives him an immunity Pfizer or Moderna can’t guarantee — for now.
The rumors of him threatening retirement if he’s traded suffocates any trade value he has even if a team was willing to take him on, if the Nets were bold enough to shop a player with a contract option after the season.
The science couldn’t make him do it, nor the belief he could be a symbol of something greater for the society he often claims to want to help. The team he played a critical part in putting together, the one that wants to win a championship in this coming season, couldn’t implore him emotionally to do it.
And now the team is supposed to tap dance this way all season long, when they’ve done the right things whether they believed in the mandates or not?
Durant has been supportive, and it’s far easier to do now compared to the grind of the season when you’re hunting the quiet and cohesive champions in Milwaukee or looking out west at a Lakers team that seems drama-free for the moment.
Durant is more than capable of carrying a heavy load, and no one should be concerned about a dearth of talent when the Nets’ second-best player is James Harden, another top-10 performer.
And while he operated in a bit of chaos his last season with Golden State, believing the speculation about his future was media-made and filtered its way into a championship locker room, there’s no such villain this time around.
Inconsistency and dysfunction will be the common words for a franchise that should enjoy being on this championship journey. Marks cut his teeth with the San Antonio Spurs. Nash had more than his share of “almosts” with the Phoenix Suns.
Accepting a bit of drama comes with the territory, but this situation will loom even before the team has a chance to go through its own natural motions. Irving takes all the oxygen from the room, even if he doesn’t want to.
But he knows he is, and considering he’s hell-bent on proving how smart he is, he can’t pretend to ignore the strain this will place on all parties involved for the next nine months if it can last this way.
So it’s on those in charge to initiate, to poke and rely on the equity they’ve hoped to have built with those who can be reached.
Because it sure looks like the only person reaching Kyrie Irving is Irving himself.