If you thought the trade offers for Ben Simmons were bad, wait until you get a load of Kyrie Irving's market.
The Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday announced Irving will not play for them this season until he receives a COVID-19 vaccine or New York City lifts its mandate. Irving has given no indication he will relent on his stance against a vaccine that has proven highly effective, both against hospitalization from and the spread of coronavirus, whatever his reasoning. He puts the NBA's championship favorites in a precarious position.
The Nets can absolutely still win the title without Irving. Kevin Durant and James Harden are two of the 10 best players in the league, and Brooklyn's depth chart is a quality blend of veterans and upstarts. The Nets came within Durant's toes of beating the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks without Irving or a healthy Harden, reinforcing why Irving's absence lowers their ceiling from the overwhelming favorite to a favorite.
The insurance Irving provides against Durant and Harden performing suboptimally could be mitigated by trading the seven-time All-Star for a player or players who offer similar protection. The most logical solution would be to swap Irving for disgruntled Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons, solving the NBA's two biggest soap operas. Simmons could be the Draymond Green to the Nets' Cash (Clash?) Brothers, and the Sixers face no mandate against unvaccinated players, freeing Irving to solve their late-game scoring woes.
Except, Irving is no bigger prize for Philadelphia than the reported deals involving CJ McCollum and Malcolm Brogdon that president of basketball operations Daryl Morey has found unsatisfactory. On paper, Irving is the best possible player the Sixers could hope for in return for Simmons, so long as Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal remain off the table. Only, nothing about Irving can be written in stone at this point.
Irving was the second-best player behind LeBron James on the 2016 NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Since then, his record as a reliable option for a contending team is spottier than any other All-NBA talent.
2017-18: Required season-ending knee surgery on the Boston Celtics.
2019-20: Required season-ending shoulder surgery in Brooklyn.
2020-21: Suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
2021-22: Refuses COVID-19 vaccination and opts not to join the Nets.
Irving's brilliance in the 2016 Finals comeback against the Golden State Warriors also came squarely in the middle of a 10-year career that began with three straight lottery seasons and a season-ending knee injury in 2015. He is arguably the game's most skilled player, limited solely by his 6-foot-2 frame, but only once has that skill been fully engaged throughout an entire regular season and playoffs, whether or not by choice.
We are also not even sure Brooklyn would want to trade Irving, given his childhood ties to the Nets and longtime friendship with Durant are the reasons the team is in position to contend. Any decision to deal Irving would require Durant to tire of his friend's foibles. ESPN's Stephen A. Smith did say on Tuesday, "Durant, from what I'm told, has reached that point. Of course, he wants Kyrie there, but if they trade him, he ain't gonna lose sleep. I'll leave it at that." Durant and Smith have clashed over similar reports before.
If the Nets and Durant were open to trading Irving, his contract makes swaps worth their salt more difficult. Irving can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, when he owns a $36.5 million option on the 2022-23 season and will be eligible for a maximum starting salary north of $40 million. Any team trying to convince itself Irving will stay beyond 2022 can simply ask the Celtics how that worked for them in 2019.
Even this current season is not guaranteed. FOX Sports' Nick Wright reported last month that Irving's "agents have made it known that Kyrie would simply retire from the NBA if Brooklyn were to trade him." Of course, Irving fired back on Twitter, calling Wright "a puppet." Wright adamantly defended his report, to which Irving responded, "The puppet doesn't know he's a puppet." (A gem of an exchange, by the way.)
The puppet doesn’t know he’s a puppet. pic.twitter.com/S47YTz1dx9
— A11Even (@KyrieIrving) September 17, 2021
Longtime NBA writer Marc Stein tallied a point in Wright's favor, reporting on his Substack last week, "There is a belief in some corners of the league that Irving would retire, or at least deeply ponder it, if Brooklyn suddenly traded him." Likewise, Irving's former Cleveland teammate, Kendrick Perkins, said on ESPN on Tuesday, "I wouldn't be surprised if Kyrie Irving retires this season. ... He's that stubborn."
Heck, even Irving told ESPN's Tim Bontemps of his career in 2018, "Once I'm done with this, hopefully in my early-to-mid-30s, I'm done with this." Irving turns 30 on March 23, and the explanation he offered for his plans to retire from the NBA early — "the material gain in it just doesn't really matter to me anymore as much as it once did" — have only grown more significant in the years since. His charitable endeavors demonstrate his commitment to social justice reform, and even the reported reasons for his anti-vaccine position — "he is upset that people are losing their jobs due to vaccine mandates" — are illustrative.
If there is one NBA star who would abruptly retire in the name of player empowerment, it is Kyrie Irving.
What front office wants that uncertainty? Irving is holding the Nets — the one team he chose — hostage by refusing to meet a mandate to play for them, because his representation has reportedly floated retirement as an option if they trade him. Morey is not dealing a 25-year-old All-Star and All-Defensive stalwart with four years left on his contract for the chance Irving could retire in two months or leave at season's end.
Neither is anyone else. Irving is the NBA's most volatile stock right now, and if his hometown team and best friend in the league were to no longer find value in his services, why would any team make the investment?
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