Kyrie Irving’s search for leverage on his contract discussions with the Brooklyn Nets won’t be found with the threat of a $30 million pay cut to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, but the sum of the franchise’s deepest fears: Irving walks, and Kevin Durant wants a trade.
For everything owner Joe Tsai and general manager Sean Marks did to assemble one of the modern NBA’s most talented Big 3s, Irving’s impenetrable connection to Durant looms as a domino to the dismantling of the roster. Brooklyn is straddling the narrowest of walkways: Keeping conviction on Irving’s contract talks and keeping Durant’s desire to stay a Net.
The organization clearly wants Irving on a shorter deal, whether it’s his $36 million opt-in for the 2022-23 season — or perhaps an opt-out and new deal that could give him a raise to $42 million annually on a two-year deal.
Together, Tsai and Marks made a stand on Irving’s unwillingness to get vaccinated, initially refusing to let him be a part-time player — only to allow him back again midway through the 2021-22 season. In these Irving contract talks, the Nets are trying to take back a measure of leverage on a star who hasn’t been available nearly enough in his three seasons.
How far do the Nets push and leave themselves open to the organization’s greatest vulnerability — an Irving exit resulting in Durant deciding the roster is no longer talented enough for championship contention?
In previous offseasons, rival agents and players would tell you of Durant’s eagerness in talking to potential free agents. So far, that hasn’t been the case with him, sources say. Outside of Irving, the Nets’ most important free agent is guard Patty Mills, who still hasn’t decided whether to exercise his $6.2 million player option. Around the Irving drama, the Nets’ environment has made it harder to keep and court role players, sources say.
Whatever the case, there’s no significant salary-cap space for Irving to sign elsewhere — although recent history suggests that might not be necessary for him to leave. Irving, 30, cost himself approximately $17 million in salary for refusing to get vaccinated a season ago, and tens of millions more in losing his signature shoe endorsement deal with Nike. For anyone to say with absolute confidence that Irving wouldn’t choose the Lakers’ $6 million taxpayer exception over his guaranteed $36 million with Brooklyn, well, it would just be a guess.
As possible destinations go, the New York Knicks are working to clear salary-cap space, preparing to recruit Dallas Mavericks free-agent guard Jalen Brunson, sources say. He wanted a four-year, $55 million extension last offseason, but the Mavericks never made an offer, sources say. Because of the risk of losing Brunson for nothing to the Knicks, where his former agent, Leon Rose, is the president of basketball operations, and his father, Rick, is a newly hired assistant coach, it could take nearly a max contract for the Mavericks to keep him.
If the Knicks fail to acquire Brunson in free agency and lose out on a trade for Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon, they would probably take a look at the possibility of Irving — if he were still available.
There are teams rooting for Irving to opt-out and walk away from the Nets, believing it would give them a chance to cobble together trade packages to acquire Durant. As much as Durant asking out hangs over the Nets, there’s also the reality that four years on his contract will mean he has little, if any, voice on when or where he would be traded. This would be a small-market team’s dream, robbing a goliath of an MVP-level talent whose contractual circumstances would leave him little choice but to play for them.
Across the board, this is one big bluff.
The preference for everyone — the Nets, Durant, and yes, Irving too — is getting an Irving deal done, getting Ben Simmons productive again and making another run in the Eastern Conference. For now, the Nets are on the precipice. This grand experiment started with Durant and Irving three years ago, and now it’s on the brink with them.
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