On muscle memory, for old times’ sake, Kyrie Irving put his NBA team in a bind. He forced the Brooklyn Nets to make a brutal decision, and they smartly decided to play offense rather than defense.
This is what people around the league have figured out over the years: You have to take the game to Irving. You’ve already lost if you let him take the game to you.
The Nets effectively announced Tuesday that they believe they can win a championship with Kevin Durant and James Harden, and that they won’t let anyone, not even a $36-million playmaker, stand in the way of that pursuit. Irving has made himself ineligible to play 41 home games this season, plus two inside Madison Square Garden, by declining to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in accordance with local government mandates.
So the Nets countered by making Irving ineligible for all 82 regular-season games, and for the postseason that follows, unless those mandates change between now and then. The Nets have a long history of screwing up just about everything, from Piscataway to the Meadowlands to Brooklyn. But they got this one right, even as they send a healthy seven-time All-Star to the bench.
“It’s what’s best for the organization at this point in time,” general manager Sean Marks said.
The Nets would have been a league laughingstock had they tried to shuttle Irving in and out of their lives, and played him in the season’s first two games, on the road, before granting him a six-game vacation on the long homestand that follows. When the Nets learned the other day that the city would allow Irving to practice at the team facility (deemed a private building), the news was almost treated as a major breakthrough, as if the Nets had signed Irving and Kevin Durant all over again.
That ruling only made the Nets’ situation more absurd. Irving was actually going to work out with his teammates on a Tuesday, wish them luck on their way out the door, and then butter up his popcorn and settle in front of his TV to watch them play at the Barclays Center on a Wednesday?
It’s hard to believe that Durant, James Harden, and the rest of the vaccinated Nets would have been A-OK with that. Marks said he made this decision with Nets owner Joe Tsai, and nobody else. But of course Durant was among those consulted. He’s one of the greatest players of all time, and he just signed an extension worth nearly $200 million. Oh, and he also agreed to join the Nets in 2019 because, in part, he wanted to play with Irving.
No, the Nets aren’t making this monumental move without having some serious conversations with KD.
Either way, Irving is the one who made this day and this move possible. Asked Tuesday if the star guard had effectively given him no choice but to remove him from the team, Marks said, “Ultimately yes. He has a choice to make and he made his choice.”
And then the Nets made theirs. Irving wasn’t happy playing with LeBron James in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers traded him to Boston. Irving wasn’t happy playing with the Celtics, and after promising the fans that he would re-sign with them, left for a new NBA act in Brooklyn and a chance to play for the franchise he grew up rooting for in New Jersey.
The Nets understood that life wouldn’t be easy with Irving, that there would be some pain to go with the gain of deploying a supreme talent in the backcourt and a compatible sidekick to Durant. They were extremely patient during last season’s sabbaticals, giving Irving the time and space he felt he needed to serve his larger (and noble) world view.
But the Nets couldn’t possibly give Irving potentially half a season, and half a playoff run, to take whatever stand he is taking here, this while more than 95 percent of NBA players are vaccinated.
“Nobody is going to push him into doing the right thing,” an Irving friend, former New Jersey governor Richard Codey, told The Post last week. “He’ll do that on his own. And if he has to lose money, that’s not going to bother him.”
Marks said the Nets will pay Irving for missed road games, but not for missed home games, at more than $380,000 a pop. That’s a huge hit even for the rich and famous.
Maybe the law will change at some point, or maybe Irving will suddenly decide getting vaccinated against a disease that has claimed more than 700,000 American lives isn’t such a bad idea after all. But for now, Marks said, the Nets are not in the business of “looking for partners that are going to be half time.”
So they played offense, not defense, against Kyrie Irving. It’s the only way to play him.
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