Nets’ master plan will go boom or bust, depending on Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving Celtics NBA
Kyrie Irving during the Celtics-Bucks series in 2019. –Barry Chin / The Boston Globe

For all his self-styling as a free spirit and outside-the-box thinker, Kyrie Irving’s first crack at unrestricted free agency ended in conventional fashion: the pitchman of sneakers and soda is headed to the league’s biggest market to play for a budding superteam.

The Brooklyn Nets reportedly agreed to sign Irving, who attended high school in New Jersey, to a four-year max contract worth $141 million on Sunday, the first day of the NBA’s free agency period. The 27-year-old point guard averaged 23.8 points, 5 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game for the Boston Celtics last season, but he came unglued during a humbling postseason loss.

It should be noted that, by passing over the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks for the rising Nets, Irving’s decision avoided the two most cliche outcomes. His decision was surely aided by the opportunity to play with Kevin Durant, who reportedly agreed to sign a four-year, $164 million contract with Brooklyn on Sunday.

Irving’s side to this story — a franchise point guard, in his prime, leaves behind ill feelings for a fresh start with the Nets — should sound familiar.

In 2001, the then-New Jersey Nets acquired Jason Kidd, then 28, in a deal with the Phoenix Suns. Already a four-time All-Star, Kidd’s final season in Phoenix was marred by a domestic violence arrest. In 2011, the Nets traded for two-time All-Star Deron Williams. The 26-year-old floor general had clashed with Jerry Sloan, the Utah Jazz’s legendary coach, and been deemed a flight risk if he were to hit free agency.

Irving’s two-year tenure in Boston opened with high hopes but ended in head-slapping fashion. After months of awkward attempts at establishing himself as a vocal leader, Irving’s hold on the Celtics slipped away during four straight playoff losses to the Milwaukee Bucks. As he failed to move the ball and clanked jumpers, Boston’s collective will crumbled. His “Who cares?” response to his poor play in the series was the final straw, necessitating a divorce.

Now Irving gets a second chance to address the many unanswered questions that were first raised by his 2017 trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Celtics. Can he translate his flashy individual offensive game to team success? Can he win in the playoffs without LeBron James? Can he strike a mutually beneficial balance with Durant? Can he consistently lead a locker room with a personality that runs hot and cold?

As it turns out, the Kidd and Williams acquisitions offer helpful best-case and worst-case examples for the budding Irving era.

Kidd hit the ground running with the Nets, leading them to the NBA Finals in his first two seasons in New Jersey – the franchise’s only Finals trips since joining the NBA in 1977 – and six straight playoff appearances. The triple-double machine got the most out of wide-ranging supporting casts that included the likes of Richard Jefferson, Kenyon Martin and Vince Carter. The Nets gave him a nine-figure contract in 2003, hired him as their coach in 2013 and then retired his jersey.

Williams, meanwhile, might be politely described as a cautionary tale. While he turned a 2012 All-Star campaign into a $100 million contract, Williams led the Nets to the second round just once in his four-plus seasons, despite the franchise’s blockbuster deal for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. With his game eroded by knee problems and his popularity dwindling, he was paid to go away, thanks to a 2015 buyout agreement. Rather than following in Kidd’s footsteps as a franchise legend, Williams’ contract and decline came to symbolize a bleak and regrettable chapter in Nets history.

Some approximation of either scenario is in play for Irving, who will reportedly be joined by Durant, center DeAndre Jordan, and a young roster that is otherwise short on household names but high on intrigue.

The Nets could attempt to package their minor assets in pursuit of a third star and a run at the 2021 Finals, once Durant returns from an Achilles injury. That type of unbridled optimism was impossible to muster as recently as last summer, when the Nets were still coping with the never-ending fallout from the Garnett/Pierce trade.

Yet it is also easy to picture this breaking badly. Both Irving and Durant faced questions about whether they were too distant from their teammates this season, and both had public disagreements when internal issues bubbled to the surface. Both also happen to be scintillating scorers, who must now prove they can mesh together on and off the court.

In addition to the personality questions, Irving has missed at least 10 games in seven of his eight NBA seasons.

That lengthy track record includes season-ending surgeries, including a follow-up knee procedure that knocked him out of the 2018 playoffs. This is no small matter, as Brooklyn will be counting on Irving to carry a heavy offensive burden next season and beyond regardless of what other moves it makes.

There are philosophical questions at play, too. Since hiring Kenny Atkinson as coach in 2016, the Nets have pitched themselves as a development-minded incubator for young talent.

Durant brings his own health questions, and he won’t return to the court until he is 32. When, or if, he can return to full strength after the Achilles injury remains to be seen.

Will Irving, like Kidd, involve his teammates, get the best out of Durant and lift his entire franchise? Or will he, like Williams, falter in the face of outsized expectations and nagging injuries? Given his ugly exit from Boston and his splashy arrival in the Big Apple, Brooklyn’s mercurial new star won’t have the luxury of angling for middle ground.

This story only ends with boom-or-bust extremes.

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