Celtics

Nets star Kyrie Irving could lose out on more than $17 million if he refuses to get vaccine

The Nets reportedly are losing hope Irving will get vaccinated.

Kyrie Irving vaccine
Kyrie Irving's refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine leaves the Nets in an awkward position. AP Photo/Adam Hunger, File

Before the preseason began, the Nets were reportedly “optimistic” star guard Kyrie Irving would eventually get his COVID-19 vaccine and join the team full-time. 

To those who covered and watched Irving in Boston (and, presumably, to those who employed him), optimism that Irving could be swayed on anything always felt misplaced. Sure enough, on Wednesday, ESPN reported that the Nets’ optimism is waning. The organization is now weighing whether to let Irving be a part-time player — and thereby lose out on more than $17 million — or to simply sideline him completely. 

The financial implications for Irving are significant.

“We support him. We are here for him. Things change,” Nets coach Steve Nash told reporters on Tuesday. “When there’s a resolution, we’re here for him.”

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As the drama drags on, one thing seems increasingly clear.

The Nets don’t have to cater to Irving. 

Certainly, they would prefer to have him. Irving is a supreme talent well-suited to the Nets roster. James Harden handled the primary ball-handling duties perfectly last season, and Kevin Durant is one of the greatest scorers to ever grace an NBA court. On a team that skilled, Irving is free to do what he does best: Experiment. Perhaps no player in NBA history has a deeper bag of ball-handling tricks. Perhaps no player has ever been better at finding impossible angles to coax a basketball through a rim. 

But the Nets would have to bend over backward to practice with Irving with the limited upside of having him exclusively for away games both home and in the playoffs.  

Meanwhile, all the reasons Irving is well-suited to the Nets are reasons he isn’t essential to their contention: They don’t really need him to win a championship. For all of his truly incredible talent, Irving has proven unreliable throughout his career for a variety of reasons. He has dealt with injuries (which, of course, are not his fault). He reportedly threatened to get surgery and sit out the season if the Cavaliers didn’t trade him in 2017. He visibly stopped trying in 2019 when the Celtics dropped four straight games against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

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Now Irving refuses to get the COVID-19 vaccine and in doing so, he has thrown the Nets’ preseason into turmoil. As ESPN noted, the Nets will be away from home just one more day for the rest of the preseason, and Irving can’t join the Nets for home games or practices until he receives at least one shot. Irving would miss 11 consecutive days starting the second week of the season. In November and December, Irving would be unavailable to play or practice for 20 days in a 26-day stretch. 

The Nets’ Big Three isn’t exactly seasoned together either. Last year, per Cleaning the Glass, Harden, Durant, and Irving played just 411 possessions together due to a variety of injuries and ailments — a minuscule sample size for a trio that talented. 

On Wednesday, Durant told reporters he still envisions Irving as part of the Nets’ core.

“Maybe I’m just naïve,” Durant said. “But that’s just how I feel. But I think everybody here has that confidence in themselves and our group that if we keep building we can do something special.”

The Nets almost certainly can still build something special. They added Patty Mills this offseason — an experienced 3-point threat with championship experience. They still have marksman Joe Harris, versatile defensive stopper Bruce Brown and a revived Blake Griffin. They brought back 36-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge and added 36-year-old Paul Millsap. The Nets might be the NBA’s best team in 2021, but they unquestionably would have been the best team five years ago. 

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Durant reportedly scuttled a potential trade that would have sent Irving to Philadelphia in exchange for disgruntled Sixers forward Ben Simmons. If that report is true, Nets GM Sean Marks would be excused for pulling out entire clumps of hair. Simmons is a difficult fit for any roster, but he’s a monstrous defender who (presumably) would have been able to play home games.

If Durant vetoed a trade for Simmons, the Nets will probably be forced to keep Irving. But they don’t need him to be a contender, and unlike the Celtics in 2018-19, they have no reason to cater to his ever-shifting whims. Irving can be a side plot, and the Nets can win basketball games with their available All-NBA superstars.

Or Irving could get his COVID-19 vaccine and join his teammates. Again, however, that possibility feels entirely too optimistic.

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