Celtics

Kyrie Irving, Celtics have put Nets in a difficult position (again)

The Nets, like the Celtics before them, need to figure out what to do about Kyrie Irving.

Kevin Durant Kyrie
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets look on in the final seconds of their 109-103 loss against the Celtics. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

A little more than a year ago, the sports world went crazy after Kyrie Irving stepped on the Celtics’ logo following a Game 4 victory that lifted the Nets to a 3-1 series lead in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Celtics fans booed and chanted profanely at Irving. National pundits chortled that fans cared so deeply about a cartoon leprechaun. For both sides, the consensus after the Nets completed their gentlemen’s sweep seemed to be that even after essentially gifting the Celtics Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Nets managed to surpass them by acquiring Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant.

Advertisement:

Fast forward a year. Irving missed most of the season due to his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Harden left one dramatic situation for another after the Nets dealt him to the 76ers for Ben Simmons. Grant Williams and Al Horford locked up Durant, and the Celtics eliminated the scuffling Nets unceremoniously from the playoffs, sending them into the offseason with a curt sweep that jump-started a Finals run.

Now, like the Cavaliers and Celtics before them, the Nets need to figure out what to do about Irving.

After leaving the Celtics in the summer of 2019 on a two-year deal, Irving can opt into or out of the final year of his max contract in Brooklyn. Irving played just 29 games last season after he refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Durant/Irving pairing is yet to lead the team to particularly lofty heights. If Irving opts out, he becomes an unrestricted agent who could re-sign with or leave the Nets. The Nets are well within reason to be cautious about handing a max contract to 30-year-old with documented injury and reliability issues.

Irving reportedly would prefer to stay. However, the two sides have yet to agree on a new deal, and there appears to be some distance in the negotiations. Irving reportedly has a list of preferred destinations, and he has all of the leverage: None of the destinations can sign him outright, which means if the Nets play hardball, he can opt in and demand a trade.

Advertisement:

The Nets need to be careful, even if Irving’s reliability is questionable, because he maintains a strong relationship with Durant. In a somewhat cryptic tweet, the Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Durant is “monitoring the Brooklyn Nets’ situation and considering options with his future.” The word “monitoring” is ominous, although Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Durant is yet to make a specific demand tied to Irving’s future.

The Nets can’t afford to fall apart. If they bottom out, the Rockets — who were beneficiaries of the failed James Harden trade — are waiting in the same way the Celtics waited last decade. From 2023-27, the Rockets own every Nets pick either outright or a pick swap. If Irving and Durant leave, the Nets could find themselves rebuilding without draft capital for the second time in 20 years.

For that reason, Irving should actually get whatever he wants from the Nets. Even if he doesn’t, there’s no guarantee the demise of the Nets would be good news for the Celtics. Either player could end up with another Eastern Conference contender, which certainly wouldn’t clear the East near the top.

But the Celtics and Nets seem to have swapped positions again — a full 360 from where they began after the Nets fell apart the first time. Irving may have left the Celtics in a tough position when he departed in 2019, but both Irving and the Celtics have teamed up to put the Nets in an even tougher one in 2022.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com