After the Nets got swept by the Celtics two weeks ago, Kyrie Irving expressed his desire to remain a Net long-term, stating he “doesn’t plan on going anywhere.” While Irving wants to remain in Brooklyn long-term with Kevin Durant, he is up for an extension. Those talks have yet to happen and Nets general manager, Sean Marks, said they’ll happen later in the offseason with their top free agent.
But at the same time, Marks, in his end-of-season press conference Wednesday, made it clear he wants more out of the Nets superstar and essentially was non-committal about Irving’s future with the Nets.
“I think we know what we’re looking for,” said Marks who sat with Steve Nash at the media availability. “We’ve looking for guys that want to come in here and be part of something bigger than themselves, play selfless, play team basketball, and be available. That goes not only for Kyrie but for everybody here.”
Irving currently has a $36.9 million player option sitting on the table. However, the superstar guard can ink a five-year max contract extension worth $245 million if he declines to go with the option. The issue for the Nets of course that Irving hasn’t proven reliable during his time in Brooklyn, playing in only 103 of a possible 236 regular-season games since his arrival in 2019.
Marks said that he and the Nets have yet to have discussions with Irving — or the team’s other eight other free agents.
“I think that’s something we’ve been discussing and we will continue to debrief on and discuss throughout this offseason and it’s honestly not just Kyrie. You bring Kyrie up, but we have decisions to make on a variety of different free agents throughout our roster. We haven’t had any of those discussions yet so it would be unfair for me to comment on how it looks with us and Kyrie because to be quite frank, he has some decisions to make on his own so he has to look at what he’s going to do with his player option and so forth like that.”
However, Marks made specific reference to Irving when discussing what the lack of continuity that the team faced this past season: his time away from the team because he refused to get vaccinated in the face of New York’s mandates.
“Whenever you have a key part of your team that isn’t available and you’re trying to build chemistry, you’re trying to build camaraderie out on the court I think it’s very difficult,” Marks explained. “And then you have people coming in at certain times of the season we mentioned before that we made what we felt was the correct decision at that particular time to say hey we’re not going to have Kyrie around and we’re going to go off and continue to build and continue to play and as you saw the load that was putting on not only Kevin but our other players. Then you have a Joe Harris injury and so forth and then it becomes almost unfair to players and you’re asking them to take on too much.”
Indeed, one of James Harden’s complaints prior to his trade at the deadline was the big minutes he was playing in Irving’s absence. When asked if he had any regrets about his and Joe Tsai’s decision to bring Irving back at the end of December, Marks said he did not. He believed both the initial decision to ban him until he was vaccinated, then the equally divisive decision to bring him back were both correct.
“So then again the decision was tweaked what was best for the team at that particular time to come on in, but you know there was no script, we weren’t going off of something that’s been written before. It made it difficult for us because again I don’t want to make any excuses on that because I think there were a variety of teams out there and the teams that are still playing to this day, they may not have had quite the extent of the excuses that we can come up with, but they had to navigate COVID as well, they had to navigate injuries and if I’m going to be brutally honest, they navigated it better than we did.”
Irving’s decision to go unvaccinated was the latest in a series of absences that concerned Marks and Tsai. Irving missed extended time with the team over the last two seasons, both injury-related and not. In his second year in Brooklyn, Irving took a two-week absence following the United State Capitol attack. He was fined after video emerged showing he and his family partying during his absence in violation of NBA protocols in place at the time.
In the same vein, Marks was asked about Irving not showing up to work if he isn’t injured. He responded that that will be included in their discussions and doubled down on wanting his players to be available.
“I think those are going to be discussions. It’s a team sport and you need everybody out there on the court. We saw this year when you have, Kevin missed 27 games with injuries and Kyrie being out for over half the season, that hurts. That hurts from a roster building standpoint. That’s not what we planned for,” Marks said.
“Some are avoidable and other excuses are of individual nature and those are the ones that we have to try and avoid. We need people here that want to be here, that are selfless, that want to be part of something bigger than themselves. There’s an objective and there’s a goal at stake here. In order to do that, we’re going to need availability from everybody.”
The Nets could in fact structure any extension to take that into account, with options and incentives. As Kristian Winfield wrote last week, the Nets have options…
Irving played in just 29 games last season, which means 30 or more games played next season is deemed unlikely by collective bargaining agreement bylaws. The Nets can incentivize a maximum of 15% of Irving’s salary through unlikely bonuses. They can also tier those bonuses in 5% increments with a contract structure that could see Irving earn 90% of his salary by playing at least 52 games, 95% by playing in 62 games, and the full 100% by appearing in 72 games or more.
These incentives would be included over the entirety of his deal.
While Marks comments are easily the most critical comments he’s made about Irving, the 30-year-old point guard recently acknowledged in “The ETCs” podcast that while he believed that his vaccine refusal was the “right thing for me,” it may have hurt the team.
“Did I feel like I was letting the world down or letting Nets fans down, letting my teammates down?” he asked at one point during the podcast with Eddie Gonzalez. “Yeah, part of that letdown feeling definitely seeped in.”
In the same conversation, Irving described himself as a “martyr.”
Without mentioning Irving specifically, Marks spoke of the need to end off-court “distractions.”
“I think there’s been far too much debate, discussion, scuttlebutt — whatever you want to call it — about distractions, and about things that really are outside of basketball,” Marks said. “Whereas we’d like to focus on doing some of the things that got us here in the first place.”
Indeed, less than 24 hours before the press conference, Irving got into it with fans while playing Grand Theft Auto V on Twitch. At first, he seemed more frustrated than annoyed then broke into a tirade.
“’Ooh Kyrie, what are you doing at home?’ That’s how y’all sound to me. ‘What are you doing at home? Are you going to Cancun? Where are you? Are you at home? Oh Kyrie, you suck,’” Irving said, mockingly. “’What are you doing? Oh my God. Go back to Cleveland. Oh my god, Boston hates you. Oh my God.’ That’s how y’all sound to me. Cockroaches.”
He also suggested that some of the comments directed at him were tinged with racism.
“Oh my god, Kyrie, he has to be on something,” he said. “You know how many comments I see like that? Like, ‘oh my god, he’s definitely on one, man. I don’t know what’s up with him, bro. He’s on drugs, man.’ Shut the f–k up. Shut the f–k up. Shut up, bro.
“I hear it so often, and that has racist undertones to it. He has to be on drugs. This woke black guy has to be on drugs. Shut the f–k up. …I haven’t smoked not one thing. I haven’t taken one drug. … That’s the prototypical response that you hear from someone that’s living a life in a shell, that don’t know s-–t what’s going on.”
The exchange got picked up across both mainstream and social media.
Marks said he hasn’t spoken to Durant, who’s been seen in Monaco and Athens over the past week, about whether he still wants the guard to be a foundational piece for the long-term. The Nets GM explained that although Durant doesn’t make the roster decisions, he is well informed and kept in the loop of all roster-related activity.
“I actually have not had that conversation with Kevin. Not lately. He is trying to get away and decompress from the season. I know it took a toll on him, for sure both physically and probably mentally too. I mentioned before, at the right time, talking to key stakeholders, obviously Joe, myself, Steve, Kevin; we’ll all be talking about whatever free agent comes in here. That’s how it all works. At the end of the day and more often than not, it’s myself making those decisions,” Marks stated.
“It’s not me going to Kevin saying ‘Do you want this person? Do you want that person?’ I don’t think that’s fair to place that on Kevin. Now, he is surprised by anything? Absolutely not. He will know ahead of time what we’re doing, what we plan on doing, to be honest, with the entire roster.”
Indeed, Marks regularly consults not just with KD and Irving, but also with others on the roster.
The Nets GM was asked about player empowerment and the role it has played over the course of a disappointing season and which became a news story the night the Nets lost to the Celtics and Irving said he wants a hand in the day-to-day operations of the “franchise”—not just the team—calling it a “co-management relationship.”
“When I say I’m here with Kevin (Durant), I think that it really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe (Tsai) and Sean (Marks),” Irving stated, “and just our group of family members that we have in our locker room, in our organization.
Marks explained how he wants his players to be able to collaborate with the front office to avoid players being surprised by something. Marks said there’s “nothing worse” than that.
“You mentioned player empowerment. I think that’s a little bit of a misnomer there where people think player empowerment means you just let them do whatever they want to do. That wasn’t the case when Steve was a player. That wasn’t the case when I was a player on any of the teams we’ve been on. That’s not the case here,” said Marks.
“I think involving players on key decisions at particular points in the season is the right way to do it. There’s nothing worse than having players surprised by something. You want to feel they’re a part of this. That’s the way we run our organization here,” he added. “It’s the way I’ve run it since 2016. We collaborate. We’re together from top to bottom from ownership all the way through. I’m going to have everyone’s opinion. I think it’s valuable.
“It doesn’t always mean we’re going to agree. We’re not. That’s the fun part of this. The same goes for the players. I want them to know they’re part of this. Steve will do the same when he talks to the players about whether a particular play and get their thoughts on defensive schemes. At the end of the day, the buck stops here.”
The bottom line, though, is that the Nets and Irving are essentially stuck with each other. Durant has Irving’s back. The two are best friends. Irving, who grew up in West Orange and the South Bronx, wants to play out his career in New York. The Nets on the other hand are unlikely to get replacement value for Irving in either a trade or in free agency, particularly now with Irving’s value so low following this season’s tumult.
On a roster that currently holds nine pending free agents — Bruce Brown (unrestricted). LaMarcus Aldridge (unrestricted), Blake Griffin (unrestricted), Andre Drummond (unrestricted), Goran Dragic (unrestricted), Nic Claxton (restricted), David Duke Jr. (restricted), Patty Mills (player option), and Irving (player option ) — It is no secret that handling business with Irving is the highest and most critical on the list.
But as Marks reiterated, it’s also about the culture which he admitted had failed.
“The culture is always going to change and tweak as to who comes in here. Did we take a step back? Without a doubt the culture isn’t what a quite was, and it’s going to be our job to pick that up in between Steve (Nash) and myself as leaders of that.”