The Brooklyn Nets are the favorites to win the 2021-22 NBA title according to DraftKings Sportsbook, clocking in at +205. The Los Angeles Lakers, dubbed second best at the moment, are +400. That shows you how highly those around the league view the Nets, and rightfully so. With a superstar trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving headlining a stacked roster, there’s no reason to think anyone else can win when the Nets are healthy.
Irving has thrown that thinking for a loop as the season approaches. He’s not vaccinated against COVID-19 and is therefore not in compliance with New York City’s vaccine mandate. Until he complies with the mandate, Irving cannot play home games or games in San Francisco and Los Angeles as those cities also have vaccine mandates. The city gave the Nets an exemption to allow Irving to work with the team by saying Brooklyn’s practice facility can qualify as a private building. The Nets refused to allow Irving to participate as a part-time player and according to Shams Charania, has withdrew a $186 million contract extension for the star guard.
There’s no indication of Irving getting the vaccine. There’s no indication of the Nets changing their stance on his level of participation. There’s no indication of New York City, or other municipalities, changing or removing the vaccine mandate. The idea of there suddenly being a material change in the situation is far-fetched.
Irving said he does not plan to retire. He will forfeit salary for every game he misses, although the Nets do plan on compensating him to a certain extent. Of course, this is a small price for Irving to pay if he believes in his decision. The real cost is being borne by his teammates and the organization. Every day, Durant, Harden and others are being forced to address Irving’s absence from the team. Once the games begin, the Nets will be missing his production and role in the rotation.
Trading Irving seems to be a logical option, given his massive salary figure which is currently of no use to the Nets. This approach is also tricky. If Irving is traded due largely to the situation he created by not being vaccinated, the NBA player’s union will throw a major tantrum. Durant and Irving teamed up together to build the Nets into a contender. Sending the guard packing will certainly negatively impact Durant’s mood.
But at some point, the Nets have to make a decision. They’re good enough to win a title without Irving but they’re nearly locks to win with him. Trading the point guard would bring back a significant haul, because Irving is still viewed as one of the top players in the game. There’s still plenty of NBA markets where he can play without worrying about his vaccination status costing him games. Whether a trade market for Irving materializes or not is a different story. The Nets are definitely thinking about a trade, even if they’re publicly supporting Irving’s decision.
One thing is certain; Irving’s actions show he is primarily looking out for himself. There were signs of this in Cleveland and Boston but never to this extent. And while looking out for oneself is not inherently bad, it’s not a favorable approach in the context of a team sport where everyone else on the team has bought in.
The longer Irving stays away from the team, the more this situation will fester. Durant, Harden and the Nets want the focus to be on basketball. Irving’s absence has made that goal a pipe dream. More questions will be asked, and they’ll be asked to everyone but the player who should have to answer them.
This is no longer about the vaccine mandate or personal beliefs. This is about what’s best for the Nets on the basketball court going for a championship. Many say the best ability is availability. Let’s see if the Nets agree, and seek out a trade for Irving.