Is Kyrie Irving Worth the Gamble for Brooklyn?

Kit Shepard | June 25th, 2019

The Brooklyn Nets‘ 2018-19 season was a demonstration of what can be achieved when team-mates simply like one another. Considered a long shot to make the playoffs last October, New York’s unfashionable franchise defied all expectations to make the playoffs, courtesy of strong chemistry, a never-say-die attitude and an egoless group of much-maligned misfits. Although they bowed out in the first round, they gave the heavily-favored Philadelphia 76ers a fright and with a band of young, united players, the Nets appear perfectly placed to develop further in the near future.

In contrast, the Boston Celtics‘ 2018-19 campaign displayed how a toxic culture can be crippling, both on and off the court. The Celtics were declared the heirs to the Golden State Warriors‘ throne after coming within minutes of the NBA Finals in 2018, despite missing injured all-stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Yet in the following season, Boston self-destructed, as the pair could not mesh with their young team-mates when they returned from their time on the sidelines. Kyrie was constantly at the center of the turmoil, regularly criticizing his team-mates in the media by indirectly questioning their maturity, suggesting that the Celtics’ success the previous year was not in spite of his absence, but because of it. After a terrible loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in February, Marcus Morris encapsulated the team’s problems.

I watch all these other teams and around the league and guys are up on the bench, jumping on the court, doing all this stuff that (makes it) look like they’re enjoying their teammates’ success, they’re enjoying everything and they’re playing together and they’re playing to win. I just look at us I just see a bunch of individuals”

Marcus Morris, February 9th, 2019

Morris, it seems, was longing to play for a team like the Nets who, despite having less talent than the Celtics, certainly enjoyed themselves a lot more last season:

Adding Irving, an unrestricted free agent after declining his player option in Boston, would ergo be a gargantuan risk for Brooklyn. It would not only force point guard and restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell, their best player last season, to find a new team, but threaten to destroy everything that they built over the past twelve months.

Nevertheless, Kyrie to the Nets is now a probability rather than a possibility:

Brooklyn’s rebuild after the ramifications infamous trade of 2013 became clear is horrifically underrated. With none of their own first round picks, no flexibility, and seemingly no hope, the Nets managed to return to the postseason ahead of schedule with a roster full of second round picks, D-League stalwarts, savvy veterans and, in Russell, a skilled offensive star that the Los Angeles Lakers gave up on too quickly, regardless of the controversial circumstances.

Poetically, it was Boston who profited from the aforementioned trade, receiving a plethora of picks from the Nets. The transaction allowed them to draft the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, making the Celtics, as the 2018 playoffs showcased, perfectly poised to contend for the next decade. Yet after just a single full season of Irving, their steady transition from the days of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce et al to their current iteration has been tarnished, and with Al Horford following the volatile 27-year-old out of Boston, they look to be light years away from another championship.

The Nets have plenty of parallels with the Celtics that nearly toppled LeBron. Both were led by inexperienced players who surprised everyone due to their impressive culture and the sense that they cherished playing together. That togetherness has now deteriorated in Boston, giving the Nets fair warning of the potential consequences of acquiring Kyrie. He has already left one franchise in flux, and Brooklyn could be his next victim.

There is a caveat to all this, in the long, slender shape of Kevin Durant. It is no secret that Irving and the recently-dethroned Finals MVP are in communication about the prospect of joining forces this summer, and Brooklyn may be their destination of choice.  The Nets have already created cap space by trading Allen Crabbe‘s hefty contract, waiving Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and by trading out of the first round of last week’s draft, meaning they need to shave off just over $1 million dollars more to afford the duo, provided they let Russell walk (a backcourt of him and Kyrie would not work regardless). 

Signing Kyrie and his complex persona is a much more straightforward decision if it means Durant will come with him. The Nets have never had a player of KD’s stature, at least since the franchise moved to New York, and he alone would allow them to compete with those at the top of the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn themselves perhaps realize this, with reports stating that they are reluctant to acquire Kyrie if he is coming alone.

Yet the risk is still there. Durant’s Achilles injury has changed the entire complexion of free agency, with the Nets’ future plans affected as much as anyone’s. Even if he does join them, he is unlikely to play at all next season. That could leave Brooklyn’s hopes resting on Kyrie and a promising group that had success without him, a combination that was a cataclysmic failure in Boston. By the time Durant does return, whether his talent will be enough to outweigh the possible internal tension is at least question, especially after such a severe injury.

With or without Durant, Kyrie is a risk that the Nets perhaps do not need to take. Granted, he is a superior player to Russell, but the gap between the pair is far narrower than the rift was between Irving and his Celtic team-mates. Russell averaged the same number of assists and just three points per game less than Irving last season, and even though there are a few concerning holes in his game (most notably his free throw rate), at 23, he has time to develop into a player of a similar caliber.

Brooklyn has built something rare and special, and there are few players that it is worth putting on the line for. After dragging their team and their own careers out of the gutter in recent seasons, would the Nets players be able to replicate that chemistry with the introduction of a new centerpiece that has a track record of causing chaos and, on the evidence of last year, is not good enough to lead a team to the Finals? Seems unlikely.

The Nets have no obligation to be loyal to fan-favorites who have grown with the franchise. Tough, unpopular decisions are the key to championships, just ask DeMar DeRozan. Nevertheless, it is not radical to believe that the Nets may be better off without Kyrie and with Russell. Of course, Irving was far from the only figure to blame for the Celtics’ constant state of crisis, and he may be a better team-mate away from Boston, where he will be in an environment which he had total autonomy over joining. Then again, if recent months have taught us anything about him, it’s that his priorities can change dramatically.

Brooklyn has just about recovered from their franchise being decimated by the arrival of big names from Boston. If they do sign Kyrie, the Nets brass must be certain that they are not making the same mistake.

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