After years of Kyrie Irving tumult, Nets reach surprisingly quick, positive outcome

On the night of June 30, 2019, the Brooklyn Nets’ basketball staff gathered in the team’s training center. It was the first night of free agency, and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving had both announced that they’d be signing with the Nets.

Over catered food and drinks from Carbone, the team’s decision-makers spent the evening celebrating their coup. The plan instituted by general manager Sean Marks after his hire in 2016 — one centered on culture and which featured three years of patient and painful rebuilding — had paid off. The Nets — THE NETS!— had transformed their moribund team. Not only were they seemingly destined to be really, really good, but they also mattered in a way they never had before.

Since then, almost nothing else for the Nets has gone right.

You can point the finger at all sorts of people — Marks and Durant and Steve Nash and James Harden and Joe Tsai — but the core issue, it’s become clear, is that Irving’s capricious, stubborn, selfish mix swallowed the franchise.

To review: There was the time less than one year into his Brooklyn tenure where he told reporters, while standing in the locker room among his teammates, that the Nets had a “glaring” need to add more talent. And then there was the time he disappeared for a couple of weeks without notifying the team. And of course, who can forget his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 (for reasons he never clearly articulated), making him ineligible for home games. Or the time he promoted an antisemitic film on his social media accounts and then, in an even more galling display, not only refused to apologize but also repeatedly defended the action.

And then came Friday’s trade demand. Irving didn’t care that he was playing for a team that had established itself as a championship contender. He was a few months from free agency and, in his eyes, the Nets’ refusal to gift him a four-year, max extension was a reason to go now.

And so, after four and a half years, Irving’s time with the Nets has come to an end. It will be remembered as one of the greatest busts in sports history. Irving appeared in just 143 regular season games. He and Durant shared the court in just 74. The duo won just one playoff series in four seasons.

Now, Marks and the Nets have four days to salvage, well, everything. Give them credit for this: They moved fast with Irving and took advantage of the Dallas Mavericks’ desperation. Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith are two players capable of contributing come playoff time. More notable, though, was the Nets’ ability to pry away from the Mavs an unprotected 2029 first-round pick (which just so happens to be two years after Luka Dončić’s current contract expires).

The Nets will now take that pick and shop it, along with their own 2029 first-rounder and the 2027, top-eight protected first-rounder they own via the Philadelphia 76ers, and see if they can find another upgrade. Maybe they’ll see if someone is interested in Ben Simmons, though that’s doubtful. It’s also worth pointing out how much Simmons’ downfall has hurt this team. He was the insurance policy. They basically turned all those draft picks and assets that they used to get Harden into one of the league’s least-desirable assets.

Toss in Cam Thomas and/or Day’Ron Sharpe, though, and they might have something. Could that be enough to get one of the Toronto Raptors’ veterans? John Collins? Maybe someone else?

There is a world where the Nets can come out of this looking better than before. Finney-Smith gives them another capable wing defender, Dinwiddie is a solid shot-creator, and any team with Durant has a shot. They’ll never be able to replace Irving’s electric shot-making, but they also no longer have to spend every day worrying if they’re about to be flung into chaos.

Talent usually wins out in the NBA, but maybe Irving is one of those rare examples where less is, in fact, more.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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