Is he worth the trouble?
That is the question Kyrie Irving will answer this postseason, once and for all.
He will become a free agent after it is over, after he opts out and before Brooklyn weighs the price of opting back in. Irving is eligible for a deal worth five years and about $248 million, and if the Nets lose to Boston in Round 1 or match last year’s Round 2 exit, man, that would be a tough investment to make in a full-time artist who paints on a part-time schedule.
Injuries. Sabbaticals. Unwanted vaccines. Yep, it’s always something, and it’s always going to be something. Irving once tired of playing with LeBron James, an all-time great, just as he once tired of playing for the Celtics, perhaps the most storied franchise of all, and just as it seemed inevitable he’d tire of playing with another all-time great, Kevin Durant, Irving pledged a few weeks ago that there is “no way I can leave my man 7 anywhere,” meaning Durant, lucky No. 7.
Buyer beware: Irving has broken more promises than ankles.
But at the same time, he is a captivating playmaker who has proven capable of draining a huge Game 7 shot to win a championship. When the ball is in Irving’s hands, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. He has managed to dominate without great size or the kind of explosive athleticism deployed by a Ja Morant, or an in-his-prime Russell Westbrook. Irving has used his intelligence, vision, body control and stop-on-a-dime misdirection to become a future Hall of Famer and the kind of generational talent who inspired Celtics legend Bob Cousy to tell The Post last spring he was “still shaking my head” over Boston’s failure to re-sign him in 2019.
A year later, as part of my annual Boston-Brooklyn checkup with the granddaddy of all creative point guards, the 93-year-old Cousy reiterated that Irving stands among the best point guards he’s ever seen.
“Kyrie touches all the bases,” Cousy said. “He dictates and penetrates at will, and there’s probably no big man who can alter what he’s trying to do if he’s made up his mind to do it. … Every part of Kyrie’s game is under control. I’d put him up against anyone.”
When he makes himself available to play, that is. Cousy started the NBA Players Association in 1954 because he believed that the owners couldn’t retaliate against him “because I put asses in the seats,” and that the players deserved a say in shaping the league’s future. But even as a card-carrying, freedom-protecting union man ambivalent about those who refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine, Cousy couldn’t embrace Irving’s choice to miss so many games “because you do have some obligation when you sign that contract … and it affected the performance of his team.”
Irving’s extended absence is the primary reason the Nets are play-in survivors as the East’s seventh seed, forced to open this first-round series Sunday on the road. So yeah, he owes them one. If Irving leads Brooklyn to a second straight postseason victory over the Celtics, then that score is settled.
And then it’s time to really answer that question about Irving’s value relative to the chaos he creates.
In Year 1 in Brooklyn, with Durant out for the season, Irving missed more than two dozen games with a shoulder injury before publicly ripping the Nets’ roster three games into a return that would be cut short by season-ending surgery. In Year 2, Irving took multiple leaves of absence for personal reasons and got hurt in the middle of the Nets’ second-round loss to Milwaukee. In Year 3, he played in only 29 regular-season games because of his anti-mandate stance.
This isn’t what Brooklyn signed up for three summers ago, not even close. If the Nets fail to win the title, should they rush to reinvest nearly a quarter billion dollars in a 30-year-old point guard who has been the face of their instability? Or should they roll with Durant and Ben Simmons and whatever assets they can recover in an Irving sign-and-trade?
“If they entertain the thought of not bringing Kyrie back and explore sign-and-trades, they should also explore their options of trading Durant,” said former Nets executive Bobby Marks, an ESPN analyst. “That’s the reality of it. Kyrie recruited Durant, and these guys are attached at the hip. These are the cards the Nets have been dealt.”
Marks doesn’t believe that Irving would be a willing participant in a trade and doesn’t believe Durant would notarize yet another mega-move after the comings and goings of James Harden and the acquisition of Simmons. Marks said if he were running the Nets, he would offer Irving a four-year deal at approximately $190 million to align it with Durant’s extension.
“I’d sign him and then have a lot of sleepless nights,” said the former Nets exec.
Asked what he’d do if Irving insisted on the fifth year, a non-Durant year, at a projected salary of more than $56 million in 2026-2027, Marks repeated, “I’d sign him and then have a lot of sleepless nights.”
That’s the Kyrie conundrum. You get all-world play, when he plays, and a lot of tossing and turning in the dark.
So over the next two weeks or two months, Kyrie Irving will either prove he can lead a championship-level team, or show why it’s time to put his Nets career to bed.