And Kyrie Irving.
If, that is, Irving ever makes it back on the court.
Irving is the Nets’ mystery now, and figuring him out is a problem that Celtics fans know well. So, too, does Cleveland, where Irving’s debut as the No. 1 overall draft selection in 2011 and his championship run with LeBron James five years later seemed to predict a Hall of Fame career. But too many strange side turns since by the mercurial point guard, the latest of which cost him a $50,000 league fine Friday, and Irving’s status as the NBA’s most enigmatic man remains.
He’s made it all too easy to decry his behavior, to rail against the unexplained personal leave of absence that has him currently sidelined from basketball, but not from a family birthday party or an online political rally, the former of which earned him the penalty from the NBA.
All fair as it relates to his job, to the responsibility he owes to teammates. But it’s a tricky line with Irving, who has spoken publicly about battles with depression and whose mental health is just as paramount to his job as his physical health.
And yet. And yet. Here stand the Nets, nursing the same headache the Celtics and Cavaliers did before them, unable to answer even the most basic questions about when Irving might rejoin the team. There have been reports he went dark on the Nets after the Harden deal, others that he’s been in constant communication about the roster decisions. There have been reports he’s willing to sit out the entire season over his current issues, others that he can’t wait to work with Harden and Durant together.
Nets general manager Sean Marks has avoided any such public specificity. But read the room: If the move for Harden fosters dreams of a conquering Big Three, it also provides a safety net should Irving turn it into a Big Two. Marks is ready for both possibilities.
This was Marks on Thursday, walking his own verbal tightrope: “Without a doubt the organization is disappointed with not having any one of our players — in this particular case Kyrie — not amongst us, not in the trenches with us. So I don’t want to speculate and say why he’s out. I’ve had conversations with him and I’ll continue to have conversations. We look forward to him being back in the gym where he’ll address this and we’ll sit down with him.
“He’s part of our family; this group is part of our family, and we’ll continue to build with the group that’s here. You asked if it’s OK that people miss time. It’s been well-documented that, if there’s reasonable excuses for their absence, fine. We’ve got to support, whether it’s our players or it’s our staff, and you’d do that in any industry. But you also hope there’s an adequate — a more than adequate — excuse as to why he needs personal time, and he’ll address that without a doubt.”
Irving hasn’t had trouble speaking for himself, but again, it’s a tightrope. He can be the most insightful, thoughtful, serious conversationalist in all of sports, using his voice back when the NBA bubble was initially figuring out how to keep players safe during the pandemic. Irving spoke for many fellow players when he questioned the need for basketball against serious life topics such as the coronavirus, and his voice was only amplified when he used the same logic vis a vis the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. He’s the one who pledged his own money to cover salaries of WNBA players who opted out of their bubble.
But he’s also the guy who touted flat Earth theories, who demanded a trade out of Cleveland because he was tired of being in James’s shadow and wanted his own team to lead, seemingly found it with a rising Celtics team, even promised Boston fans he was here for the duration, but was gone in two seasons. This is the guy who tried to impose a personal media ban for the season because he doesn’t speak with “pawns,” who, at present, has played all of 27 games for the Nets, the team he had a hand in creating in joining forces with longtime friend Durant.
Maybe he just doesn’t want to play basketball anymore, feeling that events such as the recent Capitol riots or Kenosha, Wis., grand jury decision have changed his priorities. To be fair, his temperament has always been at odds with his skill set, a sublime basketball player and supreme ballhandler who is an avowed iconoclast. Maybe, at this point, the Nets wouldn’t mind.
Because even if he returns, it never feels certain he’d be here to stay.