The Brooklyn Nets dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing that starting point guard Kyrie Irving will not play or practice with the team until he gets his first COVID-19 vaccine. The headline comes after Irving intended to join the Nets as a “part-time” player this season, planning to sit out during home games. The NBA does not have a vaccine mandate, but New York City has one in place that would have banned him from playing or practicing without a shot.
During Brooklyn’s media day on Sept. 27, Irving asked reporters to “respect [his] privacy” regarding his vaccination status.
“So, you know, obviously I’m not able to be present there today,” Irving said on Zoom. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m putting any limits on the future of me being able to join the team.”
Now, less than three weeks later, there are questions of when he’ll see the hardwood next. He hasn’t been shy to take time off in the past—Irving missed nine games throughout the second half of last season due to “personal reasons,” including an 11-day absence in February. During those 11 days, Irving appeared at a politician’s Zoom event and attended a family birthday party without a mask.
Though his teammates and the Nets brass have been generally respectful of Irving’s absences, it has definitely created some organizational tension. Shams Charania of The Athletic confirmed a report that Brooklyn will not offer a contract extension to Irving, who is in his third year of a four-year deal.
This is extremely concerning news—not only for Irving’s future with the Nets, but for his professional career going forward. Sure, this ongoing stalemate could be resolved tomorrow if he gets his first shot. That seems highly unlikely, as Irving is adamant that his personal choice is the right one. Perhaps it’s the right decision for his set of morals, but not for his bank account—Irving risks losing more than $17 million this season.
The most likely scenario is that Irving remains on the Nets while his teammates encourage him to rejoin them in the pursuit of a championship. General manager Sean Marks did a fantastic job this offseason signing experienced veterans to bargain-bin contracts. Players like Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, and James Johnson should all play an important role in Brooklyn’s system this season.
With Irving in the fold last year, the Nets were one of the most potent and frightening offenses in the league. He averaged 26.9 points per game and joined the prestigious 50-40-90 club, shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range, and 90 percent from the free throw line. It will be difficult to replicate that efficiency with role players, but Brooklyn has no choice but to try. Kevin Durant and James Harden will be leaned upon even more heavily to put up major offensive numbers each night.
Irving’s decision left the Nets in a precarious situation until they decided to pull the plug completely. Brooklyn steadfastly announced, in Marks’s words, that they “will not permit any member of [their] team to participate with part-time availability.” It’s clear that Irving’s reluctance to get vaccinated was a distraction, and the team will push forward. Brooklyn is already fighting the clock to win it all—now they’ll do so without their enigmatic third star.