Kyrie Irving’s contract saga shows he’s worst of bad Nets actors

There have been a lot of bad actors around the Nets, disrupting what was supposed to be a gilded path to glory. Sean Marks swore a blood oath with a good man and a good coach named Ken Atkinson, pledged they were in the foxhole together do or die, then fired Atkinson and hired a Hall of Fame player, Steve Nash, who has spent two seasons looking like an intern learning on the job.

Marks and the team’s owner, Joe Tsai, talked all kinds of tough about Kyrie Irving and vaccinations, then caved the moment the Atlantic Division standings became too uncomfortable to look at. James Harden? Harden weaseled his way from Houston to Brooklyn, then weaseled his way out, to Philadelphia.

None is worse than Irving, of course. His one-man act of subterfuge, a precious should-I-or-shouldn’t-I bit when it came to opting into the last year of his $36.5 million contract, is just the latest in a pattern of pathetic petulance. And even by Irving’s standards, his patently absurd explanation to The Athletic defied all boundaries of shame:

“Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us to tomorrow. I’ve made my decision to opt in. See you in the fall.”

Even for a serial phony like Irving, that is beyond belief, unless “daring to be different” can be interpreted as “I tried to muscle my way out of town but discovered that the only option for me — maybe — was taking a $6 million one-year deal with the Lakers.”

He will lead the Nets toward tomorrow with $31 million more than that.

Talk about a profile in courage.

Kyrie Irving
Getty Images

So the Nets — or at least that portion of the organization that Irving identifies as “normal” — will hold their noses and welcome Irving back after winning this stare-down, and take one more crack at the Eastern Division code. This was always the most hopeful scenario for the Nets if they remain steadfast in following through, to the endgame, their decision in July 2019 to go big-game hunting, bringing on Irving and Kevin Durant.

Of course, every time you mention this you must add this qualifier: “assuming Irving doesn’t wander off the reservation too often.” It is the annual surcharge for Irving’s services, something that was already well established in Cleveland and Boston.

The pity of this, of all of this, is that once again Durant is forced to take a front-row seat to the Irving freak show. All Durant has done is his job: consistently, quietly and excellently. There have been some social media hiccups, and a few media skirmishes, but in three years (and two seasons) with the Nets he has shown up on time, played hard, and played as well as anyone in the NBA.

He is 28.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists across 90 games as a Net. He is in the rarefied 40/50/90 shooter’s club as a Net (specifically: 40.9 percent from 3-point range; 52.5 overall; 90.0 from the line). If the Celtics contained him in the playoffs this year (if you can call a 26.3-point average “contained”), it should be remembered that a year earlier, with Irving out and Harden hobbled, he did his damnedest to keep the Nets viable in the playoffs, averaging 34.3 points, shooting 51.4 percent.

Surrounded by surfeit of snowflakes, Durant has been a pillar of quiet reliability.

For the good of the team, for the sanctity of the chase, he will surely do so again this year. He has steadfastly refused to criticize Irving for any of his quirks and peculiarities. He has been a trusted wingman even when Irving has broken formation.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving
Corey Sipkin

And what has he gained for that? He watched his old crew in Golden State win a title without him. He’s lost two of the three playoff series he’s played as a Net. He had to listen to Charles Barkley say, with some merit, that “before KD gets that great respect from all the old heads, he’s going to have to win a championship as the bus driver.”

If the Nets are indeed going to fulfill their promise, it will be because Durant seizes this team’s narrative as well as its soul. It will be on him — not Nash, not Marks, not Tsai — to rein Irving in. He really does need to drive the bus. He should want to drive the bus, should want to steer it with the Nets, and if he can get them there that bus would sit forever alongside Ralph Kramden’s Bus 2969 for eternal status among Brooklyn buses.

With or without the worst actor in the NBA as his running mate.

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