In the end, logic prevailed – and so did Nets brass.
Star guard Kyrie Irving could not find a sign-and-trade with another team and opted not to test true free agency this summer. Instead, he opted into his $36.5M player option for the 2022-23 NBA season and will return to the Nets on what is functioning as a one-year deal. Irving had a Wednesday at 5 p.m. deadline to make a decision on his option.
Irving’s representation requested and received permission to speak to the NBA’s other front offices about a sign-and-trade on Monday, the Daily News first reported Monday morning, but according to ESPN, the Los Angeles Lakers were the only team interested in such a deal. The Nets had no interest in taking back Russell Westbrook, the former league Most Valuable Player who is due $47M next season while coming off the worst year of his career, in such a deal, according to a source.
There were rumblings Irving might test true free agency to join the Lakers for their $6M mid-level exception, but multiple sources told The News those rumblings were unrealistic given it would require Irving to leave $30M on the table.
Irving announced the decision to opt into his player option through The Athletic’s Shams Charania and told The Athletic: “Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow. I’ve made my decision to opt in. See you in the fall. A11even.”
And now the dust is settled, at least until next summer, when there are no more options on Irving’s contract and he can become an unrestricted free agent. The Nets now remain one of the NBA’s premier destinations for free agents who seek an opportunity to compete for a championship. They also remain championship favorites with a Big 3 of Irving, Kevin Durant and embattled-but-talented forward Ben Simmons.
The Nets have no true cap space to sign free agents but have several mechanisms at their disposal to improve their roster, including the $6M taxpayer’s mid-level exception and a handful of trade exceptions, including one worth $11.6M, one worth $6.3M, and another with $3.3M.
The News reported the Nets’ interest in pursuing Durant’s friend and vaunted Miami Heat free agent P.J. Tucker with the mid-level exception, but Tucker can sign more lucrative deals either by returning to Miami or signing with the Philadelphia 76ers, who have reportedly offered him $30M over three years.
Therein lies the next hurdle for a Nets team that must improve after getting swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics last season. They must get stronger, get bigger and get more cohesive as a group to contend with the Eastern Conference mainstays that have been knocking on the door of a championship for years.
That continuity is back on the table now with Irving opting into the final year of his deal. The Nets also have Joe Harris and Seth Curry under contract, and Patty Mills must decide if he’s going to opt into the second year of his contract by Wednesday at 5 p.m. as well.
Bruce Brown is also an unrestricted free agent, as is budding big man Nic Claxton, but Claxton is restricted and the Nets own Brown’s Bird Rights, which means they can exceed the salary cap to re-sign both.
Rookie Cam Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe and Kessler Edwards are also under contract for next season, and the Nets are expected to retain undrafted rookie David Duke Jr.
That, however, is hardly enough to plug the holes the Nets need to fill if they’re going to compete with the Eastern Conference’s elite. Retaining Irving was a step in the right direction, but now the work begins. The Nets must put a roster that makes sense around their Big Three, but for at least one night, they can sleep knowing that Big 3 is intact, and so are their hopes at winning a championship next season.
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