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Don't Do It, Nets!

Photo: Maddie Meyer (Getty)

NBA free-agency opens on July 1, and if the rumors and anonymous reports are to be believed, at least one big star already has his destination picked out: Kyrie Irving, on his way out of Boston, has his eyes on the Brooklyn Nets. For the Nets, signing Irving—particularly if it’s done with an eye toward adding Kevin Durant too—almost certainly would mean parting ways with free-agent D’Angelo Russell, who blossomed into an all-star last season in Brooklyn. The decision of whether to sign Irving pretty much amounts to a choice between the two point guards.

As the Ringer’s Dan Devine and ESPN’s Zach Lowe (among others) have it, this is a tough and tricky decision for the Nets. At first glance it might seem not to be: Irving is a better and more productive player than Russell by any big-picture look at the numbers, and the thing he’s better at than Russell and all but a tiny number of others—creating buckets—is the most valuable skill in basketball. He’s also a much bigger star, and there’s been talk for months to the effect that he and Durant—who’ll likely miss all of next season recovering from a ruptured Achilles suffered in the Finals, but who seems a fairly safe bet to return to some form of excellence afterward—were looking to link up next season, in New York or elsewhere. All that stuff seems to point to Irving being the obvious choice.

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What complicates things is that Irving is also four years older than Russell and will cost an extra $5 million per season due to seniority rules that govern the size of contract for which each player is eligible. That’s not all, not nearly. Irving is also a notoriously fickle and space-brained weirdo who arrives at this free-agency choice on a trail of bad blood. He left his first club, the Cleveland Cavaliers, abruptly and on bad terms after their loss in the 2017 Finals; later reports had him resenting LeBron James and lobbying for the replacement of coaches and front-office types during a run in which he and the Cavs made three straight Finals appearances. He also was a primary source, according to all reports, of the internal strife that fucked up the Boston Celtics’ 2018-19 season, resulting in a disastrous second-round flameout for a team that went to the conference finals without him in 2017 and ‘18 and entered this past campaign with serious championship aspirations. At the end of a season of smarmy, passive-aggressive digs at his own teammates’ supposed lack of winning habits, he played appalling basketball in their second-round clubbing at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks and somehow managed to freeze those teammates out at both ends of the court. From Lowe:

In separating from LeBron James, Irving aspired to be one of those players [capable of being the best player on a champion]. The ship on that likely sailed sometime over Games 3 and 4 of the Boston Celtics’ Eastern Conference semifinals humiliation against the Milwaukee Bucks, as Irving bonked one horrendous midranger after another and bizarrely broke Boston’s defense in demanding to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. (Spoiler: It did not go well.)

Irving also, for what it’s worth, told Boston fans last autumn that he intended to re-sign with the team, then reportedly “ghosted” the franchise as soon as the season ended. Moreover, it’s still not clear at all that a team with Irving but without James can make much noise in the playoffs; in his eight-year career, he’s won one playoff series without LeBron, a first-rounder against an injury-ravaged and overwhelmed Indiana Pacers squad this past spring, and Kobe-brained his own team straight out of another (the loss to the Bucks), and that is the entirety of his résumé.

So yeah, in combination with Durant’s uncertain health situation, this stuff—basically, Kyrie being a toxic, radioactive flake—takes at least some of the luster out of the abstract Irving-versus-Russell comparison. But of course it isn’t just an abstract comparison, where the obvious choice is just whichever of the two players is better.

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The Nets were one of the redeeming successes of the 2018-19 season, a fun and ballsy squad featuring a likable and cohesive mixture of precocious youths (Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen), castoffs from around the league (Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris), and proud, heady veterans (DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley); their run to the East’s sixth playoff seed was both a pleasant surprise and a huge affirmation of their organizational commitment to player development and coach Kenny Atkinson’s brand of smart, flexible basketball. Kyrie Irving has already played a huge role in the poisoning and unmaking of one broadly similar team, the Celtics, without ever having led them even as far as they went without him. (Let’s not forget: The Celtics had better cohesion and more success when their point guard was Isaiah freaking Thomas, one of the most notoriously difficult personalities in the NBA and one of the worst defensive players in history.) If Kyrie’s track record of on-court production can be taken as a predictor of what the Nets could expect to get by signing him, so can his track-record of being an off-court dick who has never been the best player on a team that exceeded expectations and who screws up otherwise stable locker rooms.

Meanwhile, Russell has already been a key part of the most promising and rewarding season the Nets have had since they came to Brooklyn. When LeVert, who until then appeared to be having his own breakout campaign, suffered a horrifying dislocated foot in November, Russell stepped in and thrived as the team’s primary shot-creator and user of possessions. In his first fully healthy season since he was a rookie, he posted career-best production in virtually every relevant category, made his first all-star game (as an injury replacement, but still), and finished second in voting for the Most Improved Player award. The Nets know they can thrive and improve with D’Angelo Russell; they know they can make it through two seasons of him without their internal culture melting down—something the Celtics, better and stabler than the Nets before his arrival, couldn’t do with Irving.

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There’s also abundant reason to expect that Russell, unlike Irving, hasn’t even entered his prime yet, and still has several years of improvement ahead of him. On top of that, the traits that caused him to struggle in Brooklyn’s first-round loss to the 76ers—basically, as the smallest dude on the floor, he had trouble scoring efficiently at one end of the floor and was a constant target at the other—are ones he has in common with Kyrie. Maybe that doesn’t trump the fact that, for now at least and possibly for the rest of their careers, in absolute terms Kyrie is the better player, but it’s certainly stuff to think about.

Most of all, the Nets have a compelling identity that makes them easy to like and root for, and which they can either build on or abandon. They’re the team that took on these relatively unheralded but ambitious and feisty young dudes—Russell, LeVert, Dinwiddie, etc.—and, rather than tanking for sexier talent, rather than treating them like walking excuses to lose and fail, invested in their development and challenged them to play dignified, competitive, cohesive basketball. Russell, more than any of the others, exemplifies this and certifies it as a viable approach to team-building. Letting him walk in free agency so the team can splurge on a more expensive established star at the same position, one with a clear record of shitting on and alienating his teammates and then parachuting free of the wreckage, one who just got finished irradiating and tearing apart a good young team in the same division, sure looks like a betrayal of that whole idea. Maybe the other Nets wouldn’t care. Or maybe they’d start to wonder whether all they did for Brooklyn was help it land their more famous replacement.

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All of this might be moot; if the Nets can get Irving, even if only on the perception that getting him will help them also get Durant, they’ve likely got the checks written already, and most analysts will applaud them if and when the deal gets done. Before that happens, though, I just want to go on record saying: Don’t do it, Nets! Stick with the cool young star and compelling underdog squad you’ve got. Let Kyrie go turn some other team’s ambitions into sinister blue-glowing rubble. Like the Knicks! That would be pretty hilarious.

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