With six days to go until the 2023 NBA trade deadline, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving threw some dynamite into the proceedings Friday.
Shams Charania of The Athletic was the first to report that Irving requested a trade from the Nets and “prefers to move on ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline.” If the Nets don’t comply with that request by Thursday’s deadline, Irving informed them that he plans to leave as an unrestricted free agent in July.
Irving just put the Nets in a difficult position ahead of the trade deadline, as few (if any) teams are likely to offer a significant haul for him. It should force the Nets into some self-reflection not only about how to handle Irving, but how his trade request affects the rest of their long-term outlook as well.
Regardless of what the Nets do with Irving, it’s more likely than not that their championship window has slammed shut. That could encourage them to proactively become sellers at the trade deadline beyond just Irving.
Irving’s trade request reportedly stemmed from a lack of progress on a contract extension. According to ESPN’s rian Wojnarowski, the Nets recently had comments with Irving’s agent about an extension, but they “remained reluctant to rush into a long-term commitment without further evidence that Irving could stay reliable, perform at a high level and remain controversy-free.”
Staying reliable and remaining controversy-free have not been hallmarks of Irving’s tenure with the Nets to date. Early in the 2020-21 season, he took a brief hiatus from the team for personal reasons. During that time, he violated the league’s health and safety protocols, which caused him to miss two additional games.
Irving could not play in home games for most of last season because of his refusal to get a Covid-19 vaccine, which conflicted with New York City’s vaccine mandate. The Nets originally kept him out for road games as well, but they decided to bring him back as a part-time player in mid-December as injuries started piling up.
Earlier this season, the Nets suspended Irving indefinitely after he shared a film with anti-Semitic material on his social media platforms and initially refused to show remorse for doing so. The suspension wound up lasting eight games.
The Nets’ reluctance to make a significant long-term financial commitment to Irving is understandable. He has yet to play more than 54 games in a season for them since signing with them in 2019, yet he’s “been seeking in the neighborhood of a four-year, $198.5 million maximum extension,” according to Wojnarowski.
Regardless of whether the Nets trade Irving by the deadline, he might struggle to find a team that’s willing to give him that type of payday. Irving could sign a two-year, $78.6 million extension upon being traded, but “even rival teams with interest in acquiring him ahead of Thursday’s deadline are cautious about trusting Irving with those levels of commitment,” per Wojnarowski.
Charania mentioned the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns as potential suitors for Irving. According to Jovan Buha of The Athletic, the framework of a Lakers deal would be “Russell Westbrook and the Lakers’ 2027 and 2029 first-round picks—with the Laker pushing to add lottery protection to at least one of them—in exchange for Irving and another Nets role player (likely Joe Harris).” While such a framework could help the Nets trim their nine-figure luxury-tax bill, it would push them significantly further away from a championship.
The Mavericks have plenty of medium-sized contracts to offer in an Irving deal, including former Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie ($20.2 million), Tim Hardaway Jr. ($19.6 million), Davis Bertans ($16.0 million), Christian Wood ($14.3 million) and Dorian Finney Smith ($12.4 million). While the Nets would be losing the best player in any trade involving the Mavericks, trading one rotation for two could perhaps help them stay afloat while Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons and T.J. Warren recover from their respective injuries. However, it’s difficult to imagine the new-look Nets stacking up against the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers in the East.
A Suns trade involving Chris Paul might be the Nets’ most realistic potential win-win option, although the 37-year-old has begun to show his age this year. He’s averaging a career-low 14.1 points on 44.5 percent shooting in 32 games with the Suns, which is a far cry from Irving’s 27.1 points on 48.6 percent shooting.
The Nets have been in free fall ever since Durant suffered an MCL sprain in early January against the Miami Heat. They’ve gone 4-7 in his absence, including a blowout loss against the Celtics on Wednesday. Simmons, whom they acquired as part of the blockbuster trade package for James Harden last February, has been a shell of his former three-time All-Star self. He’s averaging a career-low 7.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists in only 27.3 minutes per game this season.
Durant remains one of the most otherworldly basketball players on the planet, but he can’t single-handedly carry the Nets to a championship. Regardless of whether the Nets lose Irving ahead of the trade deadline or as a free agent in July, they aren’t likely to recoup anywhere near commensurate on-court value for him. Unless Simmons suddenly returns to form, Durant may be stuck with an inadequate supporting cast in Brooklyn.
Rather than attempt to salvage what’s left of the Irving-Durant era, the Nets could use Irving’s trade request as an opportunity to proactively pivot into seller mode. With the standings in both conferences so bunched together, there appears to be a relative dearth of sellers on this year’s trade market. Based on simple supply and demand, teams that are willing to part ways with impact players might be able to command a haul for them.
Seth Curry, who’s on an $8.5 million expiring contract, should interest any title hopeful in need of more shooting. Unless the Nets believe they’ll be able to re-sign him as a free agent this summer, they should look to flip him to recoup some of the assets they sent out in the original Harden trade in January 2021.
Royce O’Neale also might fetch a nice return ahead of the trade deadline, as just about every contender could use an additional three-and-D wing. This might be the right time for the Nets to sell high on O’Neale, too. Only $2.5 million of his $9.5 million salary for next season is guaranteed, so he would only count as $2.5 million of outgoing salary in a trade this summer unless they guaranteed the rest.
Durant, who already requested a trade last summer, is the Nets’ biggest wild card.. “Numerous teams” are monitoring whether Irving’s trade request causes Durant “to rethink his future with the organization ahead of Thursday’s deadline,” according to Wojnarowski. But even if he does want out again, the Nets would be under no imminent pressure to trade him. Unlike Irving and Curry, who can walk as free agents this summer and leave the Nets empty-handed, Durant still has three fully guaranteed years left on his contract beyond this season.
Even if the Nets do decide to trade Durant in the wake of Irving’s request, they would likely prefer to wait until the offseason. Knowing the exact order of the 2023 NBA draft—aka, the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes—would give them far more certainty about the type of draft capital they could demand for the 13-time All-Star. That figures to be a huge component of any trade package for Durant if/when those talks ever heat up.
Despite Irving’s trade request, the Nets are still +1400 to win this year’s title, per FanDuel Sportsbook. Blowing up a title hopeful isn’t a cut-and-dry decision, even if Irving is attempting to force the Nets’ hand.
But if the Nets rip the Band-Aid off and start breaking apart their roster ahead of the trade deadline, it could expedite the inevitable rebuild that’s looming.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.