May 24, 2024

In purely technical terms, Kyrie Irving opting into the final year and the $37 million or so that came with the remainder of his contract with the Brooklyn Nets probably makes it slightly easier for another team to acquire him. There’s no more uncertainty about his status. There’s no more fear of him taking a drastic pay-cut next season either. Irving will simply be a player on an expiring contract next season, and players on expiring contracts are pretty easy to trade. 

In fact, they’re a good deal easier to trade than impending free agents. When a team acquires a player through a sign-and-trade, they trigger a hard cap at the luxury tax apron—expected to come in at around $155.7 million next season. Irving was reportedly interested in six teams besides the Nets for next season: the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, the Dallas Mavericks, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks. 

The Lakers and Clippers already have so much money on the books that navigating that hard cap would have been nearly impossible. The Heat, 76ers and Mavericks would have struggled as well, though to a lesser extent. Only New York was comfortably in a position to absorb Irving through a trade, and it’s not clear that they ever wanted to. So yes, in that sense, Irving opting in removed the hard cap as a possible obstacle. He is easier to trade now than he would have been as a free agent.

But the messaging surrounding Irving’s decision to opt-in suggests that he doesn’t plan to push the Nets into moving him. “Irving is bypassing on multiple opt-in and trade scenarios to fulfill his four-year commitment to the Nets and Kevin Durant,” The Athletic’s Shams Charania tweeted when he reported the news of Irving’s decision. That doesn’t exactly scream “we’re trying to facilitate a trade.”

Could that have been a bluff to try to goad possible trade partners into surrendering more for Irving? I suppose it’s possible, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was reporting that only the Lakers are known to be interested in Irving. The Clippers seem to have filled their hole at point guard with John Wall. New York is gearing up for a run at Jalen Brunson, and Dallas is focused on keeping him. Philadelphia has largely spent the offseason trying to clear room underneath the apron to throw a non-taxpayer mid-level offer at P.J. Tucker. Nobody is quite certain what Miami is up to, but its militaristic culture doesn’t appear to be an ideal fit for the free-spirited Irving. 

Perhaps the Nets are trying to squeeze the Lakers for what meager assets they have, but there just isn’t all that much they can put on the table. From an asset perspective, they have first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to deal as well as swap rights in 2026 and 2028. Austin Reaves is the only young player on their roster with much value, though Talen Horton-Tucker likely still has some supporters around the league. Maybe if the Lakers offered all of it, they could still sneak their way into the proceedings, but there’s another major obstacle for them to overcome here.

Assuming LeBron James and Anthony Davis are off of the table, Russell Westbrook would have to be in the deal as a matching salary. There are a multitude of reasons why Brooklyn might not be interested in Westbrook, including but not limited to his history with Kevin Durant, how his poor shooting would affect Ben Simmons, and his general decline as a viable NBA player. It would therefore be incumbent upon the Lakers to find a three-way deal that does not involve Westbrook landing in Brooklyn. If there was a way for them to trade Westbrook without surrendering significant assets, don’t you think they would have done it already?

So, barring another unforeseen development (and with the Nets, those can never be ruled out), Irving should be expected to start next season in Brooklyn. Perhaps another incident pushes the Nets over the edge and forces a mid-season trade. Perhaps some new and unexpected suitor emerges with an offer the Nets can’t refuse. Maybe Mercury goes into retrograde and ruins everything. But even with an Irving trade still technically possible, all signs point to the enigmatic point guard remaining with the Nets next season and testing the market as a free agent in 2023. 

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