Kyrie Irving loves the Nets, but do the Nets love him?

As the Nets’ disappointing season came to an end after the Boston Celtics swept them in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Kyrie Irving made it clear that he was committed to the Nets for the long haul.

But after a season in which Irving played just 29 of 82 regular-season games because of his refusal to comply with a local vaccination ordinance, do the Nets want him back?

That question hung over the team’s season-ending news conference Wednesday held by general manager Sean Marks and coach Steve Nash. While Marks was reluctant to give a clear answer, the fact that he didn’t say “yes” right away speaks almost as clearly as anything else he could have said. The Nets have yet to decide if Irving can and should be a part of their future.

“I think we know what we’re looking for,” Marks said. “We’re looking for guys who want to come here and be a part of something bigger than themselves, play selflessly, play team basketball and be available. That goes not only for Kyrie, but for everyone here.”

That theme of availability persisted throughout Marks’ comments and has been a challenge for the Nets’ star players.

Irving and Kevin Durant signed with Brooklyn to great fanfare in 2019, but the Nets have yet to reap the benefits of adding two multi-stars who won championships of their own. Durant missed the entire 2019-20 season while recovering from an Achilles tendon injury he sustained in the 2019 finals with Golden State.

Last season, they added James Harden via trade with Houston, creating what was supposed to be a formidable lineup. They lost to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season despite 48 points in Game 7 from Durant, who hit a game-tying double in regulation. His toe was in the 3-point arc: the shot was just millimeters away from being a game winner.

Rather than capitalize on that near miss, the Nets regressed this season.

Irving refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, which meant he would not be able to play in Brooklyn or Madison Square Garden for most of the season. The Nets initially decided they didn’t want a part-time player and said Irving wouldn’t play until he was eligible for all of his games. They abruptly changed course in January, and Irving began playing exclusively in games outside of New York and Toronto.

On Wednesday afternoon, Marks refused to reconsider that decision, while again emphasizing the importance of a player’s availability.

“When you have a player of Kyrie’s caliber, you try to figure out: How do we get him into the mix and how long can we have him?” Marks said. “Because the team was built thinking, ‘Well, Kyrie and Kevin will be available.'”

Irving’s absences made the Nets’ margins much smaller. Every time Durant or Harden got hurt, that meant the team lost two starters instead of just one. As they dealt with coronavirus-related absences, as many teams did, they had fewer players to rely on.

“There were a variety of teams and the teams that are still playing to this day, they may not have had the scope of excuses that we can come up with, but they also had to navigate Covid, they had to navigate injuries,” he said. marks. “And if I’m going to be brutally honest, they handled it better than we did.”

Harden grew tired of Irving’s absences and the challenges they posed. He was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, who play Game 6 of their second-round series against the Miami Heat on Thursday night.

In the trade, the Nets acquired Ben Simmons, who did not play a game for them. Simmons underwent back surgery on May 5 after an MRI showed “the hernia had expanded,” Marks said.

When discussing the team’s biggest stars, Marks spoke primarily only of Durant. He said that Durant was attractive to other players in the league, that people wanted to play for him. He said Durant is the best player development coach on the team. He talked about wanting to involve Durant in personnel decisions, without asking him to actually make those decisions.

“People think player empowerment means you let them do whatever they want,” Marks said. “That was not the case when Steve was a player. That wasn’t the case when he was a player on any of the teams we’ve been on. That is not the case here. I think involving players in key decisions at particular points in the season is the right way to go. There is nothing worse than having players surprised by something.”

Whether Irving returns to the team isn’t just in the hands of the Nets. He has a player option for next season valued at $36.5 million and is also eligible for an extension valued at $200 million over five years. If he declines his player option, he would become an unrestricted free agent.

He showed his dynamism on the floor in several games this season, scoring 50 points against the Charlotte Hornets in March and then 60 a week later against the Orlando Magic.

But what good is that explosiveness if you’re not playing?

“I think there’s been too much debate, discussion, rumors, whatever you want to call it, about distractions and about things that are really outside of basketball,” Marks said. “Whereas we would like to focus on doing some of the things that got us here in the first place.”

Marks made that comment in his opening remarks at Wednesday’s news conference, before someone asked him about Irving.

However, it fit the message he seemed to be sending throughout his press conference. It was a message to Irving about committing in a real way, not just contractually, to a team that could have used him more this season.

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