Kevin Durant still could stay with Nets even if Kyrie Irving bolts

Rumblings that Kevin Durant would demand out of Brooklyn if Kyrie Irving were to leave the Nets was the biggest story Thursday night at the 2022 NBA Draft.

Durant, however, reportedly hasn’t told the Nets he’d ask for a trade, just a map of how they would plan to contend post-Irving.

Of course, that could all be putting the cart before the horse. Irving and the Nets are still believed to be seeking common ground to keep him in Brooklyn, albeit with the mercurial guard looking for a longer guaranteed deal and the team preferring a shorter one. Nets general manager Sean Marks and owner Joe Tsai are believed to be in agreement on the matter.

The sides reached an impasse in negotiations, and multiple outlets reported that if the Irving leaves, Durant — who arrived as a package deal with his longtime friend in 2019 — would follow suit in what would be a catastrophic worst-case scenario for the Nets, one that the Rockets would no doubt relish.

But ESPN reported that’s not a forgone conclusion.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving
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“I’m told that Kevin Durant has not told the Nets that if Kyrie Irving leaves, that means he’s going to ask for a trade,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said during live TV coverage from the draft at Barclays Center. “What Kevin Durant wants to know — like any other star of his stature — that if Kyrie Irving does walk, if he does take that mid-level exception with the Lakers, what would a reconfigured Nets team look like? How they would try to reshape the roster so the Nets would be able to return, in the near term and have a championship contender?”

Irving has until Wednesday to pick up his $36 million player option for next season. He could decline it and become an unrestricted free agent, able to sign with any team that can afford him.

And therein lies the rub.

With no contenders having significant cap space — the Lakers would be able to offer him a $6 million taxpayer midlevel exception, or a $30 million pay cut — Irving’s options are limited and his best leverage comes from his friend Durant threatening to follow him out the door.

But there is a perception among some league personnel that this is an artfully crafted and well-coordinated bluff.

Irving would prefer either a long-term deal to remain in Brooklyn or to leave via a sign-and-trade, so he can actually get a commensurate contract. He gave the Nets a list of preferred destinations — the Clippers, Heat, Knicks, Lakers, Mavericks and 76ers. The Athletic reported that “there’s an expectation that Kyrie Irving will now proceed shortly into finding a home via an opt-in and trade.”

A sign-and-trade would hard-cap the team that gets Irving. Opting and waiting a day would eliminate that hurdle, and would make a deal easier.

But not all of the teams that Irving wants to play for desire him in return.

The Knicks, for example, have been actively clearing cap space. They traded Kemba Walker and a first-rounder to the Pistons on Thursday, but it was in pursuit of Jalen Brunson, not Irving.

The Nets went into the draft in their building without a single pick (they deferred the first-rounder they got from the 76ers in the James Harden-Ben Simmons trade into next year). They not only owe Houston their 2022, 2024 and 2026 first-rounders for Harden, but the right to swap in 2023, 2025 and 2027.

They are also over the cap even if Irving leaves as a free agent, so they would need to be creative to maintain a winner around Durant and Simmons. Those are the conversations Durant will demand of Marks. Tsai liked a tweet that supported his GM and included “Team and culture > any one player.”

“Those will certainly be the questions that Kevin Durant is going to have for the Nets. That’s a conversation I believe they have had. You’re always having a conversation with your best player,” Wojnarowski said. “But I’m told again that Kevin Durant has not told the Nets that if Kyrie Irving leaves, that means he is going to ask for a trade. He’s got four years left on his contract.”