The Nets played with fire. Now, they’re about to get burned

Just like the Daily News reported back on May 25, the Nets have been playing with fire. And now, almost a month later, they’re about to get burned.

We already know the Nets have been unwilling to give Kyrie Irving a long-term contract extension after he played a grand total of just 103 regular-season games in his first three seasons in Brooklyn, and after his decision not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 ruined the Nets’ championship hopes last season.

We also already know Kevin Durant’s future is intrinsically tied to the decision Irving and the Nets make. If Irving and the Nets cannot come to an agreement that keeps the superstar guard in Brooklyn, Durant, who signed a four-year, $198M extension last summer, is likely to request a trade from the franchise that failed to keep his co-star in town.

Now, according to ESPN, we know where Irving wants to be traded in the event he and the Nets cannot come to terms: to any one of the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, Heat, Mavs or 76ers. None of those teams have the cap space to sign Irving should he decline his player option by his June 29 deadline and test free agency. And only two of those teams (the Lakers and Heat) have a star-caliber player (Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry) the Nets could pair alongside Durant.

Which means we’ve reached the danger zone: The Nets traded away the rights to all their picks through 2027, and Ben Simmons is coming off back surgery and hasn’t played basketball in an entire calendar year. If the Nets can’t come to an agreement with Irving and Durant requests a trade, it’s back to the 20- and 28-win seasons from which Brooklyn emerged. It’s back to ping-pong ball chasing in the lottery with picks that don’t belong to them. It’s back to irrelevance. It’s back to developing late-first round and second-round draft picks. It’s back to the jokes about having no fans, because season-ticket holders are already threatening to boycott Nets games because of a spike in ticket prices for a franchise that very well may not have the stars it has peddled.

Or, the Nets could snap out of it. They could snap out of this ego trip they have and give Irving the deal he wants. They could give him a four-year max deal, or a three-year deal with a games-played incentive that triggers guaranteed money in years four and five. In May, a source who requested anonymity because of the nature of the negotiations told The News the Nets wanted Irving to opt into the final year of his contract worth $36.5M in order to “prove” he deserves a long-term deal. For a star player with a very real injury history, a one-year deal is a non-starter. It is unclear if the Nets have budged on the one-year stance and have offered more years, but judging by reports that the Nets and Irving have reached an “impasse” in contract negotiations, it’s fair to assume the contract length is the sticking point of the discussions.

The best-case scenario for Brooklyn remains giving Irving a long-term deal and living and dying with him and Durant chasing championships in the borough for the next four years. Rarely in NBA history do two players as talented as Irving and Durant join forces in their primes. Even more rarely does a franchise fumble those stars the way the Nets are positioned if the front office doesn’t find a way to retain Irving long-term.

It is almost impossible to find an alternate reality that gives the Nets equal or better odds at winning a championship. And if the Nets play more hardball and don’t agree to a sign-and-trade with a team of Irving’s liking, he can leave in free agency and sign a max contract with a team that has cap space (the Spurs, Pistons, Magic and Pacers can clear enough room to sign Irving to a max deal) with an agreement that he is traded elsewhere in exchange for draft assets and young players after the Dec. 15 restriction lifts.

Here’s a friendly reminder: Even if Irving’s $36.5M comes off the books, the Nets still don’t have cap space to sign a max free agent, or any impact player who commands more than the mid-level exception. It will be Durant and Simmons and role players – which will ultimately become just Simmons and players who need to be developed.

The other side of that coin is a future that includes Durant, Irving, Simmons and whichever additional players the Nets feel makes this team a contender. If Simmons is healthy – and after a year-and-change away from basketball, he should be – the Nets could have the best trio in all of basketball. They could use their three traded player exceptions to acquire impact players from other teams, then also use their taxpayer mid-level exception to make a significant signing. The Daily News reported Wednesday the Nets are among the teams interested in signing Durant’s friend P.J. Tucker.

One thing’s for sure: Tucker isn’t coming to Brooklyn if Irving isn’t there, because it’s become increasingly clear that if Irving isn’t in town, Durant might not be, either. And if Durant is gone, so is everything the Nets built.

The championship aspirations. The dedicated, growing fanbase. The belief that this organization can get the job done. Three years in, they have not.

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