Exactly one week before their season opener next Tuesday in Milwaukee against the defending NBA champion Bucks, the Nets announced their decision that Kyrie Irving will not be allowed to play or practice with the team because of the New York City vaccine mandate unless he makes himself eligible to be a full-time participant.
At the moment, he is ineligible to play games in New York City under a local COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Irving has not specified his vaccination status, but he is ineligible to play 43 games in New York, including two at Madison Square Garden, because of the local mandate. He was allowed into the HSS Training Center to practice on Sunday only after the city ruled that the venue is a private office building exempt from the mandate.
When general manager Sean Marks spoke to the media via a video conference call on Tuesday, he left no doubt when asked directly if Irving is vaccinated. "Well, if he was vaccinated, we wouldn’t be having this discussion," Marks said. "I think that’s probably pretty clear."
Prior to the media conference call, Marks issued a statement in which he explained the Nets’ decision.
"Given the evolving nature of the situation and after thorough deliberation, we have decided Kyrie Irving will not play or practice with the team until he is eligible to be a full participant. Kyrie has made a personal choice, and we respect his individual right to choose," the statement said.
"Currently the choice restricts his ability to be a full-time member of the team, and we will not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability . . . Our championship goals for the season have not changed, and to achieve these goals each member of our organization must pull in the same direction."
Marks said he consulted with Irving’s fellow superstars Kevin Durant and James Harden and made all the players aware of the decision, but he added the decision ultimately belonged to himself and owner Joe Tsai, who has made it clear the Nets’ goal this season is to win their first NBA title.
"We are looking at putting a group of people [together] that are going to be able to participate fully, and that is what this comes down to," Marks said. "We’re not looking for partners that are going to be half-time . . . That is why this decision ultimately was made."
Marks said the organization held extensive talks with Irving regarding his choice to remain ineligible for games in New York under the local vaccine mandate, but Irving remained inflexible.
"Kyrie has made it clear he has a choice in this matter, and it’s ultimately going to be up to him what he decides," Marks said. "We respect the fact that he has a choice and he can make his own right to choose. Right now, what’s best for the organization is the path we are taking."
Previously, the NBA announced that players who choose to take unexcused absences from games will lose 1/91.6th of their salary. That reportedly amounts to about $380,000 per game for Irving. But Marks said Irving only will lose salary for games played in New York. It’s the organization’s decision to sit him on the road, so he will be paid for those games.
Asked if he expects pushback from the National Basketball Players Association or from Irving’s camp, Marks said, "I’m sure this is not a decision they like. Kyrie loves basketball, wants to be out there, wants to be participating with his teammates. But again, this is a choice Kyrie had, and he was well aware of that. We’ve had multiple conversations about this, and this is where we stand right now today."
Marks declined to discuss hypothetical trade scenarios, saying, "We’ve got to let the dust settle. The hope is that we have Kyrie back. We’ll welcome him back with open arms under a different set of circumstances. In the meantime, we need to focus on the 16 players that are going to be on this roster moving forward . . . The goal is ultimately still to be the last team standing."
During training camp, it quickly became clear that Irving’s part-time status was growing into a major distraction for the Nets. Asked if Irving effectively gave him no choice but to separate him from the team, Marks said, "Ultimately, yes. He has a choice to make, and he made his choice."