The 2021-22 NBA season is just days from tipping off, and while other teams in the league are focusing on their first game, the Brooklyn Nets are wondering when Kyrie Irving will play for the team this year. The Irving saga in Brooklyn added a surprising twist earlier this week when Nets general manager Sean Marks announced that Irving won't be permitted to practice with the team or play in road games until he is a "full participant" and eligible under New York City's local vaccine mandate.
New York City's vaccine mandate requires everyone to have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in order to go to restaurants, bars, and in the case of NBA players, use indoor gyms which include Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center, the home of the Knicks and Nets, respectively.
In regards to Irving's situation, there's a lot of moving parts and information on his status going forward with the Nets. So to make it easier to digest all that information, here's everything we know about Irving's situation, what it means for the Nets and other players in the league.
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Why are the Nets prohibiting Irving from playing?
Given New York's COVID-19 regulations, Irving isn't permitted to play in games in Brooklyn until he's received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Although he did receive permission to practice with the Nets in New York, the team clearly isn't interested in having him available for just half of the season's games. They're also not wanting the distraction that would inevitably stem from such a situation, something that Marks echoed during his press conference announcing the decision on Tuesday.
"I think we all know what our objective is this year and how a decision like this maybe affects that ultimate objective," Marks said. "So they're never easy decisions, but, end of the day, I think we're looking at putting a group of people out there that are going to be able to participate fully. And that's what this comes down to, and we're not looking for partners that are going to be half-time.
"I don't think that would be fair, not only on the team and staff and ownership and fans, but, to be quite frank, not fair on Kyrie either," Marks continued. "When you're putting somebody out there that potentially can't get the right ramp-ups and right build-ups and so forth, and look as good as he or the team should under a different set of circumstances, that's why this decision was ultimately made."
Though Marks said this decision included input from several people, he and team owner Joe Tsai were the final decision-makers in prohibiting Irving from being a part-time player.
What's Irving's response to the Nets' decision?
Though Irving hasn't talked to the media since the Nets announced their decision, he did go on Instagram Live Wednesday evening to discuss his thoughts on the entire situation. In addition to confirming that he is unvaccinated, Irving claimed that he was promised an exemption from the vaccine, and that he would be allowed to play this season.
"And I don't want to sit here and play on people's emotions, either," Irving said. "Just use logic. You know, what would you do? You know, if you felt uncomfortable going into the season, when you were promised that you would have exemptions or that you didn't have to be forced to get the vaccine. You know, this wasn't an issue before the season started. This wasn't something that I foresaw coming in where I prepared for it and I had a chance to strategize on what was going to be best for me and my family. I came into the season thinking that I was just gonna be able to play ball, you know, be able to use my talent to continue to inspire, influence people in the right way."
Details regarding what type of exemption Irving is referring to are unclear. Earlier in the offseason, Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins applied for a religious exemption, but was denied by the league and eventually decided to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Based on Irving's comments from his Instagram Live, it doesn't sound like he's planning on getting the vaccine anytime soon, but said his decision is "not about being anti-vax."
Is the vaccine mandate affecting other players/teams in the league?
Due to the NBA not having its own vaccine mandate in place for players, this doesn't impact many players or teams across the league. There are currently three cities with vaccine mandates -- New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco -- which affects the Nets, Knicks, Lakers, Clippers and Golden State Warriors.
In New York, a player only has to receive one dose of a vaccine to fulfill the city's requirement, while in San Francisco a player must receive two doses. L.A.'s vaccine mandate will go into effect on Nov. 29, and similar to San Francisco's, requires that a person must be fully vaccinated to enter indoor gyms. However, that mandate won't apply to Staples Center, the home of the Lakers and Clippers, due to an existing health order issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) that covers the venue.
Per a release by Staples Center:
"STAPLES Center and Microsoft Theater will continue to follow the protocols established by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) which requires guests to show proof of being fully vaccinated or providing proof of a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours prior to the event date in addition to wearing approved face coverings when no actively eating or drinking. The Ordinance passed by the City of Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 6 does not apply to STAPLES Center or Microsoft Theater, who are already subject to an existing LACDPH order addressing this subject matter."
So theoretically a player on the Lakers or Clippers could choose to not get vaccinated and instead submit COVID-19 tests before games. However, on Media Day both the Lakers and Clippers said that they should both be at 100 percent vaccination rate before the start of the season. Similarly, the Knicks announced at Media Day that their whole roster is vaccinated, and after Wiggins finally decided to get the shot, the Warriors are now at 100 percent vaccination rate.
For unvaccinated players on teams that play in cities without vaccine mandates, they won't be restricted from playing in any games this season, even in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. However they will be subject to regular COVID-19 testing, be required to socially distance themselves from other players, and follow stricter guidelines on the road and at home.
What financial ramifications come with Irving not playing?
Per an agreement between the league and the National Basketball Players Association, unvaccinated players who will miss games due to local COVID-19 vaccine mandates stand to lose 1/91.6 of their salary for each game they are forced to miss. That number is based on preseason, regular season and potential playoff games, and teams won't get any salary cap relief for potential pay reductions.
For Irving, he stands to lose about $380K per home game. Marks said on Tuesday that Irving will still get paid for away games that he misses due to the team deciding to keep him away from the team.
Could the Nets trade Irving, or could he retire if he continues to be unvaccinated?
During Marks' press conference to address the Nets' decision to keep Irving away from the team, a reporter asked if the team would look to move him due to his unwillingness to be made available for the team this season.
"I don't know that I want to address the hypotheticals of what may happen in the future here. ... The hope is that we have Kyrie back, we'll welcome him back in open arms under a different set of circumstances. And so we need to wait and see how that transpires, but in the meantime, we need to focus on the 16 players that are going to be on this roster moving forward with us, including our two-ways. So the focus needs to be with them and our goals have not changed. The goals, ultimately, still are to be the last team standing."
The idea of Brooklyn trading Irving has been floated around on social media, and one hypothetical was a potential Irving-for-Ben Simmons proposal to put an end to the current drama with the Philadelphia 76ers, and allow the Nets to move on without Irving. However, the Sixers have no interest in Irving at the moment, per The Athletic's Sam Amick.
In regards to Irving potentially retiring due to this entire situation, the All-Star guard shot down that possibility on Instagram Live.
"And no I'm not retiring, and no I'm not leaving this game like this," Irving said. "There's still so much more work to do and there's still so many other youngins to inspire. Because I know they want to be better than me. And I can't wait to play against all y'all on this stage."
How soon could Irving play if he gets vaccinated?
Since New York City's vaccine mandate only requires proof of just one dose of a vaccine to play home games, Irving could theoretically get one dose on the day of the Nets home opener, which is set for Sunday, Oct. 24 against the Charlotte Hornets, and be eligible for that game. He would've been eligible to play in Brooklyn's first two games of the season since they are on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and Sixers, but due to the team's decision to not allow him to compete at all until he's vaccinated, he won't be allowed to play in those at all.
However, even if Irving just got one dose of the vaccine, he would still be required to follow the league's strict guidelines for players who are not fully vaccinated. That would mean he would still be required to, among other things, social distance from teammates and undergo regular testing.
Who will fill Irving's role for Nets?
Although the Nets would surely like to have Irving's talents in the starting lineup, this is without a doubt the deepest team in the league, and could probably still win a championship without him. In his absence, head coach Steve Nash will likely go to veteran guard and NBA champion Patty Mills to fill Irving's role. Mills won't match Irving's production, as his career averages of 8.9 points and 2.3 assists pale in comparison to the gaudy numbers Irving is capable of putting up.
But with Kevin Durant and James Harden, the Nets don't necessarily need Mills to average well above his career average. Even better, Mills is a player who can play well on or off the ball, and his ability to make 3s consistently will help the Nets spread the floor for Durant and Harden to attack the rim. Mills is also coming off an Olympic bronze medal with the Australian National Team where he had a standout tournament. Over six games he averaged a blistering 23.3 points, 6.3 assists and 3.5 assists, and showed that perhaps there's more to unlock to his game than we've seen over his 12-year career in the NBA.
He's never been a regular starter in his NBA career, but Mills has shown over the years that he's capable of filling that role. With Irving sidelined indefinitely, he'll now get that opportunity.