After weeks of uncertainty over Kyrie Irving's eligibility for the upcoming NBA season, the Brooklyn Nets delivered a public ultimatum to their all-star guard on Tuesday: get vaccinated or stay home.
While the NBA doesn't have a vaccine mandate for players, certain cities, including New York and San Francisco, have enacted rules that require vaccination for members of home teams in those markets. If Irving remains unvaccinated, he would be ineligible for Brooklyn's 41 home games at Barclays Center and its two road games against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Following extensive internal discussions and multiple conversations with Irving, Nets Owner Joe Tsai and General Manager Sean Marks opted against allowing the seven-time all-star to suit up for road games in cities without vaccine mandates, even though he would be eligible for those games by league rules. Brooklyn is set to open the regular season in Milwaukee against the Bucks on Oct. 19.
"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," Marks said in a team statement. "Kyrie has made a personal choice and we respect his individual right to choose. 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. It is imperative that we continue to build chemistry as a team and remain true to our long-established values of togetherness and sacrifice."
Marks, who addressed the media during a Tuesday news conference, added that the decision was made with an eye toward Brooklyn's championship aspirations, noting that "each member of our organization must pull in the same direction" to win the franchise's first NBA title and that sitting Irving until he is vaccinated was "best for the organization." Kevin Durant, James Harden and company entered the preseason as the Eastern Conference favorites, and Durant said Friday that it was "always tough" when a starter like Irving comes "in and out of the lineup" over the course of a season and that the Nets "want [Irving] here for the whole thing."
The NBA announced last month that unvaccinated players will be fined if they are unable to play in games because of vaccine mandates, which will cost Irving roughly $380,000 per game - or more than $16 million of his $34.9 million annual salary. National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts said last week that the union "did not agree" to the league's pay reduction plan. Marks said Tuesday that the Nets will continue to pay Irving for road games and that the "only salary that he loses is going to be for the home games."
Irving hasn't conducted interviews with reporters since Brooklyn's media day Sept. 27, but he participated in Nets training camp, which was held in San Diego, and attended - but did not play in - the team's preseason opener against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.
Though Irving had been barred from practicing with his teammates at the Nets' HSS Training Center in Brooklyn, New York City authorities ruled Friday that the practice facility was a "private office building" and thus exempt from the mandate. Irving then joined his teammates for an outdoor fan event Saturday and a practice Sunday, but he didn't travel to Philadelphia for an exhibition against the 76ers on Monday. Irving has yet to take the court for the Nets since he suffered an ankle injury during Game 4 of a second-round series loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in last year's playoffs.
Marks said that the Nets' decision was motivated by a desire to make sure that Irving, who averaged 26.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game last season, was fully ready to play after missing time during the preseason. Per NBA rules, Irving must wait 14 days after receiving his final shot to be deemed fully vaccinated and cleared under the league's health protocols. The Nets will "welcome [Irving] back with open arms" if he gets vaccinated, Marks noted.
"Kyrie has made it clear that he has a choice in this matter, and it's ultimately going to be up to him, what he decides," Marks said. "Will there be pushback from Kyrie and his camp? I'm sure this is not a decision that they like. Kyrie loves to play basketball and wants to be out there and participating with his teammates."
Unlike Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards and Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic, Irving hasn't elaborated on his reasons for remaining unvaccinated or even publicly confirmed his vaccination status. And unlike Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors, a vaccine holdout who got the shot last week so he wouldn't miss regular season games, Irving has yet to relent.
"I am protected by God and so are my people," Irving tweeted cryptically Saturday, in just his third post on the social media network since media day. "We stand together."
Irving didn't post on social media or issue a statement in the immediate aftermath of the Nets' announcement.
Although the Nets would prefer to have their Big Three fully intact, they are well positioned to get by in Irving's absence. Brooklyn boasted the NBA's top-ranked offense last season despite a host of injury issues, and Durant and Harden are both former scoring champions who can handle greater offensive responsibilities. During the offseason, the Nets added veteran guards Patty Mills and Jevon Carter to fill out a deep backcourt. Rookie guard Cam Thomas also has impressed as a natural scorer during the preseason.