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Irving and Kevin Durant joined the Nets as free agents before the 2019-20 season to form one of the more dynamic tandems in the league. Durant is one of the league’s smoothest scorers, and Irving is perhaps its best ballhandler. They each had championship experience and seemed poised, talent-wise, to bring the Nets a title.
But there were questions and concerns from the start. Durant tore his Achilles’ tendon in the 2019 N.B.A. finals while playing for the Golden State Warriors, and he sat out his first season in Brooklyn. Irving, meanwhile, appeared in just 20 games before having season-ending shoulder surgery.
The following season, the Nets made another splash by acquiring James Harden from the Houston Rockets in a three-team trade. But Irving missed several games for unspecified personal reasons, and during one of the stints when he was away from the team, video surfaced of him attending his sister’s birthday party without a mask, in violation of the N.B.A.’s coronavirus protocols. In the Eastern Conference semifinals, Irving sprained his right ankle against the Milwaukee Bucks and the Nets lost the series in seven games.
The drama, though, was just beginning. Before the start of the 2021-22 season, the Nets issued Irving an ultimatum after he declined to be vaccinated for Covid-19: Get the shot, or stay home. Irving missed 35 games before the Nets reversed their policy, which cleared Irving to play in road games. He was able to play in home games nearly three months later when Mayor Eric Adams repealed a vaccine mandate for professional athletes and performers working in New York City.
But Harden was gone by then, having joined the Philadelphia 76ers in a midseason trade. The Nets went on to get swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. In the wake of that disaster, Durant requested a trade but rescinded it before the start of this season.
Irving had a player option for this season, and it was unclear almost until the deadline in June whether he would opt in. After weeks of speculation that he might be trying to force a trade, Irving announced that he was in for this season after all.
“Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow,” Irving said in a statement at the time. “I’ve made my decision to opt in. See you in the fall.”