Irving returned to practice Sunday, but the Nets are preparing for their starting point guard to miss home games for the foreseeable future.
Irving, who practiced with the Nets at their training camp in San Diego last week, had missed four days of preseason practices with his team in Brooklyn. Unable to attend media day last week at Barclays Center, Irving joined via videoconference from his home and asked for privacy.
New York City’s vaccine mandate requires a person to have proof of at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot to enter indoor gyms, but the latest twist in this saga came Friday afternoon, when it was deemed Irving could, in fact, practice at the team’s facility moving forward, saying it is a private workplace.
He still, however, cannot play in games, as Barclays Center is a public space.
There are numerous unknowns. Most notably: How, if at all, the Nets, who are projected by ESPN’s latest win-loss predictions to win 58 games, and their seven-time All-Star guard can work together prior to the start of Brooklyn’s season opener versus the Bucks on Oct. 19 in Milwaukee (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
Here’s everything we know and don’t know about Irving, the Nets and how the next few weeks (or months) might play out:
How are the Nets players and coaches handling Irving’s absence?
Irving’s teammates are remaining hopeful and offering support, without wading into a position on the guard’s vaccination stance. Kevin Durant said Wednesday he still envisions Irving joining the Nets soon.
“Maybe I’m just naïve, but that is just how I feel. … [Kyrie] is dealing with something personal right now. And while he is dealing with that, we are going to focus on us here in the gym and keep working. When they are ready to figure that out, he’ll figure it out.”
Said James Harden on Thursday: “We’ll keep treading water. Every single day we focus on things that we can control, things we can get better at. … Whatever happens, happens. I want him to be on the team, of course. … He’s one of the reasons why I came here.”
But for the time being, the Nets are moving forward without him. Nets coach Steve Nash said the team isn’t communicating with Irving on his workouts while he’s away.
“It’s not something we’ve discussed,” Nash said.
Why would the Nets not want him to just play road games?
This is an unprecedented situation as the Nets could potentially go long stretches without being able to work with Irving.
For example, if Irving remains unvaccinated, he’ll be with the team for one game between Oct. 2 and its opener on Oct. 19 in Milwaukee.
In the second week of the regular season, the Nets begin a six-game homestand in which they will be in New York for 13 consecutive days.
Playing Irving immediately after such long absences from game settings is untenable. And that’s just the next month. These awkward starts and stops will repeat themselves throughout the season, and that’s less than ideal.
Could Irving be traded?
Despite his All-NBA talent, teams could be reluctant to trade for Irving for several reasons.
There is some question as to whether Irving would immediately report to a new team if he was traded to a city where there wasn’t a local vaccine mandate. He has shown a willingness to leave without permission, regardless of consequences. Last season, Irving took an unapproved two-week sabbatical and missed five games for personal reasons, paying nearly $900,000 in fines for violating league protocols.
“Had a lot of family and personal stuff going on,” Irving said. “So, just want to leave it at that.”
Additionally, Irving has two years, $71 million left on his contract but has a player option next summer that would allow him to become an unrestricted free agent. Teams will be hesitant to give up significant players and draft picks for what could be a short-term arrangement.
Durant, for his part, has continued to say he hopes to have Irving on the team.
What’s the impact on Irving’s paycheck if he’s not playing home games?
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agreed to a reduction in pay of 1/91.6 of a player’s salary for each game a player misses under the “reasonable cause” portion of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, a modified formula from the one that each side agreed to for last season’s 72-game campaign.
The NBA’s expectation, sources said, is that Irving’s refusal to get a vaccine shot, and thus being unable to render services to his team, will fall under the “reasonable cause” clause and force him to give up roughly $380,000 per game.
If he misses every game in Brooklyn this season (including preseason games), plus the two regular-season games against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, it would cost him north of $17 million.
But the players’ association, sources said, has stressed it does not believe that is necessarily the case, something executive director Michele Roberts said publicly to the New York Daily News earlier this week.
James Harden says a big reason he came to the Nets is to play with Kyrie Irving and he wants him to be on the team.
“They’ve been reporting that we’ve agreed that if a player who was not able to play because of his non-vaccination status, they could be docked [pay],” Roberts said. “We did not agree. The league’s position is that they can. We’ll see.”
Friday’s Bucks-Nets game marks the first time Irving has missed a game because of the mandate.
Meanwhile, Irving is eligible to sign a four-year, $187 million extension with Brooklyn.
After Durant signed his extension this summer, Nets general manager Sean Marks expressed optimism an agreement could be reached with Irving, but those talks are on ice, sources said.
Are other NBA teams or players affected by local vaccine mandates?
Three cities — New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles — have COVID-19 mandates that could affect players on the New York Knicks, Nets, Golden State Warriors, LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
In New York, to enter any gym — including Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center — individuals need proof of at least one COVID-19 shot; in San Francisco, individuals must be fully vaccinated.
While the orders in New York and San Francisco apply to the players on those teams, the situation in Los Angeles is murkier. The Los Angeles ordinance, which was both passed by the Los Angeles City Council and signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday, will go into effect Nov. 29. Starting that day, anyone entering, among other facilities, indoor gyms will have to be fully vaccinated. Staples Center said the Los Angeles ordinance does not apply to it or Microsoft Theater, “who are already subject to an existing LACDPH order addressing this subject matter.”
Both the Lakers and Clippers said last month that their teams are, or are in the process of being, fully vaccinated.
Of note, Warriors swingman Andrew Wiggins received a COVID-19 vaccination and will be eligible to play in home games this season, coach Steve Kerr said following practice last Sunday. Wiggins applied to the NBA for a religious exemption, but that was declined by the league.
It’s also important to note that “non-resident performers” are exempted from all three orders, meaning that — as of now — visiting players are not impacted by any of them.
Who will step up in Irving’s place?
The Nets are as well-equipped as any team to handle the absence of a star of Irving’s magnitude, with both Harden and Durant available to run the offense. Patty Mills, the team’s taxpayer’s mid-level exception signing, was projected to come off the bench. Even without Irving, Brooklyn could have the NBA’s best offense this season.
“I mean, he’s a special player, so it is going to be hard to duplicate what he brings,” Durant said of Irving. “But professional sports are about the next-man-up mentality, so we are looking forward to guys stepping up and filling in that role as best as they can.”
“He’s a special player. We want him a part of this group. But a lot of stuff is out of our control, and we will let him figure that out for himself. It doesn’t mean that I will say that I don’t want him on the team. He’s a huge part of what we do, but guys got to step up in his absence and be who they are and move forward.”
When the Nets play in Toronto on Nov. 7, how will Canada’s vaccination rules affect Irving?
In an NBA players’ association memo shared with players and obtained by ESPN on Wednesday, there is a mention of Canada’s Quarantine Act, which allows unvaccinated players to leave their hotels only for official team activities. If those players break the protocols while in Canada, they could be fined up to $750,000 and even face prison time.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst contributed to this report.
Ben Simmons reports to Philadelphia 76ers, sources say
As the Sixers played the Brooklyn Nets, Simmons took a COVID-19 test in the arena, sources said. The initial test starts several days of testing required by the NBA to clear him for a return to the team.
Simmons’ arrival concluded several weeks of discussions between the organization and Simmons’ representative, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul, to get Simmons back into the marketplace, sources said.
Simmons had held out in hopes of accelerating a trade. However, under the terms of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, for each preseason game he missed, he lost roughly $360,000 for failing to show up — totaling more than $1 million for the three games that he missed. In addition, the 76ers could fine Simmons for missed practices: $2,500 for the first, $5,000 for the second, $7,500 for the third and for every practice after, being left to the discretion of the team, with the ability to go up to $50,000.
Simmons, 25, has four years and $147 million left on his contract.
Simmons hadn’t spoken directly to team officials since a late August meeting in Los Angeles in which he reiterated his desire for a trade, sources said. He had recently become more open-minded about the possibility of ending his time away from the team and reporting to Philadelphia, but the next step will be him committing to not just a return to the city — but rejoining the team on the court.
The Sixers have canvassed the league throughout the offseason for trades but have been unable to find a deal that would bring them a comparable star they’d want to continue to build a championship contender around All-NBA center Joel Embiid, sources said. Those trade talks would likely continue with a Simmons return, but president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and coach Doc Rivers are hopeful to continue working to convince Simmons on remaining long-term with the franchise, sources said.
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps and Bobby Marks contributed to this report.
Los Angeles Lakers’ Talen Horton-Tucker to have thumb surgery to repair torn ligaments
LOS ANGELES — Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker will undergo surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb, sources told ESPN on Monday.
Horton-Tucker, who turns 21 next month, signed a three-year, $32 million extension in the offseason, providing the team an ascending talent among a roster mostly comprised of accomplished veterans.
The third-year wing had been the Lakers’ second-leading scorer in the preseason, averaging 12.7 points on 39.3% shooting in three appearances.
It is the second significant injury to hit the Lakers before the regular season has even opened up, after Trevor Ariza required surgery on his right ankle last week. The surgery is expected to sideline him for approximately two months.
“Obviously any time you’re dealing with surgery you wish for the best,” LeBron James said last week when asked about Ariza. “But we believe in our docs and everyone is saying that he’ll come back at full strength. So six to eight weeks, you’re in a marathon. It may feel long for him but we’ll welcome him coming back at 100%. We can’t wait to get him back on the floor with us.”
Lakers guard Malik Monk, whom like Horton-Tucker was considered to be another youthful bright spot during training camp, is also currently sidelined with a right groin strain that will be re-evaluated in a week, according to Lakers coach Frank Vogel.
“It’s preseason and we have a lot of depth,” Vogel said. “And we’re going to have an opportunity to give minutes to other guys. Next man up.”
Ex-NBA guard JR Smith makes golf debut with North Carolina A&T
BURLINGTON, N.C. — JR Smith couldn’t help but feel anxious.
Sure, he had spent 16 years playing in the NBA, making millions and winning two world championships in packed arenas at the highest level of a global sport. But he had never been in the situation like he was Monday: lining up tee shots as a 36-year-old freshman walk-on playing his first college golf tournament for North Carolina A&T at Elon’s Phoenix Invitational.
“I was nervous, I was,” said Smith, who shot a 12-over-par 83 in Round 1 and then a 7-over 78 in Round 2. “I didn’t really know what to expect.”
That’s easy to understand considering how massive of a change it represents for Smith. Exactly one year earlier, to the day, he was a shirtless part of an on-court celebration with LeBron James after the Los Angeles Lakers had just closed out an NBA title run in the Florida pandemic bubble.
Smith had since been drawn to the Greensboro school because of his interest in attending a Historically Black College or University, which follows a push by the NBA and its players to support HBCU traditions and culture in this year’s All-Star Game in Atlanta.
On Monday, Smith’s pride came from representing a HBCU for the first time as an Aggies golfer at the two-day event at Alamance Country Club.
“We’re such a small part of the percentage of the country, let alone the budgeting system,” Smith said with a laugh. “Because I see everybody else has got vans and all this other stuff. But it’s great. It’s great to represent them. It’s great for the school to get the recognition because they deserve it, and my fellow classmates.
“That’s what I’m most excited about: to be able to come back to campus and my teammates have their head held high with a victory coming from a tournament is what we look for.”
It’s a college experience almost two decades delayed for Smith, who was originally slated to play basketball at North Carolina before jumping from the preps to the NBA to become a first-round pick in 2004.
“I was pretty pleased with him,” Aggies coach Richard Watkins said. “He made some mistakes, did some things you will do if you’re not used to competing. Just going out and playing recreational golf with your buddies is a whole lot different than competition.
“That first 18 was just to get his feet wet. Then he buckled down, and I was really pleased with what he did that second 18, because education doesn’t come cheap. And I think he learned some lessons out there today.”
Smith’s presence in a blue A&T hoodie and white pants drew a mini-gallery ranging between 15 and 30 curious onlookers following him around the course. Eli Ehrbar couldn’t pass up the chance to be part of that.
The 21-year-old is a native of Cleveland, where Smith helped the James-led Cavaliers to the 2016 world championship. The Elon senior said it felt like a bit of good fortune that Smith qualified for his first college tournament so close.
“When I saw he qualified, I was like, ‘I have to come,'” said Ehrbar, wearing a burgundy Cavaliers hoodie. “I think that was kind of the feeling with me and a couple of my friends. We were like, this is a world-class athlete, a world-champion NBA player. Especially being from Cleveland, it just hits a little home differently.”
Smith seemed relaxed enough through numerous holes. When one tee shot hit a tree and landed in the fairway, Smith was quick to quip that he called the bank shot. He gave a playful “beep, beep” as his cart, driven by Temple golfer Joey Morganti, made its way through the onlookers on the cart path.
And when an excited 2-year-old yellow labrador retriever named “Lucky” started barking from a nearby home’s front yard during one of Smith’s shots, Smith stopped and shouted from across the green: “What’s your name?”
Smith said he wanted to be just another competitor at the tournament, though he understood the extra attention that came with his debut.
“More than anything, it’s just being able to go out there and compete as one of the guys, just another name, and get my [butt] kicked,” Smith said. “It was actually a very humbling feeling. Again, I’m ready to go to that range to work on it. I had fun, but I don’t like losing.”
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