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Kyrie Irving will return to the Nets on his $36.5 million player option

Kyrie Irving, right, will exercise his player option for the 2022-23 season to return to the Brooklyn Nets, continuing his star partnership with Kevin Durant. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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The shaky union between Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant remains intact, at least for now.

Irving will pick up his $36.5 million player option with the Brooklyn Nets for the 2022-23 season rather than test the market as an unrestricted free agent, a person with knowledge of the decision confirmed Monday night.

The 30-year-old guard’s future with the Nets had been the cause of much speculation following a disappointing first-round playoff exit and a tumultuous regular season in which he played only 29 games because of eligibility issues surrounding his decision to remain unvaccinated. Irving has a Wednesday deadline to formally pick up his option.

Irving’s decision to opt in, first reported by the Athletic, is rare for a seven-time all-star who remains in his prime. Typically, players with those credentials command lucrative multiyear contracts. Durant signed a four-year, $198 million extension in August, and Brooklyn could have offered Irving a five-year deal worth nearly $250 million.

But nothing about Irving’s Nets tenure has been typical, and owner Joe Tsai and General Manager Sean Marks were hesitant to make a long-term commitment. Irving has appeared in just 103 games over the past three seasons because of health concerns, personal absences and his months-long vaccination saga.

“Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow,” Irving told the Athletic. “I’ve made my decision to opt in. See you in the fall.”

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If Irving had opted out, he would have been eligible to pursue contract offers or sign-and-trade deals with other organizations once the NBA’s free agency period opens Thursday, with recent rumors linking him with interest in the Los Angeles Lakers. Such a path probably would have required Irving to make a major financial concession: If the Nets didn’t agree to a sign-and-trade, the Lakers’ only method to add him would have been to offer their mid-level exception worth $6 million for next season.

An ESPN report earlier Monday indicated that there was a tepid sign-and-trade market for Irving and that the Nets weren’t interested in engaging with the Lakers on a deal. Without the ability to hand-select a new destination and with his alternatives dwindling, Irving was left with little leverage. Brooklyn could still trade Irving, but it’s unclear which teams would be interested.

Had Irving opted out, Durant’s future would have been immediately thrown into question. The stars teamed up in Brooklyn in 2019, with dreams of competing for titles and constructing a superteam. Those plans seemed on track when Brooklyn acquired James Harden from the Houston Rockets, but they were derailed by injuries during the 2021 playoffs and Irving’s eligibility issues last season. Disillusioned by Brooklyn’s decision, Harden secured a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers in February.

Irving averaged 27.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists last season, but his unpredictability was a factor in Harden’s departure and in Brooklyn’s lack of chemistry, which culminated with a first-round sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics, the eventual Eastern Conference champions. When the Nets’ playoff run ended, Irving pledged he would return out of loyalty to Durant.

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“When I say I’m here with [Durant], that really entails us managing this franchise alongside [Tsai and Marks],” he said in April. “We’ve got to make some moves this offseason and really talk about it and really be intentional about what we’re building — have some fun with it and make it enjoyable.”

Durant had taken a hands-off approach to Irving’s potential free agency, saying on a recent podcast that he planned to “let things play out” and that their friendship “will still be there” no matter what happens.

“This is this man’s livelihood,” Durant said on the Etcs. “This is much bigger than me. Being a free agent, it’s one of the most important times in your career. That can’t be swayed by anybody else.”

Even if Durant and Irving remain in place alongside Ben Simmons and Joe Harris, Brooklyn has major work to do to return to the echelon of top NBA contenders. The Nets’ list of potential free agents includes Patty Mills, Bruce Brown, Goran Dragic, Nic Claxton and veteran big men Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

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