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How will Nets deal with the ‘Big Two’ in free agency?

2021 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

We are still eight months away from free agency. A lot can happen between now and then, between the Nets and their two big free agents this summer: James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

But John Hollinger of The Athletic gives it a shot and offers a none-too-optimistic look at the Nets predictament. Harden and Irving are both eligible for extensions, big ones that will almost certainly effect the franchise’s future.

Here’s the veteran of the New York Sun, ESPN, the Grizzlies front office and now The Athletic sees the situation and the Nets choices, some of it obvious, some of it not.

Kyrie Irving, PG, Nets (player option): While Kyrie Irving’s unavailability due to his vaccination status has been a big story this year, one should remember New York City’s rules have played a major role. Irving isn’t any less vaccinated than Bradley Beal; he’s just not eligible to play home games given where he plays them.

Presuming that restrictions lighten sometime between now and the fall of 2022, that seemingly would still leave Irving in good position to sign a five-year max deal with the Nets for $242 million and in turn removes much of his incentive to extend his deal for a mere $187 million right now. The only real question is whether the Nets are still willing to move forward with Irving, or if this year’s weirdness has them reimagining their roster.

It should be remembered that extension talks with Irving were put on hold when he declined to get vaccinated. Of course, everyone from Sean Marks and Steve Nash to co-owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai have all said they would welcome Irving back and Joe Tsai telling NetsDaily he has “all the patience” to wait for Irving. Moreover, Irving at this point is unlikely to draw many GM’s — or fanbase’s — interest if he declines the player option.

Harden’s situation is similar but different, as Hollinger notes.

James Harden, SG, Nets (player option): James Harden was in a similar situation to Beal above — he could opt in to his $44.7 million salary for next season right now and tack on three years and $161 million, but he might be better off waiting till after the season and getting a five-year, $279 million monstrosity instead.

Here’s the catch: Do you really want to max out Harden for five years right now? He turns 33 next summer and already looks to have lost a step. On the one hand, if Brooklyn isn’t interested in doing a five-year deal next summer, it leaves its flank open for Harden to seek greener pastures; but on the other, that very situation makes it more compelling for Harden to just sign an extension right now.

Maybe things have changed recently but there’s no indication that the Nets don’t want to keep Harden. Yes, he’s not (yet) who he was last season, but on many nights, he is and the Nets have at least as much patience with his play as they have with Irving’s behavior. The Nets also believe that Harden’s game, which relies more on the cerebral than the athletic, will come around and sustain him through an extension.

For argument’s sake, let’s look at the unlikely scenario that both Irving and Harden don’t return and assume as well that they don’t win it all. What then? The Nets would have enough room with some Marksian magic to sign others on Hollilnger’s list, pairing them with the already signed, sealed and delivered Kevin Durant. The Brooklyn culture that Marks and the Tsais have created in Brooklyn will certainly have some cachet.

At again, at this point, it’s nothing but speculation as far as we — and Hollinger — know.