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Did Nets’ separate peace with Kyrie Irving lead to Kevin Durant’s return?

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Could the Nets strategy to get Kevin Durant back in black-and-white have turned on something simple — make a separate peace with Kyrie Irving, then use proof of their good intentions with Irving to lure KD back? Or alternately, could Durant and manager Rich Kleiman’s strategy been similarly simple — get the Nets to deal with KD’s friend first, then we talk return?

There is ample reporting that Durant was exasperated by more than the Nets stand on Irving’s contract and there certainly were a lot of factors that went into the decision announced Tuesday morning, things like Durant and the Nets both being surprised at the league’s low-ball offers for the 33-year-old and a realization by KD that Brooklyn was and is his best chance to win again.

But a look at the chronology of events — and comments by Shams Charania Wednesday — might make you think that the Nets tackled their relationship with Irving first. then moved on Durant. That could not have been easy for the Nets brass. Sean Marks and Steve Nash had made it clear in May that Irving needed to be available, be committed after a miserable season that had him play only 29 games. His high-profile refusal to get vaccinated amid New York’s tough vaccine mandate had been the biggest impediment to team success.

Indeed, at the beginning of the process, the idea of an Irving return to grace seemed unlikely. More than one pundit said they could not see Irving returning to the Nets. There was too much bad blood, too much misery to overcome.

Still, critical to either side’s strategy was the realization that the friendship between Irving and Durant is an enduring one. Three days after the Nets and Irving reached a standstill on a five-year, $246 million extension and Irving opted into the last year of his current contract at $36.5 million, Durant said he wanted out of Brooklyn. He made no statement listing reasons or demands. In fact, he made no statement at all, but the Irving contract was considered at the very least a irritant, at the worst, a trigger.

“The one guy with the Nets that Kevin Durant had remained in communication with, from everything I’ve been told, was Kyrie Irving,” Shams Charania told Rich Eisen Wednesday. “That was the one guy that he was communicating with on a regular basis. ...That relationship goes beyond just basketball. I think it’s more a life friendship that those do have. “

Indeed, at the time of the Irving opt-in and Durant trade request, it appeared that both superstars, the main haul in the 2019 “Clean Sweep,” were headed elsewhere. Just before talks ended, Irving had given the Nets five stops he preferred in a sign-and-trade. Then, rather than tell the Nets he was opting in, he announced it to Shams. The Nets saw themselves as the target of an orchestrated leak campaign.

But as Shams told Eisen, Irving did not want to leave Brooklyn.

“As for Kyrie Irving, the moment he opted in, I think his mindset, I think, was how can I make the most of being on the Nets, with or without Kevin Durant. I think his mindset was being on the Nets,” said Shams.

With so much attention focused on Durant trade rumors, the Nets and Irving quietly tried for a rapprochement. The chronology bears this out.

On July 12, two weeks after the opt-in and trade request and with a number of parties in Las Vegas, Brian Lewis quoted a source close to Irving as saying the Nets guard has “every intention” of playing in Brooklyn next season, with or without Kevin Durant.

“How did we get into this situation about trade, when he opted in?” the source asked rhetorically back then. “Here is the situation: He opted in, which means he had— and he has — every intention of playing with the Brooklyn Nets. KD decides he wants out and now everybody is talking about trading Kyrie, right?

“Kyrie has not asked for a trade. Now, if the Nets don’t want him, that’s something totally different. Kyrie has not said he wants a trade. He opted in.”

Shams told Eisen that that was also around the time the Nets and Irving were having “positive constructive dialogue.”

“I think over the last several weeks, ever since Summer League and the opt-in, I think that the Nets and Kyrie Irving, from everything I’ve been told, have had positive constructive dialogue and that being the backdrop of all of this: the Nets have had at least the stability of Kyrie Irving being comfortable and being back in any circumstance,” said Shams.

Then, two weeks later, a bit of a breakthrough, something tangible. At 2:01 a.m. New York time on July 29, Joe Tsai was online somewhere and retweeted a post from Boardroom, the Kevin Durant website, in which New York City point guard legends, almost to a man, said Irving was the NBA PG best equipped to survive on the playgrounds of New York. With one well-placed word, Tsai seemed to break a log jam...

It did not seem random. It was the first time he had tweeted about his NBA team in a month, having focused on lacrosse and the Liberty. Then, a few other things happened in quick succession.

On August 4, Irving took his talents to Union, N.J., for a previously scheduled community event at Kean University he called “More than a run.” Irving, who hadn’t been seen on the Nets official website other than in ads for season tickets, was suddenly a team darling again.

A Nets video team, five teammates and others from basketball operations traveled from Brooklyn to the suburban New Jersey campus. The next day, there were video and stills on the Nets official website as well as Nets social media — Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and even Weibo, their Chinese language site! The Nets were signaling things had changed ... at least with Irving.

Tsai and Durant met on August 7 in London as the Nets sought clarity on KD’s demands. It was at that meeting that Durant reportedly played hardball, gave Tsai a demand that it’s either him or the Nets front office — Sean Marks and Steve Nash. After the ultimatum story broke the next day, Tsai tweeted out his support for his front office and pointedly said “we will make decisions in the best interest of the Brooklyn Nets.”

On August 11, Irving’s agent and stepmother, Shetellia Riley Irving, made sure to dispel a rumor that her client “hated” Marks and Nash.

“I am not sure where this narrative is coming from but Kyrie does not hate Steve nor Sean. That’s not a part of his being nor how he represents himself in the world. He’s about peace, love and acceptance,” Riley Irving told The Post.

Then the next day, Ramona Shelburne quoted a Nets source as saying the Nets saw the meeting as “part of the process.” All was not lost. It was a negotiation more than an ultimatum, the Nets seemed to suggest.

Then, the next day, August 12, various sources pooh-poohed the possibility of an Irving trade to the Lakers. Dan Woike, the Los Angeles Times Laker beat writer, toned down the expectations — even L.A.’s willingness to include their 2027 and 2029 first round picks, the only firsts they control, in a trade. As we reported that day, “The Nets and Kyrie Irving seem to be at peace.”

Shams, in talking to Eisen Wednesday, said in fact that the Lakers discussion wasn’t very real ... at any point after Irving opted in.

“I don’t think that Lakers scenario was ever really on the table in a real way once Kyrie Irving opted in,” he said.

By August 18, last Thursday, there was a spate of stories declaring any deal between the Nets and Lakers on Irving dead. The Nets were no longer interested. Everyone from Adrian Wojnarowski to Jovan Buha, Shams colleague at The Athletic, said so. Irving’s return seemed like a very done deal.

On Friday, after a European tour, Durant was in L.A. with Irving, working out — and talking — at Campbell Hall High School in Studio City. At that point, the Monday meeting between Team Durant and Team Tsai had been set up. So beyond a reported airing of grievances, were there concessions made? Was there a discussion of Irving’s extension, perhaps a handshake that the Nets and Irving could revisit things during the season? We’ve heard that was indeed part of the agenda ... and that Durant left the meeting in high spirits.

After Tuesday’s announcement, The Lakers moved on from their pursuit of Irving. On Thursday, they traded Talen Horton Tucker and Stanley Johnson for Patrick Beverly. Not a reasonable facsimile. They still have their picks.

The Nets have plenty of time to decide on ultimately what to do with Irving. They can extend him at whatever length and remuneration at any point in the season. Or they can wait till summer when he will be an unrestricted free agent. The Nets will have his Bird Rights. Irving will have great motivation to produce, to help the team win. With all the distractions (seemingly) eliminated and everyone (seemingly) on board, it should work to both sides’ benefit.

Shams also again went out of his way to deny a report by Ric Bucher of FOX Sports that the third member of the new Big Three had dissed Durant by dropping off a group chat before Game 4 ... as if to clear up another possible impediment to the Nets success.

“That did not happen, 100 percent did not happen,” he told Eisen. Then, he summarized Simmons situation. “As far as ben Simmons and his future and how he plays in all this, I think he has a very big role in all this. I mean at the end of all this, he is part of this Big Three.

“[T]here’s a lot for him to prove next season. From everything I’ve told, he has looked the part this summer. he had back surgery in May to fix an issue that has gone on for the last few years, and he’s made a great recovery from what I’m told and he’s already been cleared for 3-on-3 and in the coming weeks, he’s going to be cleared for 5-on-5. The expectation is — and he’s been on track — he should be cleared for the start of training camp in late September.”

So, a little more than a month before training camp opens — and still with six roster spots open, the Nets are (seemingly) in good shape. It all worked out. Was it all worth it? We will know soon enough.