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The Nets’ pursuit of Kyrie Irving could cost them their identity

Yes, Irving is a star, but is he the right kind of star for the culture the Nets hold dear?

If you were surprised the Brooklyn Nets agreed to trade Allen Crabbe plus two first-round picks to the Atlanta Hawks in the middle of the NBA Finals, you probably haven’t been paying attention.

Trading Crabbe and his $18.5 million salary was the only way Brooklyn could create max cap space (short of letting D’Angelo Russell walk in free agency), and the only way a team would take the Crabbe contract was if Brooklyn sweetened the pot with draft assets. This was Step 1 to making a splash in free agency, as I wrote it would be back in December.

Now, reports suggest that Brooklyn’s big splash is to reel in Kyrie Irving. SNY’s Anthony Puccio reported Irving is leaning toward signing with the Nets in free agency, and ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith called Brooklyn the favorites to land him shortly after. Irving would dazzle at Barclays Center, one ankle-breaking crossover into physics-defying finish at a time. His talent as an offensive superstar is undeniable.

But Brooklyn’s reported interest in Irving throws a knuckleball at everything we thought we knew about the Nets entering this critical summer. A front office that has hung its hat on incremental progress and player development might sacrifice both in pursuit of star power. But is it worth it for Irving? That’s the question Brooklyn will face in the weeks leading up to and the years after this free agency.

The logical Nets path this summer is to chase the best available player at a key position — the forward spot — while continuing to develop the talent they have. The Nets started either Jared Dudley or second-rounder Rodions Kurucs at power forward for much of the season. Inserting any max or near-max free agent — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, or even Julius Randle — seemed to be the plan.

Going after Irving would represent a far different approach. Irving’s up-and-down final season in Boston created more questions about his future than answers. Young players regressed, the ball stagnated, the team sniped in the press, and the Celtics never got on track. With a loaded roster on paper, Boston lost miserably to the Bucks in the second round, one year after making it to the conference finals without Irving or Gordon Hayward.

Irving was at the center of Boston’s dysfunction, calling out young players for their lack of experience and offering confusing statements on his own free agency. He’ll be the center of attention in Brooklyn, too. Irving just might be the best one-on-one scorer in the league, if not certainly at his position. But how does he fit on this Nets roster?

The bigger question: if Irving and young, inexperienced players didn’t co-exist in Boston, what does that mean for the youthful group that snapped Brooklyn’s playoff drought?

That core just led the Nets to their best season in six years, and its biggest strength was guard play. Russell was an all-star (replacement for Victor Oladipo) and is a Most Improved Player candidate. Spencer Dinwiddie went from a Most Improved Player runner-up in 2018 to a Sixth Man of the Year candidate (read: snub) in 2019. Brooklyn unlocked Caris LeVert’s potential both before and after a scary leg injury — even Jimmy Butler conceded LeVert has game — and watched Joe Harris become the best shooter in the league.

Russell told The New York Post he enjoyed the team that won 42 games last season. He also said a player of Irving’s caliber makes the Nets a better team. People watching the Celtics engaged in an ongoing dilemma last season: Irving’s star power made them better, but his play style didn’t necessarily do the same.

To make matters worse, neither Irving or Russell are considered a competent defender, and defense at the point of attack is critical.

On the one hand, the NBA is a star-driven league, and Irving would be the first star to ever sign in Brooklyn. He would legitimize a franchise that has played second-fiddle to the New York Knicks since its move across the bridge in 2012.

But did Brooklyn suffer three years of lottery-ball and forfeited picks just to earn legitimacy in the arena of public perception? Or did they build something sustainable from the ground-up in pursuit of a championship?

It’s fair to question whether Irving can be the best player on a championship team, given his team’s lack of success before LeBron’s return to Cleveland and the results of his two seasons as the go-to guy in Boston. If Brooklyn successfully lands Irving, it would only make sense for management to pursue another star teammate.

But if they can’t get that player, there will be questions. If Irving couldn’t successfully co-exist with players on their rookie contract in Boston, why would it be any different in Brooklyn? Does pairing Russell and Irving make sense if it becomes a turnstile on defense? Again, what’s Brooklyn’s end goal: selling seats or winning rings?

If Irving comes to Brooklyn, the Nets have options. Brooklyn could just add Irving to the team as currently constructed. They could then exceed the cap to re-sign Russell, then use their mid-level exception to sign free agents. Brooklyn also has two other picks in this year’s draft (No. 27 via Denver, and No. 31 via New York) that can be packaged in a trade.

But the more likely scenario is Brooklyn signs Irving and renounces Russell. This would give Irving a blank max check to use to recruit another free agent. But the bigger fish usually recruit smaller fish, or team up with fish their own size. Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant are the biggest fish in the market. Where they go will dictate subsequent moves, not the other way around. If the Nets land Irving and miss on Durant and Leonard, will Nets fans be sold on four years of Irving and, say, Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris?

If Brooklyn does successfully land Irving plus another max free agent, renouncing Russell along the way, what does that mean for everyone else: Dinwiddie, LeVert, Harris, Jarrett Allen? LeVert becomes a restricted free agent in 2020. So does Taurean Prince, who Brooklyn just acquired in the Atlanta trade. Does Brooklyn make a move for a third star, packaging their young players and remaining picks together? Could they get in on Anthony Davis or an unexpected star who becomes available, like Karl-Anthony Towns? These are tricky questions.

Despite the reports, there are no assurances Irving is headed to Brooklyn. He changed his mind on LeBron James, and seems to have changed his mind on building a dynasty in Boston. Nothing is certain until it becomes official. For all anyone knows, Irving could still be headed to Madison Square Garden with Durant, or even to Los Angeles to reunite with James out West. He could still go back to Boston, too. No one will be surprised, no matter what he does.

But if anything the mutual interest between Irving and Brooklyn has only created more questions than answers. In one sense, it’s a breath of fresh air that this Nets team is even in the conversation to land one — or multiple — superstars in the same summer.

But Brooklyn’s reported pursuit of Irving also could cause the Nets to lose a part of themselves. The Nets are toeing the line between talent development and acquisition. But what exactly are they trying to do? Is Kyrie Irving worth sacrificing everything they’ve built over the years?