The Nets’ 2021-22 season — and possibly the breakup of the dynasty that never was — can be traced to a four-day stretch last summer, and a single one-line update in a city mandate.
New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate — from the way it abruptly changed to the way the situation was handled — may have left a bad taste with some players, sources said.
From Kyrie Irving missing two-thirds of the season, prompting James Harden to demand a trade and now Kevin Durant having followed suit, Brooklyn could lose three future Hall of Famers in less than six months — along with any chance at a title.
This train first went off the rails not during the season but in the preseason; in August 2021 when Mayor Bill de Blasio issued an emergency executive order allowing unvaccinated local athletes who lived outside the city to play home games, then switched the city mandate just four days later to bar them as well.
“There was a time where I got my hopes really, really high and all the air was just let out. And it’s just a level of disappointment,” Irving had said cryptically during the season, never spelling out clearly when that time was. But The Post can.
De Blasio’s initial executive order on Aug. 16 initially specified among the exemptions, “A nonresident professional athlete/sports team who enters a covered premises as part of their regular employment for purposes of competing.”
That meant Irving — who lives in West Orange, N.J. — would’ve been eligible to play despite not adhering to the vaccine mandate. It would’ve also provided a path for any other Nets to remain unvaccinated and still suit up. In theory, under the original mandate, any unvaccinated player could have temporarily moved outside the city and still played.
“Kyrie wasn’t the only one on the Nets who didn’t want to get vaccinated,” a source with direct knowledge of the situation told The Post.
“No one was expecting the mandate the way in which he wouldn’t be able to play. No one expected it,” a source close to Irving said. “The entire thing was that vaccination was absolutely going to be a choice and not anything that was forced.
“There were conversations around that whole artist component, so if you were an artist visiting from outside — also if you didn’t live in New York City — you’d be allowed to play. When the mandate came down everybody was confused because no one expected for it to take on that tone … everybody was a little surprised.”
The Nets claim to have been as caught off-guard as anyone when the mayor reversed the exemption on Aug. 20, despite there having been talk de Blasio might change that non-resident exemption to only apply to unvaccinated players on visiting teams.
“There is a chance the Nets could have got the mayor to stick to the original language,” one of the direct sources said.
There was chatter that de Blasio might tweak the original language somewhat, and Nets owner Joe Tsai is not believed to have lobbied city hall in the immediate aftermath to keep the executive order the same.
But the Nets say they were as stunned as everybody else when the change happened. As it turns out, the lightning-quick four-day time frame didn’t allow the Alibaba co-founder — who spends much of his time in Hong Kong — time to act; and a source close to Irving felt it unlikely to have made a difference if he had.
“[Tsai’s] hands were tied,” said a source close to Irving.
“Mr. Tsai had no knowledge that Mayor de Blasio’s office was going to change the original Key to NYC mandate making vaccines required for home team players who were non-residents of New York City,” said Mandy Gutmann, the Executive VP of Communications for BSE, the Nets’ parent company told The Post this week.
Tsai is admittedly pro-vaccine, which Irving was well aware of. But Tsai might have underestimated just how deeply dug in Irving’s heels were, how long-standing his vaccine hesitancy is. But the Nets found out the hard way that trying to predict the mercurial guard is risky, as the Cavaliers and Celtics had already learned.
Every other Nets player got vaccinated before their Sept. 27 Media Day and ensuing San Diego-area training camp, leaving Irving as the lone holdout.
“[Tsai] laid it out that you needed to be vaccinated or you can’t play,” a source close to the situation said. “A number of players did not want to get vaccinated. They all decided to get vaccinated except Kyrie. … The thinking was the players would all blink.”
But rather than blink, Irving held a laser-focus on staying unvaccinated.
After Tsai hosted Irving and the other Nets at his La Jolla, Calif., estate during training camp, it became clear that the guard was steadfast in his refusal. And while sources close to both Irving and Durant stressed that Tsai never pressured any players to get vaccinated, the e-commerce billionaire did — at least initially — draw the line at allowing part-time players.
When Tsai decided the next month to bar Irving from playing road games — despite paying his salary — a source close to the situation said it wasn’t due to any personal feeling on vaccines but because he felt a part-time player would be bad for the team.
But the season began to unravel anyway. After watching his struggling team be decimated by injuries, Tsai did an about-face to let Irving play unvaccinated. He made his road debut on Jan. 5 at Indiana.
“My only religion is to win games and win the championship,” Tsai told The Post at the time. “That’s where we are.”
It’s clear the mandate change and Irving’s stance put an end to those title hopes. Sitting second in the East on Jan. 15, the Nets dropped 16 of 21 after Durant suffered a left knee injury. They fell to eighth by the time he returned six weeks later — and Tsai took action.
On Feb. 6, Irving said, “Anything can happen these next few days, the next week. Just crossing my fingers that something can come up either before All-Star break or even just after.” Two days later — with the Nets on an eight-game losing skid — they hired ex-New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to lobby new Mayor Eric Adams about changing the mandate so Irving could play at home.
After the Nets had lacked the time or possibly the interest in lobbying de Blasio, financial records show they agreed to spend $18,000 a month on lobbying Adams for 18 months.
But the very same day they inked that contract, Harden spoke with general manager Sean Marks and then Tsai, requesting a trade.
Just over 48 hours later, Harden was gone to the 76ers, taking with him hopes of seeing that prolific Big 3 lead the Nets to a title.
But the mandates were still there, well over a month later.
“At this point, now it feels like somebody’s trying to make a statement or a point to flex their authority. But everybody out here is looking for attention, and that’s what I feel the mayor wants right now is some attention. He’ll figure it out soon. He better,” Durant said. “Now it just looks stupid.”
Adams eventually relented, changing the rules on March 24 allowing Irving to play home games despite being unvaccinated. But the Nets got swept out of the first round of the playoffs by Boston, in large part because they did not have enough time to gel as a team.
They may never get that time, with Durant requesting a trade. If the former MVP goes, it’s expected that Irving will as well.
Should that happen, the best team that never was can point back to a four-day span as where it all started to go wrong — and rue a one-line tweak in a city document that turned a potential title into a train wreck.