Playing without Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets have compiled a 23-12 record, good for third in the Eastern Conference. They welcome back their star point guard on Wednesday when Irving makes his 2021-22 debut against the Indiana Pacers.
The catch is that Irving will only play road games. New York City’s COVID-19 mandates prevent Irving, who is unvaccinated, from playing home games at Barclays Center. Initially, the Nets did not want Irving on a part-time basis, but they have reversed course because, right now, they need all the help they can get.
Kevin Durant and James Harden have logged heavy minutes in a Nets lineup impacted by healthy and safety protocols. They’re also waiting for the return of sharpshooter Joe Harris from an ankle injury. Veteran guard Patty Mills has helped fill part of the void, averaging 13.8 points per game, but he’s better-suited to a reserve role.
“I understood their decision and I respected it,” Irving said of the Nets while addressing the media for the first time on Dec. 29. “I had to sit down and really evaluate things and see it from their perspective. … I knew the consequences. I wasn't prepared for them by any stretch of the imagination.
“(But I’m) incredibly grateful just to be back in the building, welcomed back with open arms by my teammates, the whole entire organization. Not gonna lie: It’s been relatively tough to watch from the sidelines with everything going on in the world."
Irving’s return gets Brooklyn back on track toward its goal of winning an NBA championship, an aspiration that fell short last season when the Nets lost to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the East semifinals. Brooklyn held a 2-1 series lead, but Irving injured his ankle in Game 4 and didn’t play another minute. The Bucks won a Game 7 overtime thriller to eliminate the Nets.
Monday’s 118-104 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies underscored the urgency to have Irving back in the lineup. The Grizzlies dominated from start to finish, as Ja Morant and Desmond Bane outscored Durant and Harden 65-45.
“I don’t think Brooklyn can win a championship without Kyrie Irving,” Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas said Monday on NBA TV. “With Kyrie Irving, they are the favorite to win a championship.”
The Nets were preseason favorites (+225) to win the 2022 NBA Finals. They can reclaim those odds now that Irving is back.
But how much will he help if he’s only available away from Barclays Center?
Having the dynamic guard play road games won’t make the Nets that much better. Their 13-3 road record is tied with the Utah Jazz for best in the league. However, it’s better than not having the seven-time All-Star on the court. Offensively, Irving’s presence should ease the pressure on Durant and Harden, and head coach Steve Nash can now rest his other two superstars to get them ready for the playoffs.
Last season, Irving averaged 26.9 points in 54 games on shooting splits of 50.6 percent from the field, 40.2 percent on 3-pointers and 92.2 percent from the free-throw line. That offensive firepower will be needed in the postseason against the best teams in the East — the defending champion Bucks (with their big three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday), the Chicago Bulls (with their new quartet of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball and Nikola Vucevic) and the always-dangerous Miami Heat (with the addition of savvy veterans Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker).
If NYC mandates don’t change, Irving’s road-only availability will be a problem for the Nets in the postseason. When asked if the changing lineups during a series would hurt the Nets’ continuity, Durant didn’t see a problem.
“Have you watched him? He’s a master,” Durant said of Irving. “He can score 60 percent, 70 percent of his shots if you don’t guard him, and he’s a high-IQ player, so … he can adapt and do anything out there. So we’re not worried about him.”
Durant is right to not to be concerned — for now. Because if the Nets only have Irving for half of their playoff games, they’re likely going no further than halfway toward their championship goal.