The Nets find themselves in a basketball paradox: They have championship aspirations, yet it might be in their best interests to lose a few more games on the way to the playoffs — and play their way into a lower seed once they arrive.
Hosting a Game 7 is not worth it if one of your biggest stars is unable to play in road games.
That was one of the questions swirling on Wednesday night when the Nets entered a new phase of their bizarre season by welcoming back Kyrie Irving — part time — after having exiled him for the first 35 games of the season because of his choice to remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus.
That decision had ruled Irving out of games in Brooklyn’s home arena, in a city where players must be vaccinated, and for months the Nets had insisted they would not accept even a player of Irving’s talents in a part-time role. The team decided to give in last month amid a coronavirus virus outbreak that had decimated their roster. It was only four quarters into Wednesday’s game in Indiana that Irving, a seventime All-Star, showed why the Nets made that call.
Irving was a bit rusty at first but soon found his groove and began looking like the star that the Nets had signed free agency for in 2019. Irving led the Nets to a victory over the Indiana Pacers by scoring 22 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists. Ten of those points came during the fourth quarter, when Nets beat the Pacers.
“I’ve had a lot of debuts, but nothing comes close to this one,” Irving said. “It meant a little bit more. Just because at this stage, taking off eight months or being out of the game for eight months and coming back in, there’s so much uncertainty.”
It was definitely unusual. And to highlight its awkwardness, Irving will immediately head back to banishment: The Nets’ next two games are at home in New York City, where Irving’s vaccination status prevents him from playing as a result of a policy put in place by the city’s former mayor, Bill de Blasio, and that applies to public-facing places like gyms and restaurants.
If Irving remains unvaccinated, he will be available — barring other injuries or absences — for 21 of the team’s 46 remaining regular-season games. Irving is unable to play against the Raptors or the Knicks in Toronto due to health restrictions.
With rosters having become difficult to fill with wave after wave of players being ruled out because of coronavirus protocols, the Nets have chosen to treat Irving as a recurring guest star — someone they hope can make high-impact cameos on their quest to win a championship. Wednesday’s game was a glimpse at the obvious benefits of the Nets’ on-again/off-again approach.
“His game is just so beautiful,” the star forward Kevin Durant said of Irving. “Makes the game so much easier for everybody out there.”
It took only half an hour for the rusty to be shaken. Irving displayed his court vision in the second quarter with a quick lookaway pass to Nicolas Claxton. He demonstrated his ability to create space off the dribble and was a good extra shooter. Irving provided the final push to the Nets in the closing minutes of the game.
Most important — at least in the games he plays — Irving offers the Nets a reliable option to take the load off Harden and Durant, who have frequently had to put the Nets’ offense on their shoulders. When Irving is available, the Nets Coach Steve Nash can sit Harden or Durant simultaneously, and Irving can run the offense with the help of bench units. Irving’s presence alone also draws defenders, which creates room for players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills to get open jumpers. He can also allow Durant or Harden to move more freely without the ball.
In simple terms, the Nets have been a barely above average team offensively this year, with an offensive rating that ranks 12th among the N.B.A.’s 30 teams despite the presence of Durant and Harden. They will now have the ability to inject of the best offensive players in the league into their team — sometimes.
Asked about Irving’s performance in his return, Nash paused slightly.
“Looks like himself,” Nash said with a laugh, adding, “You can see the rhythm was there but it’s still an adaptation. We’ve got to give him some space.”
This space is a gamble by the team that having a part-time star is more important than building consistency. It’s a grand experiment to shuffle a star in and out of a starting lineup. And this group of stars — Irving, Harden and Durant — has had minimal time to play together. Durant returned from injury last season and Harden was traded. They rarely took to the court together.
“It’s going to take time just because we have to get used him being on the road and not at home, things like that,” Harden said. “But this has been a resilient group all year.”
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Information
The global surge. The virus is spreading faster than ever at the start of 2022, but the last days of 2021 brought the encouraging news that the Omicron variant produces less severe illness than earlier waves. Governments are now focusing more on spreading vaccinations than limiting its spread.
After the game, Harden tweeted a picture of Irving with the caption, “good having you back king.”
Because of Irving’s availability, though, it is not clear that the Nets should work terribly hard to win as many regular-season games as possible. The playoff seed is determined by how many wins you have. The higher playoff seed, the more home games in the playoffs — which means less Irving.
The Eastern Conference’s second-placed Nets are currently at 24-12. But if the prospect of winning by losing more sounds absurd, it also raises questions about the Nets’ credibility.
Before the recent surge of players entering the league’s health and safety protocols, the Nets had argued that having Irving as a part-time player would be an impediment to fostering a healthy culture. In October, after the team had definitively said that Irving would not be permitted to be a part-time player, General Manager Sean Marks said in a statement that to achieve a championship, “Each member of our organization must pull in the same direction.”
Somewhere along the course of the season, as the Nets found themselves in search of healthy bodies to fill out their roster, Marks and the rest of the Nets’ leadership pivoted. You know all that stuff about pulling in one direction? Never mind.
But this wasn’t about the Nets needing players. But not really. When Irving took the floor Wednesday, the Nets’ entire roster was available except for Joe Harris, who is injured. Irving’s return was about the Nets wantingIrving is part of the team. Nothing else had changed. Asked after the game if his stance about being vaccinated had changed, Irving demurred, saying, “It’s not an ideal situation.”
But what’s to stop the next star player from trying to take half the season off? Or other unusual requests. And what if they didn’t say yes?
None of those questions, of course, or any others about Irving’s situation, will matter if the Nets win a championship.
As for his vaccination status, Irving said he was “praying that things get figured out and we’re able to come to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or just things that’s going on.”
He added, “However it looks later in the season, then we’ll address it then.”
Source: NY Times