Just before the start of what wound up being the most chaotic free-agency period in NBA history, I wondered whether swapping Kyrie Irving in for D’Angelo Russell would be the right move for the Brooklyn Nets. I was not alone in considering the age/efficiency/injury/contractual aspects of such a move, or the potential cultural ramifications of replacing a cornerstone of Brooklyn’s brick-by-brick rebuild with a newcomer fresh off a famously uncomfortable and ultimately unsuccessful tenure in Boston.
The Nets chose Irving. (Or, rather, Irving and Kevin Durant chose the Nets, and Brooklyn graciously accepted.) It’ll take a while for us to know whether it was the right choice for all parties, in the grand scheme of things. It won’t take a while, though, to feel the difference that choice has made.
D’Angelo Russell is a gifted pick-and-roll playmaker with a smooth game who can score in bunches, make flashy passes, and drop ice-cold daggers. Kyrie Irving, though, is An Experience—a sui generis stylist whose game, when it’s all working, is one of the most purely satisfying and jaw-droppingly fun aesthetic adventures the NBA has to offer. It was all working in Wednesday’s season opener against the Timberwolves.
The result: a spellbinding 50 points—the highest-scoring debut for a new team ever, only the sixth 50-point season-opening performance in NBA history, and just the seventh half-a-hundred for the Nets franchise.
It also resulted, we should note, in a loss. Minnesota beat Brooklyn in overtime, 127-126. As remarkable as Irving was, making 17 of his 33 shots while adding eight rebounds and seven assists without a turnover in 38 minutes of work, Karl-Anthony Towns was nearly his equal. The All-Star center made good on his preseason promise to let it fly, drilling seven 3-pointers—including a cold-blooded triple from the wing to knot the game at 115 and eventually force overtime—on his way to 36 points with 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals, and three blocks.
The Nets squandered a pair of chances to ice the game in regulation, and watched Irving’s attempt at final-seconds heroism in overtime go awry. Even that, though, was spectacular:
Okogie plays solid D on Kyrie, who loses his footing and misses pic.twitter.com/1TlvSCwcqN— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) October 24, 2019
For anybody but Kyrie, a spin move that lands you on the seat of your pants would immediately be described as an unfortunate stumble at the worst possible time. For Kyrie, though … it feels possible that he meant to do that, right? (SB Nation’s Tom Ziller explored this possibility with the rigor it deserves.)
Sure, you, the unenlightened, wouldn’t break out an And1 Mixtape Tour move in isolation against a very good NBA defender in Josh Okogie, then follow it up with a quick left-to-right crossover into a contested jumper on a potential game-winning possession. But then, you’re not one of the league’s premier showmen, at your most comfortable with 18,000 pairs of eyes glued to your every shake and feint, seemingly forever in search of a new color to paint with or a new chord to play so long as you’ve got a live dribble. That’s who Kyrie Irving is. A player like that changes things.
The Nets signed up for that change—for the tectonic shift from building a plucky underdog without stars to becoming the sort of glamour team that actually employs them.
“It’s interesting to see how each player reacts to it,” coach Kenny Atkinson told reporters at the Nets practice facility earlier this month, before the team began preseason play. “That’s part of this discovery journey we’re on right now—seeing how they all interact. ... The fear, when you bring in a great player, is that people are going to defer too much.”
To Atkinson’s point: Irving took 33 of the Nets’ 101 shots on Wednesday, and logged 92 total touches, 32 more than anyone else on the team. And yet, when he’s got it going like that … I mean, can you blame his teammates for letting him rock?
“It was amazing to watch,” Nets center Jarrett Allen said. “He can do almost anything with the ball. He can hit almost any shot. I’m ready to set screen after screen for him if he goes off like that.”
Irving will have plenty of chances to replicate Wednesday’s wizardry. Durant’s ongoing rehabilitation from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon means Irving will have the stage to himself in the NBA’s biggest market, with the opportunity to commandeer touches, possessions, and fans’ imaginations for a team that will need him to produce like a megastar.
Brooklyn’s fate this season will depend on how effectively Irving can balance getting his own offense with generating for others, and on how well Atkinson can get his roster to defend. “The job wasn’t done,” Irving said after the loss. “None of that stuff matters if you don’t get a win.”
That’s true ... if you’re invested in the Nets’ record. If you’re just into watching cool shit happen, though, “that stuff”—torching defenders in transition, making twisting circus finishes in traffic, hitting deep 3-point bombs off screens—can matter quite a bit on its own merits.
I’m not sure this year’s waiting-for-KD version of the Nets will be much better than last season’s 42-win model, and after the way things unfolded last season with the Celtics, some part of you has to be wondering whether the other shoe’s going to drop. (While the New Jersey–raised Irving got emotional while addressing the crowd at Barclays Center before the opener, those in Boston might suggest Nets fans give it a few months before feeling too confident in the long-term outlook for Kyrie’s homecoming.) For the time being, though, Irving seems happy, and he’s playing like it. The Kyrie Irving Experience has officially arrived in Brooklyn. Catch the vibe, crank up the volume, and wait with bated breath to see what comes next.