Kyrie Irving’s tumultuous debut season in Brooklyn has just hit another low. Irving will soon undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder, which will sideline him for at least the rest of the regular season. Irving has already missed a stretch of 26 games from November to January with an injury to the same shoulder. And even though he returned in January and averaged 26 points over nine games, it appears the injury (described as a shoulder impingement) has been reaggravated and needs further attention.
Irving’s season has been weird, to say the least. On the court, he’s having the best scoring season of his career, averaging 27.4 points per game, but he hasn’t been able to stay on the floor. Not only has he played just 20 games; he’s won only eight games. Brooklyn is 8-12 with Kyrie and 17-16 without him.
Off the court, Irving has kept things lively by providing semiregular tirades about whatever is on his mind—from critiquing the Nets’ young players, to complaining about how his former team’s fans booed him, to defending his leadership qualities. Each strange interview has inevitably set off a news cycle that results in a bad look for not just Kyrie, but the Nets as a whole.
As a team, Brooklyn has regressed this season. After a 42-40 campaign last season that positioned them as an underdog with big upside and a fun style of play, they have looked disjointed both on and off the floor this season. This is thanks in equal parts to injuries (not just to Irving and Kevin Durant, but also Caris LeVert) and a loss of last year’s identity.
Of Nets lineups that have played a combined 50 minutes this season, those featuring Kyrie have a net rating of plus-10.4, while those that don’t feature him have a net rating of plus-39.2. And yet, even if the stats bear it out, it’s tough to say that the Nets are better without Irving. When you need a bucket late, it’s still best to have him on the floor handling the ball and creating his own shots.
It remains unclear whether Kyrie’s absence will extend through the playoffs. Luckily, since the bottom of the East is pretty much a repository for G League–level teams, the Nets are the 7-seed and five full games above the Wizards, who sit in ninth. Barring an absolute collapse, Brooklyn will make the playoffs, but without Durant this season is already a throwaway. The Nets aren’t doing any serious damage with this team. The question is: How will this year shape the seasons to come?
Kyrie has not exactly endeared himself to his teammates or the fan base. And it’s fair to wonder how much power he and Durant will wield this summer in shaping the roster they want around them, given they more or less coerced Brooklyn to sign DeAndre Jordan to a gaudy four-year, $40 million deal last summer. At least from afar, it seemed like the team barely had a hand in the matter. What were they going to do—say no to their new superstars? Not in this economy.
Nets GM Sean Marks made his bet on the Kyrie-Durant tandem being the force that will carry the Nets from a successful rebuild to a title. That bet comes with an involuntary shift in philosophy: The young core Brooklyn developed in the past few years hasn’t progressed much this season. This season has also called into question Kyrie’s future viability as the kind of player who can be a championship piece—even if he did prove as much when he was LeBron’s sidekick in Cleveland. There’s a lot Durant can do to assuage the Kyrie concern, though. If KD comes back at full strength, he may be able to recenter the team’s power structure.
The Nets’s strong play without Kyrie presents a Catch-22. While it affirms that what Brooklyn has built works, it also leaves Kyrie looking like the mercurial figure who can’t stay healthy and doesn’t contribute to winning. And yet, come playoff time, he may be healthy and turn into a playoff force once again. With Kyrie, anything and everything is in play.
This piece was updated after publication with additional information on February 20.