Weirdly enough, Kyrie Irving was built for this. If any star in the NBA was going to voluntarily sit out almost half a season and then attempt to rejoin his team on a part-time basis, it would be Irving. And if any star was going to make that unprecedented role actually work, that would be Irving, too—seeing as his defining quality as a player is his ability to generate offense regardless of circumstance. Kyrie doesn’t need flow. He doesn’t need sets, or rhythm, or continuity. He just needs the ball.
One of the great ironies in the fact that Irving and Kevin Durant came to Brooklyn to play together is that Kyrie doesn’t play with other stars so much as in parallel to them. That very quality is what allowed him to parachute into the Nets’ season on Wednesday and put up 22 points against the Pacers in his debut, all without really disturbing the offense his teammates have been running for months. Durant still scored 39 of his own and James Harden still ran the show. Only now, Brooklyn has another way out from its stalled possessions; simply swinging the ball to Irving means it has a decent chance of finding its way through the rim, no matter how many elaborate moves are required to get it there. Some Pacers defenders stumbled back on their heels as Irving drove hard at them only to rise up in perfect balance at the free throw line for a jumper. Others tried, and failed, to anticipate how he might look to finish in transition, and were turned into bystanders when Irving slunk easily around them.
This is what he does. Even as the Nets hashed out their star-driven offense last season, Irving went unassisted on 67 percent of his made shots, according to NBA Advanced Stats, second only to Harden among Brooklyn’s regular contributors. True to form, three of Irving’s nine baskets on Wednesday were assisted, if only technically. Credit Nicolas Claxton, I suppose, for his invaluable contribution to Irving making something out of nothing with five seconds left on the shot clock:
Brooklyn caved on its initial plans not to play Irving at all this season precisely for the sake of shots like that one. New York City COVID-19 vaccination mandates prevent Irving, who is unvaccinated, from participating in Nets home games, and until last month, the Nets themselves had barred Irving from playing at all on the road, either. (A stint in the health-and-safety protocol prevented him from playing until Wednesday.) The organization’s reversal on Irving’s road participation means that head coach Steve Nash now has to field two discrete versions of his team: the one that he thought he would coach in the first place, complete with three of the best isolation scorers in the league; and the lesser version without Irving that the Nets, currently sitting in second place in the East, had learned to live with. It’s a max player as an independent contractor, further driving home the understood NBA reality that superstars play by a different set of rules than everyone else.
“It’s not ideal, this situation that we’re in,” Irving said in his walk-off interview after the win over the Pacers. “But we’re gonna battle through it and stay together.”
What effect Irving yo-yoing in and out of the lineup will have on his team’s broader progress is the great unknown that the Nets have embraced with open arms. It could produce some of the most meaningful home and road splits ever recorded. And yet because of the way Irving plays, it might not actually require a dramatic shift in the team’s identity. The Nets can make room for Irving without redesigning everything they do, and they can benefit from his presence without making him central to every action.
Frankly, Kyrie can help the Nets just by being on the court. Brooklyn has been so sapped for reliable floor spacers that when Patty Mills fouled out of a game last week, Clippers players noted to one another that the compromised Nets were down to just two shooters on the floor. Irving completely upends that vulnerability and, better yet, demands the attention of a high-level perimeter defender. Part of the appeal of trading for Harden last season was the idea that opponents would have to somehow manage defensive matchups against all three knockout scorers at once. Even if Irving’s sole value was to stand off to the side and keep a tougher defender away from Harden, he would give Brooklyn a significantly better chance to win every road game the rest of the way.
Fresh off of Irving’s debut, the Nets will fly home to host the Bucks on Friday, in a marquee game between conference powers that Brooklyn’s star guard won’t be allowed to participate in. Then Irving will miss the following home date against the Spurs, as the Nets look either to continue building from a statement win or address whatever shortcomings the Bucks exposed. The soonest we could see Irving play again would be Monday, which puts almost a week between his live reps with a team he barely knows. It’s all a bit strange, though every time Kyrie touches the ball and manages something incredible, it’ll seem slightly less so.