Kyrie Irving never changed his mind. In the end, he didn’t have to; he just had to wait long enough for other people to change theirs.
Five months after his choice not to take the COVID-19 vaccine resulted in his banishment from Brooklyn, and nearly three months after hard roster realities prompted the Nets to reinstate him as a road dog, the still-unvaccinated Irving will be able to play home games again. New York mayor Eric Adams is reportedly expected to “reverse the [city’s] private-sector vaccine mandate specifically for performers and athletes in local venues.” The reversal, which comes amid a 31 percent increase in COVID cases in New York City over the last two weeks, does not extend to the non-entertainers, employees of private companies, and municipal workers who faced losing their jobs for choosing not to get vaccinated—the people Irving said he was standing with when he opted out—but it would reportedly get Kyrie back on the court at Barclays Center by Sunday, when Brooklyn hosts the Hornets.
Thus ends months and months of storm and stress for Brooklyn, which went from the odds-on title favorite to a play-in hopeful. Irving’s choice to make himself ineligible for 53 of the Nets’ 72 games isn’t the only reason that the team enters the final two and a half weeks at a disappointing 38-35—it’s easy to forget, given everything that’s transpired, that Brooklyn was 27-15 when Durant sprained his MCL—and it wasn’t the only factor in the dissolution of their planned championship triumvirate. It played a role in both, though. The question now: How large a role can Kyrie play in getting the Nets out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves?
When he’s been on the court this season, Irving’s been every ounce the otherworldly offensive force he was when he won All-NBA honors in 2020-21, averaging a career-high 28.5 points, 5.5 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game. He’s shooting just under 53 percent on 2-pointers, on one of the toughest diets of interior shots you’ll ever see from a guard. He’s launching more than 10 3-pointers per 100 possessions and drilling nearly 44 percent of them—Steph/Klay/Ray territory—and shooting 91 percent from the foul line. Irving’s also a high-usage ball handler, driver, and facilitator, deploying maybe the best handle in basketball history to weave through traffic into advantageous areas, while still maintaining a microscopic turnover rate.
Also of note: He’s on fucking fire right now. Irving’s averaging 38.7 points per game on absurd 58/55/89 shooting in his six appearances over the past month—a stretch that includes a 38-point devastation of the defending champion Bucks, the most efficient 50-point game in NBA history against the Hornets, a career-high and Nets franchise-record 60 points on 31 shots in 35 minutes against the Magic, and 43 with eight dimes in a loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday. Whatever your feelings about Kyrie’s time away from the team, he’s been sharper than Hattori Hanzo steel when he steps between the lines.
It remains to be seen whether Kyrie will be able to keep that kind of full-tilt bombardment going once he’s playing every game rather than in shorter bursts with longer rest periods, but even a more muted version of the seven-time All-Star figures to augment every aspect of Brooklyn’s offense. Asked earlier this season what about Kyrie the Nets missed most, head coach Steve Nash offered reporters the blindingly obvious but no less accurate answer: “His talent. He adds things that we’re thin at: penetration, shot creation, shooting, the spacing, and all those things he brings to the table.” And, in so doing, crucially, he eases the creative burden on Durant.
When they’ve played together this season, KD’s usage rate has dropped by nearly 6 points, and his true shooting percentage has soared to a ludicrous .673—the kind of bare-bones efficiency you typically see from screen-and-dive big men who have to finish only layups and dunks. Even without James Harden, when Durant and Irving have shared the floor, the Nets have absolutely incinerated defenses to the tune of 130.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass—over 11 points higher than Brooklyn’s full-season offensive efficiency mark in ’20-’21, which was already the highest in NBA history.
Perhaps even more important for the Nets: Kyrie can carry the offense when Durant needs a breather, creating scoring opportunities without needing anyone else to set the table for him—or, really, do much of anything besides get out of his way.
In the minutes that Irving has played without Durant or Harden this season, Brooklyn has scored 115.4 points-per-100, according to Cleaning the Glass—just below what the NBA’s no. 3 offense has managed for the full season. Defensive woes baked into the structure of most non-KD lineups mean those Kyrie-led groups have only broken even, but if Brooklyn destroys opponents with both stars on the floor and when Durant’s flying solo, just treading water when he sits ain’t half bad—and it’s a hell of a lot better than getting blitzed by nearly 12 points-per-100 with no stars on the court.
That’s a transformative infusion of offense—one that could dramatically improve Brooklyn’s postseason standing down the stretch, now that Irving will be available for every game. The Nets enter Thursday’s action in eighth place in the East, 2.5 games behind the Raptors for the no. 7 spot and 3.5 games back of the wounded and scuffling Cavs for sixth. Both Toronto and Cleveland have tougher closing schedules than Brooklyn; could doubling the amount of Kyrie appearances, combined with a friendly and home-heavy run, allow the Nets to leapfrog one (or more) of the teams in front of them? (Brooklyn and Toronto split their season series, and Brooklyn has a 2-1 edge on Cleveland; Nets-Cavs on Friday, April 8, could be a huge game.)
Closing a 3.5-game gap in two weeks isn’t easy. The odds are that Cleveland stays put, hanging on to the sixth spot, while Toronto and Brooklyn square off in the play-in, with the winner heading straight into a first-round matchup with the East’s no. 2 seed. It would really, really be in the Nets’ best interest to ball out over these last couple of weeks to try to make sure they finish seventh rather than eighth, because that would mean the play-in game would be held in Brooklyn, where Irving will now be able to play, rather than Toronto, the one remaining NBA city where he still can’t.
Beating the Raptors without Irving wouldn’t be impossible; not much is when you employ Kevin Durant. It’d be harder, though. So, for that matter, would be having to go through three top seeds—some combination of Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston, and Miami, most likely—to make it out of the East, just to wind up squaring off against one of the monsters at the top of the West. Like, say, the Grizzlies, who celebrated Kyrie’s 30th birthday Wednesday and his impending return to full-time employment by parrying 78 points from Brooklyn’s big two and dropping 132 of their own—without Ja Morant.
Nash attributed the loss in part to a lack of chemistry. “It’s a new group. I think we’re still learning each other,” he told reporters. “It was a great experience for us. That’s how teams are gonna beat us. … It’s a lesson. It’s an opportunity for us to see what the playoffs look like.” The worry, though, is that it’s too late for these fits-and-starts Nets to learn the necessary lessons.
Irving and Durant have made a grand total of eight appearances together this season. Kyrie’s barely played with Seth Curry, another vital offensive piece working his way back from injury; it’s still extremely unclear whether Ben Simmons is anywhere close to getting back on the court. The most frequently used five-man lineup on the Nets that features Irving also featured the now-departed Harden; no. 2 has logged all of 38 minutes together. That’s really not a deep reservoir to be able to draw on when you’re in the guts of a must-win game against the kinds of really good opponents Brooklyn will have to beat to survive and advance.
Maybe the Nets won’t need that sort of reserve; maybe the sheer talent of its two top stars, with some support provided by Patty Mills, Bruce Brown, and Co., will be enough. At this point, it’ll have to be. The time for developing cohesion, continuity, and counterpunches has already come and gone, with Kyrie refusing to budge until the world around him did, and missing three-quarters of Brooklyn’s games as a result. It’s not quite as simple as saying that Kyrie got the Nets into this mess, so now he needs to get them out of it … but it’s also not not that.
Whether Brooklyn finally becomes the bona fide title contender everyone predicted they’d be or fizzles out earlier than expected again will likely come down to just how big a difference Kyrie can make, and how much one of the sport’s greatest showmen can deliver under the brightest lights and on the grandest stage. After months of drama, it’s still all about Kyrie Irving. As if it could ever have been about anything else.