Kyrie Irving returned to the NBA Wednesday night, performing familiar feats of witchcraft in basketball, and frankly, it was a joy to watch.
Anyone who loves the game had to take delight in watching Kyrie do Kyrie things again – the mesmerizing footwork, the bullet passes, the breezy jumpers – in his extremely late debut with the Nets. You don’t have to be a Nets loyalist, or a fan of Irving’s crazy philosophical ramblings and maddening anti-vaccination stance, to appreciate the greatness of his game. His talents spoke for itself when Irving scored 22 points in a 129-121 victory at Indiana.
“Beautiful,” teammate Kevin Durant said afterward.
If you’re a Nets fan, well, seeing Irving again flying up between Durant and James Harden, after a 35-game absence, is sure to stoke visions of a title race this spring … and a raucous parade through Flatbush thereafter.
But we are very, very far from all that. And for all the snapshots that made us feel good Wednesday – Kyrie high-fiving Durant, Kyrie hugging her father in the stands, Kyrie climbing onto the bench – the Nets’ path from here is undeniably strange, potentially rocky. and unprecedented.
Irving remains unvaccinated against Covid-19, and as such he cannot play home games in Brooklyn – due to a New York City mandate – neither in the remaining two “away games” against the Knicks, nor in a March 1 game in Toronto ( due to Canadian mandate).
So the Nets, having played their first 35 games without Irving, must now navigate a schedule in which their All-Star point guard will be a half-time participant, playing at most 21 of his last 46 regular season games.
With each change from home to road, and on the way home, the Nets will change the starting lineup, reorganize the rotation, reassign roles, minutes and shots. In fact, there will be two Nets teams from now on: one with a trio of superstars, the other supported by two overworked stars and a gang of RPGs.
And if nothing changes in mid-April, if Irving remains unvaccinated and New York does not change its law, the Nets will try to become the first team to win a title with an All-Star by playing only half of each playoff series.
“It’s unprecedented,” says TNT analyst and former coach Stan Van Gundy, “so no one has anything to do with it.”
So before we get too giddy from the warm gathering on Wednesday, before we get lost in the excitement, pyrotechnics, and championship odds, it’s critical to remember one thing: Kyrie Irving chose this. Uncertainty. The discomfort. The chaos. All of it.
He chose not to take a vaccine that all of his Nets teammates, all Nets coaches, all Nets officials and all Barclays Center ushers took. TO vaccine that at least 97 percent of all NBA players they have taken. That has been taken by all the umpires, coaches, general managers, scouts and coaches in the NBA. A vaccine that more than 240 million Americans have taken. A vaccine that proven to be safe and effective either to prevent or mitigate the impacts of Covid-19.
And because the Nets were initially (and understandably) opposed to the idea of a part-time player, Irving’s choice meant the Nets lost an All-Star Game in their first 35 games this season. That put a heavier burden on Durant, who is 33 years old and two years after an Achilles rupture and now averages nearly 37 minutes per game, his highest rate in seven years. He averaged 40 minutes per night over a 13-game stretch from late November to January 1.
So, with Durant and Harden overloaded, and their roster (briefly) ransacked by Covid quarantines last month, the Nets finally invited Irving to play on the road, setting aside all the principles they championed in October. But that’s professional sports: Eventually, victory and talent trump everything, even public health restrictions.
If there’s one consistency in the Nets’ handling of this insanity, it’s that they’ve gone cold pragmatism every time. In October, that meant not using Irving as a part-time player, believing it would be too disturbing. In January, in the face of a decaying rotation and sold-out stars, that meant bringing him back anyway.
“Any organization that is going to do a good job has to change as circumstances change,” Van Gundy said. “And the circumstances have changed.”
Reasonable people can argue whether New York’s law is justified or fair, since it applies to Nets and Knicks players, but not to visiting teams. It is arguably whether the Nets made the right decision to fire Irving. But one person can solve this mess with only one option: Kyrie Irving.
However, Irving still refuses to get vaccinated. If there is a rational reason, you still have to clarify it. (The explanations leaked by his group have been confusing, absurd and contradictory.) And he refuses to acknowledge his own role in this whole enigma.
“It’s not ideal, this situation we’re in,” Irving said in an interview with YES Network, as if the “situation” was something out of his control. “The odds are against us,” he added, as if he couldn’t change those odds on his own.
When asked about the vaccine in a subsequent press conference, Irving indicated that there was no change in his position or concern about its impact, simply saying: “I know what the consequences were. I still know what they are. “
Irving has the right to refuse the shot. But decisions have consequences, and his decision could cost the Nets their best Finals shot since Jason Kidd was throwing alley-oops at Kenyon Martin 20 years ago, and it cost the franchise its best shot at winning its first NBA championship.
Every year we hear countless pronouncements about the importance of team cohesion, coherence and culture. It’s hard to see how the Nets can claim any of that with a star playing part-time. As Van Gundy rightly points out, no NBA team can claim much consistency this season, given the scores of players in and out of quarantine and the dozens of G-League players and hardship waivers that fill nightly rosters. . However, those other teams will eventually be complete. The Nets may never be.
A lot can happen between now and the playoffs. Perhaps this terrible pandemic will finally begin to recede. Perhaps Eric Adams, the new mayor of New York, will amend the law to allow Irving to play. Perhaps all the controversy and awkwardness fades in the heat of spring.
Or perhaps, on a sultry May night in Brooklyn, the Nets will take to the court in a packed Barclays Center, against the Bucks, Heat or Bulls, and face elimination from the playoffs, while their star point guard watches from home. . Because he chose to.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.