In the end, Kyrie Irving won.
The 29-year-old superstar is set to make his season debut for the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers. Irving will take the court despite the Nets’ original plans of keeping him at home unless he could be more than a part-time player. Yet the COVID-19 surge throughout the NBA — the same virus Irving is famously unvaccinated against — led to Brooklyn going against its own rules and welcoming the point guard back with open arms.
From a basketball perspective, Irving will complete what’s expected to be the league’s top trio. He, James Harden, and Kevin Durant will aim to lead Brooklyn to its first NBA title in franchise history. There is undoubtedly a high level of excitement to have these three all on the court again, with Harden dishing out significant praise for the returning Kyrie.
Kyrie Irving is making his return to the Brooklyn Nets
For a time, it seemed as if Irving was never going to play basketball for the Nets again. Heck, no one would have been surprised if he simply decided to retire from the game in order to go on a two-year vision quest in a secret location halfway across the world. But on January 5, Irving will join his teammates in Indianapolis and play in his first game of the season.
Never one to be shy about taking the road less traveled, Irving made news this offseason for all the wrong reasons. The star guard was not allowed to play home games due to New York City’s strict rules banning unvaccinated individuals from indoor gatherings such as sporting events. While that still left the possibility of Kyrie playing on the road, Brooklyn decided to keep him off the squad until he received a vaccine or until NYC’s mandate was lifted.
“He has a choice to make, and he made his choice,” Nets general manager Sean Marks told the New York Post just before the start of the season. “My job here is to make what we deem as the best choices for the organization moving ahead as a whole. They’re not always ones that are going to be met with open arms and thumbs up. These are hard decisions.”
For a while, it seemed as if the Nets were going to survive just fine with no Irving. But as the Omicron strain hit the NBA hard, Brooklyn saw the majority of its roster test positive and move into health and safety protocols. As a result, the team reversed course and allowed Irving to play in a limited capacity. However, the seven-time All-Star was placed in protocols one day after re-joining the team.
James Harden is looking forward to seeing Irving back
With coronavirus concerns and the Irving drama looming large, the Nets have still managed to assert themselves as a top Eastern Conference contender. Through Tuesday, Brooklyn is second in the East at 23-12, two games behind the top-seeded Chicago Bulls. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean things can’t be corrected.
Harden, a nine-time All-Star and former MVP, is having a down year by his standards. The Beard is averaging 22.7 points on 41.5% shooting from the field and 33.5% shooting from deep. He’s also averaging 8.2 rebounds and 9.9 assists, a full assist less than he had in 36 games with Brooklyn last season. Unsurprisingly, he’s glad to see Kyrie back in action.
“Yeah, definitely. We’d love to have Kyrie back. He’s a special, special talent. But there are things that we need to correct internally and individually that can help us,” Harden said per Nets Daily. “And then adding Kyrie back is going to be more special. We got to control and we got to do the things that are necessary to win games possession by possession individually.”
“It definitely gives us a spark,” added the three-time scoring champ. “Something that we’re going to need in a three-game skid right now. It definitely gives us a spark and a blessing that we can have him back. We got to do things in that film session to continue to get better with our principles and our detail. Adding Kyrie is more special.”
Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant haven’t spent much time together on the court
Brooklyn formed its championship core with the acquisitions of Irving and Durant in the summer of 2019. The duo would become a trio by January 2021 when the team acquired Harden in a multi-team blockbuster involving the Houston Rockets. However, in just under a year since their big three was formed, the Nets have rarely seen all three players on the court at once.
The combination of Irving, Harden, and Durant saw just 202 minutes together across eight regular-season games. For reference, Brooklyn’s most popular three-man trio — Irving, Joe Harris, and Jeff Green — saw close to 637 minutes of time together. The three stars did start the first six games of Brooklyn’s playoff run, however, before injuries to Harden and Irving led to a second-round exit.
That being said, there is plenty of reason for optimism. In those 202 minutes, Brooklyn averaged 119.6 points per 100 possessions. In the playoffs, Brooklyn’s top lineup consisting of the big three, Harris, and Blake Griffin outscored opponents by a whopping 37.1 points per 100 possessions. For context, the second-most-used playoff lineup that simply replaced Harden with Bruce Brown was outscored by 10.6 points.
It’s important to remember Irving is still a part-time player, meaning the Nets won’t see what it’s like to have their three stars consistently on the court together. But for road games going forward, expect nothing short of dominance.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.