Kyrie Irving Has Changed the Brooklyn Nets Without Taking the Court … And Not in a Good Way

The Brooklyn Nets will reportedly have Kyrie Irving in uniform for the first time this season when they visit the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 5. In December, the Nets relented on their decision not to have Irving as a part-time player when the team experienced a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that sidelined more than half the roster. What happened next flew right past irony into comedy.

During his intake, the unvaccinated Irving tested positive for the coronavirus and immediately entered the NBA health and safety protocols. On Dec. 29, he finally returned to practice for the first time since the preseason. But while waiting for Godot Irving to return, a funny thing happened to the Nets. They’ve hit the skids.

Kyrie Irving’s much-anticipated return

The Brooklyn Nets are 0-3 since Kyrie Irving returned to practice on Dec. 29. He's expected to make his season debut at Indiana on Jan. 5.
The Brooklyn Nets are 0-3 since Kyrie Irving returned to practice on Dec. 29. He’s expected to make his season debut at Indiana on Jan. 5. | Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Shams Charania of The Athletic was first to report Kyrie Irving’s impending return against the Pacers. If the three-time All-NBA point guard plays, it will be his first game for the Brooklyn Nets since spraining an ankle in Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks in last season’s playoffs. That was June 13. So, yeah, it’s been a while.

Irving is ineligible to play any games in New York City by refusing vaccination. That includes every Brooklyn home game and the two road games at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks.

Faced with the prospect of Irving as a part-time player, the Nets announced on Oct. 12 that Irving would not play or practice with the team. Opting for continuity, the organization decided that no Irving was better than occasional Kyrie.

The Nets played well without their point guard, climbing to the top of the Eastern Conference. Even through the outbreak, Brooklyn churned out wins. The Nets won six of seven, including a sweep of the LA teams.

It’s gotten dicey from there.

The Brooklyn Nets have lost 3 straight games in ugly fashion

Superstar Kevin Durant emerged from the protocols when the Brooklyn Nets returned home to host the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 30, one day after Kyrie Irving’s returned to practice.

Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey sliced and diced the Brooklyn defense in a 110–102 victory.

It’s gotten worse from there. On New Year’s Day, the Clippers came to Barclays Center. With 5:57 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Nets took their largest lead, going up 105–92 on James Johnson’s layup.

Brooklyn imploded from there. LA closed the game on a 28–11 run to win. Durant called out the team for its poor effort down the stretch.

Then on Jan. 3, the Memphis Grizzlies came to Brooklyn and hammered the Nets, 118–104. The Grizzlies never trailed and led by as much as 28 points before the bench unit made the score somewhat respectable in the fourth period.

So it’s three games and three ugly losses since Irving returned to practice. According to Brian Lewis of the New York Post, James Harden sounded the alarm.

“It’s still man — we’d love to have him back, he’s a special talent — but there’s things we need to correct internally and individually that can help us,” Harden said. “And then, adding Kyrie back is even more special. We have to do the things that are necessary to win games possession by possession and individually.”

Harden’s not wrong. It’s as if the Nets are waiting for a savior.

Kyrie Irving or not, the Brooklyn Nets must defend better

The Brooklyn Nets have made considerable strides defensively this season. Last season, the Nets rode a record-setting offense to the second-best record in the East. That overcame a defense ranked 22nd in the NBA, allowing 113.1 points per 100 possessions.

Brooklyn is sixth in the league defensively this season, allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions. The offense has slid to 14th, but defense wins championships, as the old cliché goes.

But during their three-game skid, the Nets are surrendering a whopping 116.8 points per 100. Their net rating is an unsightly minus-8.4 in that span. Defense is often as much about effort as the scheme, and the effort hasn’t been there of late.

Worse, Brooklyn has gotten smacked around on the defensive glass. They’re getting only 66.1% of available rebounds during their losing streak. Memphis scored 29 second-chance points in its win. The Grizzlies had 23 offensive rebounds. On the plus side, the Nets did have more offensive rebounds than Memphis center Steven Adams, 8–7. So there’s that.

It’s probably not fair to blame all that on Kyrie Irving. But it’s also not hard to notice the Brooklyn Nets have noticeably taken their foot off the gas pedal since the mercurial star re-entered the facility. Maybe it’s a natural reaction to having a superstar so close to returning. But the early signs aren’t at all promising.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Over 423 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been given in the United States from December 14, 2020, through November 1, 2021. COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.”

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