At this point in the 2021-22 NBA season, with the schedule beyond the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and players already eyeing the break for the NBA All-Star Game, beat-up and fatigued teams are all looking for a personnel pick-me-up. Fortunately for the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors, they are about to get significant midseason talent injections with the imminent returns of Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson.
Which former All-Star, you have to be wondering, will have the more significant impact on their teams and ultimately make them even larger favorites to reach the NBA Finals?
Klay or Kyrie? It almost sounds like an episode of The Bachelor instead of two of the most anticipated returns in NBA history
Can Irving put aside all the drama over his refusal to get vaccinated, pair with Kevin Durant and James Harden, and deliver the Nets a championship? Can Thompson overcome the knee and Achilles tears that kept him on the shelf for 2.5 seasons?
There is no doubt about Irving and Thompson’s talents, yet questions persist
Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson, out some 30-plus games for dramatically different reasons, are both seemingly on the verge of returning. Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash confirmed that Irving will return on Jan. 5 when his team faces the Indiana Pacers. Of course, it would have to be outside of New York state for Irving to play because of his unwillingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Meanwhile, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Warriors could be targeting Sunday’s home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers for Thompson’s long-awaited return.
It’s easy to understand why the returns of Irving and Thompson are so eagerly anticipated. They are among the game’s greatest players because of their unique skill sets.
Irving is an absolute wizard with the basketball in his hands, and he has the kind of handles that can make even the league’s best defender break his ankles. As for Thompson, he’s had games in the past during which he’s hardly needed to dribble, and yet he’s still carved up opposing defenses with a shooting stroke so picture-perfect that it should hang in the Louvre.
Which superstar — Kyrie Irving or Klay Thompson — will have the bigger impact?
When last we saw Irving in action, he was writhing in pain after spraining his ankle during Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2021 playoffs’ second round. Playing without Irving, the Nets lost to the Bucks in seven games.
Some have wondered if Brooklyn erred in trading for Harden because of the duplication between him and Irving. Both players need the ball in their hands to be successful (and happy, for that matter). Still, Irving averaged 26.9 points in 54 games last season, mostly with Harden.
Knowing Irving’s reluctance to get the vaccine, the Nets signed Patty Mills (a career-best 13.8 ppg this season) as shooting insurance in one of the offseason’s more underrated transactions.
Ultimately, the Nets caved on their decision not to allow Irving to play half the time and welcomed the All-Star back. A better option for Brooklyn might have been to trade Irving for a full-time player and rid itself of the distraction and embarrassment that the point guard has become for the franchise. That, of course, would never have gotten Durant’s approval.
“With James and (Durant), they’ve always been supportive,” Irving said in a recent news conference. “With the age of us three, our mastery of this game is only going to last so long, so we want to strike while the iron is hot.”
The Warriors hope Thompson is as hot shooting the basketball as in a recent pregame warmup when he incredibly drilled 24 straight corner threes. Remarkably, Thompson has shot better than 40% from 3-point range in all eight of his NBA seasons.
In addition to holding the NBA record for 3-pointers in a regular-season game with 14, Thompson also has had jaw-dropping performances with 11 and nine threes in playoff games. His 11 against Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals still stand as an all-time performance.
The Warriors count on the 31-year-old Thompson to use his veteran savvy to play under control and not risk suffering another significant injury to a lower extremity.
Excitement aside for the returns of Irving and Thompson, who will help their team more?
It’s only natural to wonder what Irving being in and out of the lineup will do to the Nets’ rhythm and chemistry. In the coming weeks, Irving will miss the playoff rematch against the Bucks (Jan. 7), a two-game homestand (Jan. 13-15), and showdowns against the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers.
The Warriors, meanwhile, stockpiled their roster to account for the loss of Thompson’s shooting. Andrew Wiggins (43.5%), Jordan Poole (34.8%), Damion Lee (35.2%), and Otto Porter Jr. (40%) have shot well from 3-point range.
Only one other shooter in NBA today can compare to Thompson’s marksmanship abilities. That, of course, is Curry — the league’s all-time leader in that category. Also, Thompson was one of the league’s best wing defenders before his injuries. If he can come back anywhere close to the elite two-way player he was, he will give the surging Warriors even more firepower.
Between the two, the pick is about as easy as a wide-open 3-pointer for Thompson. Thompson is the choice to have the more significant impact because elite shooters like him don’t forget how to stroke threes or lose their touch. Also, the Warriors’ depth will allow them to use the guard/forward in some quirky, high-octane, small-ball lineups.
As for Irving, he has too much drama surrounding him, he and Harden play too much alike, and the in-and-out-of-the-lineup shuffle will be disruptive — especially in the playoffs. Remember, the best ability is availability, and Irving won’t take the steps necessary to make himself available to his team for all the games.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com