The Brooklyn Nets Made a Fatal Mistake When They Brought Back Kyrie Irving as a Temp

The luxury tax bill for the Brooklyn Nets, barring any late-season roster moves, will come in at a shade less than $100 million. That’s a lot of cabbage for a club that is below .500. And though the Nets dealt with injuries, illness, and at least one malcontent, there is a single inflection point where their season careened off the rails. When governor Joe Tsai and general manager Sean Marks opted to bring Kyrie Irving back to the active roster as the world’s highest-paid temp, it all went sideways.

New York’s most infamous unvaccinated person got the green light to return on Dec. 17. Of course, he immediately tested positive for coronavirus and entered the health and safety protocols before clearing on Dec. 29.

Since that return date, it’s what’s happened that shines the spotlight on the seven-time All-Star as the focal point of Brooklyn’s collapse.

The Brooklyn Nets: How it started

Kyrie Irving received clearance to return to practice for the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 29. The team was riding high, having swept the Lakers and Clippers in LA to improve to 23–9 on the season. That night, the Nets went to bed with a one-game lead in the Eastern Conference.

Irving wasn’t eligible to play since the team was at home on Dec. 30 (what with New York City’s vaccination mandate for using public gymnasiums and all). The Philadelphia 76ers came to town and handed Brooklyn a 110–102 defeat. By the time Irving debuted at Indiana on Jan. 5, the Nets had lost twice more. They arrived in Indianapolis second in the East, two games behind the Chicago Bulls.

Brooklyn beat the Pacers and went 6–4 over their next 10 games. In the interim, Kevin Durant sprained his left MCL and went on to miss 25 games. Meanwhile, James Harden said he didn’t want out of Brooklyn until he did want out of Brooklyn.

With a 117–102 win at San Antonio on Jan. 21, the Nets improved to 29–16. With help from the Milwaukee Bucks beating the Bulls, they were back on top of the East by a half-game. A loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 23 dropped them out of first place. It was the first swell of an oncoming tsunami of losses.

The Brooklyn Nets: How it’s going

The loss at Minneapolis wasn’t an anomaly. Instead, it became the trend for the Brooklyn Nets.

Brooklyn lost 11 games in a row and is 3–17 since that win at The Alamo. A 126–120 loss on March 6 at Boston dropped the Nets below .500 at 32–33, the first time they’ve been under the breakeven point since falling to 2–3 on Oct. 27.

As for where Brooklyn stands in the East? Now, with 17 games to play, the Nets are 5.5 games behind the sixth-place Cleveland Cavaliers for the last guaranteed playoff spot. They’re tied with (and trail in the head-to-head tiebreaker) the Charlotte Hornets and hold ninth place.

Worse, Brooklyn is in a virtual tie with the 10th-place Atlanta Hawks, who have two games in hand. The Nets are two games up on the perpetually rebuilding Washington Wizards. That’s right. They went from first place to needing to get hot just to stay in the play-in field in six weeks.

Looking at the bigger picture, since Kyrie Irving received clearance to return, Brooklyn is 9–24. Compare that to when the Nets were 23–9. Cause, meet effect.

Irving plays by his own set of rules. The other voices in the locker room can speak all the platitudes they want about the team’s chemistry. The proof is on the court, and as far as the chemistry goes, the Nets are the guy in the smoke-stained lab coat with the blasted remains of the test tubes in their hands.

Kyrie Irving admits his role in the disaster, to a point

The Brooklyn Nets brought Kyrie Irving back as a part-time player in December. Since he returned, the team is 9-24.
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) makes a no look pass in between Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) and center Robert Williams III (44) | Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Kyrie Irving took some responsibility for the team’s woes after the Brooklyn Nets lost at Boston — their fourth defeat in a row and 15th in their last 17 games.

According to Brian Lewis of the New York Post, Irving talked about the team’s lack of cohesion.

“(I)t just shows that when you don’t have that consistency, and you don’t have guys in the lineup, it takes a big hindrance on everything, and I take my accountability for that as well.”

Kyrie Irving

Superstars play by their own set of rules. However, the dirty truth is that they always have, as much as coaches, executives, and players want to roll out the “just one of the guys” tropes.

Initially, the team decided to send the three-time All-NBA guard home rather than deal with what Charles Barkley aptly termed “half-man, half a season.” But Brooklyn’s management team caved into temptation when an outbreak gutted the roster in December. Few believed it would go off without a hitch. Just as few thought it would be the equivalent of dropping 12 crates of dynamite on the Nets’ season.

The team has run out a league-high 37 starting lineups. Among players currently on the roster and available, the most often used five-man group is James Johnson, Patty Mills, Andre Drummond, Seth Curry, and Bruce Brown. They’ve played 37 minutes together over four games. There are six groups in the NBA have played at least 10 times that much together.

But the simple truth is this: Kyrie Irving’s return demolished the Brooklyn Nets. There’s no other conclusion to draw.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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