The Nets will soon be whole again.
Well, sort of.
While the Nets made it clear before the season that they would “not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability,” the franchise recently had a change of heart, announcing that they have “decided to have Kyrie Irving re-join the team for games and practices in which he is eligible to participate.”
Under New York City guidelines, Irving, who reportedly remains unvaccinated against COVID-19, is not allowed to play in games that take place in New York. He can, however, practice at the team’s private facility and be a full participant in almost all of their road games. That means Irving is going to be a part-time player for the remainder of the season.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Irving is expected to make his season debut on Wednesday when the Nets face the Pacers.
How much do the Nets stand to gain by having Irving back in the lineup? How much better does he actually make the Nets?
Let’s take a closer look.
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What does Kyrie Irving bring to the Nets?
A whole lot of scoring.
Irving is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career. He appeared in 54 games last season with averages of 26.9 points, 6.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds on 50.6 percent shooting from the field, 40.2 percent from 3-point range and 92.2 percent from the free throw line in 2020-21.
He made some history in the process, becoming only the ninth member of the NBA’s 50-40-90 club.
Those numbers speak to how complete of a shooter Irving is, both from a standstill and on the move. According to NBA.com, he canned 43.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts and 37.2 percent of his pull-up 3-point attempts last season. Additionally, he made 54.4 percent of his field goal attempts from midrange.
Off-ball, Irving isn’t someone teams can really help off of.
On-ball, Irving is capable of scoring against just about anyone.
He does his best work in isolation, where he’s long been making even the best defenders look silly with his slick handle.
His shooting off the dribble has long made him one of the league’s best pick-and-roll scorers.
There aren’t many players who score as often as Irving does in transition either.
Irving has his limitations as a No. 1 option, but he thrived playing next to LeBron James in Cleveland and had success playing next to Kevin Durant and James Harden, both separately and together, last season. He’s dynamite in the right situation.
“Have you watched him play?” Durant said of Irving ahead of his return. “He’s a master. He can score 60 percent, 70 percent of his shots if you don’t guard him. He’s a high IQ player. It’s just a matter of him getting his legs up under him and his wind up under him. And then for us, we’re going to run plays for him, we’ll try to look for him.
“We play team basketball — but he can adapt and do anything out there so we’re not worried about him.”
How much better are the Nets with Kyrie Irving?
Last season’s numbers point to the Nets being pretty dang good no matter what combination of their stars was on the court, but they were basically impossible to get stops against when Irving, Durant and Harden were in the lineup at the same time.
According to PBP Stats, the Nets scored at a rate of 121.6 points per 100 possessions in Irving, Durant and Harden’s minutes together. That would’ve given them the best offensive rating in the league by a country mile. They gave up a decent amount of points on the other end (114.9 per 100), but they still outscored teams by a dominant margin when the three of them shared the court.
There were some legitimate questions about whether or not the three of them could coexist when they first joined forces, but Irving, Durant and Harden sure looked comfortable playing off of each other. Harden changed his game the most, taking over the more traditional point guard duties — you know, like running the offense and making sure everyone gets their touches — while Durant and Irving remained scoring machines.
“There really wasn’t any adjustment,” Harden said of going from the Rockets to the Nets. “I still play how I play, but now I don’t have to shoot the ball so much.
“It’s really the best style for me, to be honest. Kevin and Kyrie can always go get a bucket, and, with me as a playmaker, I can think about how to get shooters involved, how to get bigs touches, how to create open shots. My main focus is trying to get everybody involved and have each guy make an impact on the game.”
With how up-and-down Harden has been as a scorer this season — he’s averaging his fewest shot attempts since 2011-12 and is posting the second-worst true shooting percentage of his career — he could benefit the most from Irving’s return because it’ll allow him to be a more opportunistic scorer. Durant will likely continue being Durant, but he won’t have to carry quite the same burden when Irving is out there.
How will Kyrie Irving’s return impact the Nets’ rotation?
Irving will fill some of the shooting void left by Joe Harris, who has been limited to 14 games due to an ankle injury that required surgery. Harris is more of a traditional shooter, but Irving will provide a similar amount of spacing when he’s on the court.
The player who will likely be impacted the most by Irving’s return is Patty Mills. Mills came off the bench to start the season, but he’s now started in 20 straight games for the Nets while posting 16.9 points on a scorching 41.7 percent shooting from 3-point range. Mills will likely start in the games Irving doesn’t play but move to a sixth man role in the games he does.
Mills has still been productive in the games he’s come off the bench this season, averaging 10.4 points on 48.1 percent shooting from deep.
Beyond that, Irving’s return shouldn’t shake the rotation up too much. After all, the Nets are a top-heavy team built around three superstars. Everyone else was brought in to fill the gaps around them.
How available will Kyrie Irving be to the Nets?
The Nets could be seeing a decent amount of Irving the rest of the season.
Of Brooklyn’s remaining 45 games, 24 are on the road. Assuming he remains unvaccinated, he won’t be allowed to play in three of those road games — two games at Madison Square Garden and one in Toronto — but he will be eligible to play in the others regardless of his vaccination status.
That does not include Brooklyn’s three games that were postponed, only one of which was away.
(If you’re wondering what this means for Irving financially, he’s only losing salary for the home games he misses. According to reports, that works out to be roughly $381,000 per game.)
Ironically, the Nets have had a much tougher time picking up wins at home (10-8) than on the road (13-3) so far this season, but having Irving even in a part-time capacity will take some of the load off of Durant and Harden, who currently rank second and fourth, respectively, in the league in minutes per game, which isn’t ideal considering Durant is only a couple of seasons removed from tearing his right Achilles and Harden is coming off of a pretty serious hamstring strain.
Nets general manager Sean Marks alluded to that in his statement.
“We arrived at this decision with the full support of our players and after careful consideration of our current circumstances, including players missing games due to injuries and health and safety protocols. We believe that the addition of Kyrie will not only make us a better team but allow us to more optimally balance the physical demand on the entire roster.”
The playoffs are more interesting because, as things currently stand, Irving would be sidelined for four of the seven games in any series where the Nets are the lower seed. The Nets still have enough star power between Durant and Harden to beat most teams in a series, but Irving’s availability could become much more of a factor the deeper they go into the playoffs.
A lot could change between now and then, but it’s a reminder that there’s a lot that still needs to be figured out.
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