When Kevin Durant signed with the Brooklyn Nets, he likely expected to compete for championships alongside Kyrie Irving for the foreseeable future. But their first title bid together fell short when Irving suffered an ankle injury in the second round of the postseason against the Milwaukee Bucks, and now, Irving’s status surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine has put his availability for next season in jeopardy. Unvaccinated players on teams based in New York will not be allowed to play in home games this season thanks to a city-wide mandate. Irving has given no indication on whether he plans to get vaccinated.
But Durant remains optimistic about Irving’s status. “I’m envisioning Kyrie being a part of our team,” Durant told reporters Wednesday. “Maybe I’m just naïve, but that’s just how I feel. But everybody here has that confidence in themselves and our group, that if we keep doing it we can do something special.”
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Irving does not need to be vaccinated to play for the Nets in road games, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst have reported that it is unclear how willing the Nets will be to accommodate Irving as a part-time player. Head coach Steve Nash has declined to move practices outside of New York City to allow Irving to participate, and the All-Star guard was forced to attend Nets Media Day remotely last week.
When asked if the Nets would have their whole roster available on opening night, Nash responded “as it stands now, no,” and added “so we’ll see what happens.” If Irving isn’t vaccinated by the time the season opens — in less than two weeks — the Nets will have to decide if they are comfortable allowing him to play only on the road or if they would rather bench him altogether. Irving could lose game checks worth approximately $380,000 apiece for every home game he misses.
With or without Irving, the Nets should be among the very best teams in the NBA. Lineups featuring Durant and James Harden without Irving played only 199 possessions last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, but the Nets outscored their opponents by 19.9 points per 100 possessions in those spans. Bench units with either Durant or Harden should still be quite effective, and the Nets used quite a bit of roster-building capital this offseason securing insurance against the extended absence of any of their scorers. They used the mid-level exception on former Spurs guard Patty Mills and their first-round pick on electric rookie Cam Thomas. Both could face expanded roles if Irving cannot play in some or all of Brooklyn’s games.
They should be able to hold their own if that is the case, but they are not Irving. Brooklyn’s roster is built around the notion that their offense will be so dominant that it can overcome a possibly weak defense. Dropping from three stars down to two makes that a more difficult proposition. Durant signed in Brooklyn to play with Irving. If Irving isn’t playing, Durant’s job becomes substantially harder.