Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Kyrie Irving return: Here’s what Nets PG needs to prove in season debut Wednesday vs. Pacers

Kyrie Irving returns to the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night, and through his part-time player status, his self-absorption, his stunning but sometimes unreliable talent, his personal stand on vaccines versus basketball and his nonstop look-at-me sensibility waits a simple question only Irving himself will be able to answer, on the court, away from everything else: 

Is he worth it all?

Amongst all the weirdness of this NBA season sits the strange fact that at no other time has Irving been in a better position to showcase that his talent translates in a real way for the Nets.

You’d think a player of his stature, an NBA champion with seven All-Star selections to his name, would be beyond such questions. You’d think outdueling Steph Curry in the closing moments of the 2016 NBA Finals would settle things. You’d think, and many already do, that Kyrie’s individual on-court prowess is the answer to such uncertainties. And you’d be wrong.

A recent conversation with an NBA general manager summed up the paradox. Asked about Kyrie, the GM went on a minutes-long, unprompted soliloquy about all the things that come with Irving behind the scenes — a rapid-fire gossip fest of warning signs and diva behavior that might make Antonio Brown blush. “He’s a mess,” I was told. “He’s a disaster in a locker room.” 

So you’d avoid bringing him into your team if the chance arrived?

“No,” he sighed. “No. I’d bring him in. He’s too talented not to.”

Thus the Catch-22 the Nets find themselves in now. Irving’s a mess, sure, but they need him — now more than ever, with so many COVID-related absences. And so Kyrie Irving is back. With no guarantee that it’ll work.

The actual payoff of having Irving on the court has always been as perplexing and strange as much of his off-court antics. The flat-Earth talk made for good headlines. But it was his impact in winning and losing that actually mattered, and that has never been as easy to peg as the Earth’s shape or Irving’s box scores. 

Kyrie joined what was a very good Celtics team when he arrived in 2017, a young team that had already made an Eastern Conference finals without him, and that would make another with Irving injured as a Celtic. And yet they never made that next jump with Irving amongst them. They regressed.

The Nets, too, have been a curious testing ground for what it means to have Irving in the mix.

Some numbers on these two stops:

Kyrie played in 127 games with Boston in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. The Celtics were 78-49 with him on the floor for a .614 winning percentage. Yet they went 16-11 without Kyrie over that stretch for a much higher .702 winning percentage.

This same effect has carried through to Brooklyn.

Kyrie played in 20 games for a Nets team in the 2019-20 season fronted by Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. They went 8-12 during that time, a .400 mark. And yet Brooklyn was 27-25 in 52 games without him — just above .500, and markedly better than when he played. 

Last season, Kyrie played in 54 games for the Nets, and they went 36-18 in those games, and 12-6 without him — basically a wash.

A lot to say a little: His talent is not necessarily a sure-fire route to success. 

A lot has happened since then, of course, with a pandemic upending the league and Kyrie’s decision to remain unvaccinated, which, given the rules in New York City, means he cannot play home games in Brooklyn. Until recently — until the desperation the Nets are under as players across the NBA enter the league’s health and safety protocols forced a change — his team met that stance with a total team ban.

Which brings us to Kyrie Irving’s return against the Pacers in Indianapolis tonight.

It is a unique time. The Kevin DurantJames Harden-Kyrie Irving triumvirate is not far from a summer that can see Harden and Irving opt out of their deals, if they choose. The East has gotten tougher than when K.D. and Kyrie first eyed Brooklyn as a destination. And we know, from his history, that Irving can be unpredictable in terms of his playing future.

Plus: It’s not exactly easy to win a championship, even if you have the kind of talent Brooklyn does. Irving’s never done it without LeBron. Durant’s never done it without Steph. Many, many guys have never done it at all.

So there is pressure, and a sense of time moving by quickly, and a need, all mixed with the expectations surrounding Brooklyn. All perfect for Irving to step in and show more than his talent. To show his value. To show his worth to a team seeking wins, not, ultimately, gaudy stats and big-time skills.

Perhaps he meets that moment. There was a humility and authenticity — or so it seemed — to Kyrie’s first comments to the media last week as his return approached. 

“I knew the consequences,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared for them, by no stretch of the imagination. Coming into the season, I had my thought process of being able to be a full-time teammate and just go out and have fun and provide a great brand of basketball out there. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that. Things happen for a reason, and now we’re here and I’m just grateful for this.

“Incredibly grateful just to be back in the building, welcomed back with open arms by my teammates, the whole organization. Not gonna lie. It’s been relatively tough to watch from the sidelines with everything going on in the world.”

Those comments are fine. They’re welcomed, even. But they’re also as inconsequential as, say, Kyrie’s passive-aggressive shots at LeBron James on a podcast in 2020, or how he felt about playing in LeBron’s shadow in Cleveland, or any of the other small and large signs over the years that Kyrie can be less than idyllic and easygoing in a locker room. 

What matters now is how any of these things translate to wins or losses.

Take Aaron Rodgers as an example. Yesterday, an entire conversation broke out on social media and across the sports media ecosystem about Rodgers’ likeability and its sudden crossroads with his MVP candidacy. This happened after an NFL MVP voter told a Chicago radio station that he would withhold his MVP vote from the Green Bay Packers quarterback because, basically, he doesn’t like that guy.

It’s an eye-brow raiser, and, very, very dumb. Rodgers may indeed be the NFL’s most unlikable player, but he’s also almost certainly one of its one or two or three most “valuable.” The Packers are 13-3, they’ve locked up the NFC’s top seed, and they’d be — maybe, generously — a four-win team without him.

Off-field garbage can sometimes be a sign of, and impact, what’s to come on the field. See: Antonio Brown.

But not always, as the Rodgers example makes clear.

Kyrie is the NBA’s version of a very talented and very unlikable player. He is rude to the media. He is unkind and unappreciative to former teammates, stars included. He has in the past undermined, with passive-aggressive clumsiness, guys who were at the time teammates. He has stomped on logos of former teams, he has been self-absorbed, he has missed games he did not need to, he has been, often, again and again and again, the mess that GM laid out for me.

Ah, but the talent.

Either Irving makes the Nets the title contender they’re supposed to be, pushing them to another level and helping them make a truly deep run once we reach the playoffs.  

Or else he is what he’s been hinting at for years: Not worth all the trouble.

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