NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving might be just the jolt the Brooklyn Nets need to escape a midseason slump.
After refusing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, Irving has been unable to play at home and for much of the season was unwelcome on the road. The Nets didn’t want a part-time player, so sent him away during the preseason.
Things changed. The Nets decided they needed whatever they could get from Irving and are expected to put him on the court for the first time this season Wednesday at Indiana.
“It definitely gives us a spark,” All-Star guard James Harden said. “Obviously we’re on a three-game skid right now.”
Those losses all came at home, and there’s nothing Irving can do about the Nets’ struggles in Brooklyn if he remains unvaccinated. The vaccine is mandated for New York City athletes playing in public venues. He has said refusing it was what’s best for him and that he was aware there would be consequences.
But he can play in road games in the cities where there is no mandate, including all the upcoming ones during a stretch that has the Nets away for seven of their next 11 games.
Coach Steve Nash hasn’t said Irving will definitely debut Wednesday, but the guard is not listed on the injury report for the first time this season.
Even after he just recently started practicing for the first time since training camp, the Nets are confident Irving’s entrance can only be a positive.
“I mean, have you watched him play? He’s a master,” Kevin Durant said. “He can score 60 percent, 70 percent of his shots if you don’t guard him, and he’s a high IQ player.”
For sure, Irving’s talent is undeniable. He averaged a career-best 26.9 points last season, becoming the ninth player in NBA history to shoot at least 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the free throw line.
But there’s still matters of chemistry and continuity that championship clubs crave, and the Nets will be trying to establish it with essentially two teams: one on the road with Irving, one at home without him.
The Nets are banking that Irving’s close relationship with Durant, along with a roster of veterans such as Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin who are missing a championship to go with otherwise Hall of Fame-worthy resumes, will smooth what could normally be a bumpy transition.
“I think that they have a mature enough group, an experienced enough group to kind of understand the dynamics of the business of basketball, along with the rules that are in place that made the situation what it is,” Clippers assistant coach Brian Shaw said. “So, they’ll make the most of it.”
That’s what the Nets were counting on when they reversed their decision last month and announced that Irving would join them for practices and road games. They were criticized for doing so, but general manager Sean Marks pointed out that the organization’s top priority is to win.
They couldn’t do that without Irving last season, falling to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals after he sprained his ankle in Game 4. It’s unclear if they can win with Irving, who has a history of injuries and took a leave of absence from the team for personal reasons last season.
He’s spent this one collecting a portion of his $35 million salary not to play, forfeiting checks for the games he made himself ineligible for, but the Nets paying him for the road games they barred him from. He’s popped up occasionally on his social media platforms or as a spectator at Seton Hall games, but hasn’t been playing against NBA competition.
There hasn’t been time to get as much work as hoped when he came back, as he went into health and safety protocols on Dec. 18, the day after his return was announced.
But on a team that’s showing flaws, whatever Irving can provide — whenever he can provide it — should solve some problems.
“Obviously we love to have Kyrie back. He’s a special, special talent,” Harden said. “But there’s things that we need to correct internally and individually that can help us, and then adding Kyrie back is going to be more special.”