Kyrie Irving was just the jolt the Brooklyn Nets needed to escape a midseason slump.
He can only provide it on a part-time basis, as his refusal to get vaccinated against the coronavirus means he can’t play in New York. So for now, Irving will enjoy every chance he gets on the road – while still holding out hope he’ll be able to put on a show for his own fans.
“I know what the consequences were, I still know what they are,” Irving said Wednesday night. “But right now, I’m just going to take it one day at a time, like I said, and just enjoy this time that I get to play with my guys.
“However it looks later in the season, then we’ll address it then.”
Irving scored 22 points in his first game of the season, helping the Nets rally for a 129-121 road victory over the Indiana Pacers.
After being held out of the team’s first 35 games because he refused to get vaccinated, Irving started and played 32 minutes in his highly anticipated season debut.
“The game of basketball is happy to have him back,” teammate and close friend Kevin Durant said.
Irving is unable to play at home because of New York City’s vaccination mandate and had been unwelcome on the road. The Nets didn’t want a part-time player, so sent him away during the preseason.
Things changed. A recent Covid-19 outbreak left the Nets severely short-handed and they decided having the superstar half the time was a better option than signing lesser players to 10-day hardship contracts.
Irving made it look like the right decision Wednesday.
“It felt like he’s been playing all season,” fellow All-Star guard James Harden said.
The Nets had lost three straight, all 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.
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 11 games.
“Like I said earlier in the season, it’s not an ideal situation and I’m always praying that things get figured out and we’re able to come to some collective agreement,” Irving said, “whether it be with the league or just things that’s going on that could help kind of ease what we’re all dealing with Covid and the vaccine.
“I think everybody’s feeling it and so I don’t want to make it simply about me and simply about somebody lessening the rules for me.”
Irving’s situation is rare in professional sports.
The NBA has said 97% of its players are fully vaccinated — which would basically mean no more than 15 players in the league are unvaccinated, Irving presumably among them. That is consistent with other sports leagues; the NFL said in mid-December that about 95% of its players are vaccinated, and the NHL touts a 99% rate with no more than four players unvaccinated.
As of last month, the NBA said two-thirds of players were also boosted, a figure that has likely risen in recent weeks given constant urging from the league and the National Basketball Players Association. They have pointed to the recent surge in virus-related issues as proof that boosters are absolutely critical to keeping the league going.
“Boosters are highly effective,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN last month.
Unvaccinated players in the NBA are subject to almost-daily testing (the exception being off days without a game, practice or travel) and more stringent requirements, such as not being able to dine with teammates and additional social-distancing rules – even covering where their lockers can be in relation to their teammates.
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 three-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 and 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 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 – as the Australian Open was for allowing Novak Djokovic entry with a medical exemption despite questions about whether he was vaccinated, which was supposed to be required so he could defend his title.
The Nets couldn’t win 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 $35m salary not to play, forfeiting checks for the games he made himself ineligible for, but getting paid for the road games the Nets 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 wasn’t 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.
“I just missed his presence around the locker room, the energy, the vibe around the team,” Durant said. “And then on top of that, his game is just so beautiful. Makes the game so much easier for everybody out there.”