Kyrie Irving returns to the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night, and through his part-time status, his self-centeredness, his astonishing but sometimes unreliable talent, his personal stance on basketball vaccines and his non-stop sensitivity to looking at me waiting for a simple question only Irving himself will be able to answer, on the court, far from everything else:
Is it all worth it?
Among all the weirdness of this NBA season is the odd fact that at no other time has Irving been better positioned to show that his talent is being translated in real ways for the Nets.
You would think that a player of his stature, an NBA champion with seven All-Star selections under his belt, would be beyond such questions. You’d think beating Steph Curry in the dying moments of the 2016 NBA Finals would sort things out. You would think, and many already think, that Kyrie’s individual prowess on the pitch is the answer to such uncertainties. And you would be wrong.
A recent conversation with an NBA general manager summed up the paradox. Asked about Kyrie, the CEO held a few-minute, spontaneous soliloquy on everything that goes on with Irving behind the scenes – a festival of quick gossip, warning signs and diva behavior that could make Antonio Brown blush. . “It’s a mess,” I was told. “It’s a disaster in a locker room.”
So you would avoid bringing him into your team if the opportunity arose?
“No,” he sighed. “No. I would bring him over. He’s too talented not to.”
So the Catch-22 in which the Nets now find themselves. Irving is a mess, sure, but they need him – now more than ever, with so many COVID-related absences. And so Kyrie Irving is back. Without any guarantee that it will work.
The actual payoff of having Irving on the court has always been as confusing and bizarre as most of his off-court antics. The Flat Earth Discourse grabbed the headlines. But it was his impact on wins and losses that really mattered, and it’s never been easier to gauge than the shape of Earth or Irving’s box scores.
Kyrie joined what was a very good Celtics team when they arrived in 2017, a young team who had already made an Eastern Conference final without him, and who would make another with Irving injured as Celtic. And yet, they never made the next jump with Irving among them. They regressed.
The Nets have also been a curious testing ground for what it means to have Irving in the mix.
Some figures on these two stops:
Kyrie played 127 games for Boston during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. The Celtics were 78-49 with him on floor for a 0.614 winning percentage. Still, they went 16-11 without Kyrie on that streak for a much higher 0.702 winning percentage.
This same effect has spread to Brooklyn.
Kyrie played 20 games for a Nets team during the 2019-20 season led by Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. They went 8-12 during that time, a mark of .400. And yet, Brooklyn was 27-25 in 52 games without him – just over 0.500, and significantly better than when he was playing.
Last season Kyrie played 54 games for the Nets, and they went 36-18 in those games and 12-6 without him – basically a washout.
Lots 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 rocking the league and Kyrie’s decision to remain unvaccinated which, given New York rules, means he can’t play. home in Brooklyn. Until recently – until the Nets’ desperation as NBA players enter league health and safety protocols forced a change – his team took that position with a ban. total team.
Which brings us to Kyrie Irving’s return against the Pacers in Indianapolis tonight.
It is a unique moment. The Kevin Durant-James Harden-Kyrie Irving triumvirate is not far from a summer that can see Harden and Irving withdraw from their offerings, if they so choose. The east has become more difficult than when KD and Kyrie first considered Brooklyn as a destination. And we know from his story that Irving can be unpredictable in terms of his future as a player.
The plus: it’s not exactly easy to win a championship, even if you have the kind of talent Brooklyn has. Irving never did it without LeBron. Durant never did it without Steph. Lots, lots of guys have never done it at all.
So there is a pressure, a feeling that time flies and a need, all mixed with the expectations surrounding Brooklyn. Everything is perfect for Irving to step in and show more than his talent. To show its value. To show their worth to a team looking for victories, not, ultimately, garish stats and far-reaching skills.
Maybe he meets this moment. There was humility and authenticity – or so it seemed – in Kyrie’s first comments to the media last week as her comeback approached.
“I knew the consequences,” he said. “I was unprepared for them with no stretch of the imagination. At the start of the season I had the thought process to be able to be a full time teammate and just go out and have fun and provide a great mark. basketball there. But unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way. Things happen for a reason, and now we’re here and I’m just grateful for that.
“Incredibly grateful to be back in the building, welcomed with open arms by my teammates, the whole organization. I’m not going to lie. It’s been relatively difficult to look aside with everything that is going on in the world. “
These comments are fine. They are welcome, even. But they’re also as trivial 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 the one of the other big and small signs over the years that Kyrie can be less than idyllic and easygoing in a locker room.
What matters now is how these things translate into gains or losses.
Take the example of Aaron Rodgers. Yesterday a whole conversation erupted on social media and across the sports media ecosystem about Rodgers’ friendliness and his sudden intersection with his MVP candidacy. It happened after an NFL MVP voter told a Chicago radio station that he would deny his MVP vote to the Green Bay Packers quarterback because he basically doesn’t like that guy.
It’s an eyebrow enhancer, and, very, very stupid. Rodgers may indeed be the most unfriendly player in the NFL, but he’s also almost certainly one of its most “valuable” ones, two or three. The Packers are 13-3, they’ve locked up the NFC’s first seed and they would – perhaps generously – be a four-game winning team without him.
Litter off the pitch can sometimes be a sign and impact on what will happen on the pitch. See: Antonio Brown.
But not always, as the example of Rodgers shows.
Kyrie is the NBA version of a very talented and very unfriendly player. He is rude to the media. He’s mean and ungrateful to his former teammates, stars included. He has in the past undermined, with passive-aggressive blunders, guys who were teammates at the time. He stomped on old team logos, he was egotistical, he missed games he didn’t need, he was, often, over and over, the mess GM made for me.
Ah, but the talent.
Either Irving makes the Nets claim him for the title they’re meant to be, pushing them to another level and helping them run a really deep run once we reach the playoffs.
Or that’s what he’s been referring to for years: it’s not worth it.