Things are getting ugly for the Nets regarding Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status … and his ability of play in New York.
Irving, being a long-time rumored Covid vaccine holdout, is set to miss every Brooklyn home game in the 2021-2022 season following New York City’s institution of Executive Order 225, which mandates (in part) that all hometown NBA players be vaccinated to play games in NYC.
Therefore, Irving is currently projected to miss 43 games in a back-to-regular 82 game NBA season, including two matchups with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He will also lose $381,181 for each game missed, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
On Sunday, head coach Steve Nash conceded that the team was preparing for a reality where he would not join the Nets at home games. But on Monday, after Irving was left home, Adrian Wojnarowski suggested that the Nets have yet to decide on his status.
As Nash continually reminds the media, this situation is fluid. Irving could theoretically get vaccinated at any time and local laws in markets around the NBA are ever-changing as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to evolve in North America.
But for now, he won’t be part of the team for at least half the year. So, how exactly will the Nets adjust in his absences? Let’s examine.
What are the Nets losing without Kyrie?
Despite a cloud of controversy, Irving is arguably coming off his best career season. In his second year with the Nets, Irving posted shooting averages of 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 92 percent from the free throw line, making him the ninth-ever player in the “50-40-90 club.” Making the club even more exclusive: only three other players (one guard) have ever done that while averaging better than 25 points a game.
After Brooklyn’s acquisition of the ball-handling maestro James Harden, Irving slid over to a more natural off-ball role, with The Beard handling typical point guard duties.
Even if he wasn’t featured bringing up the ball and starting the offense, though, Irving was still receiving a lion’s share of offensive responsibility — last season, he was second on the Nets in touches in the front court and in time of possession, per NBA Stats.
It’s important to remember that these ball-dominant tendencies aren’t harmful to the team, either. Irving scored an average of 123.4 points per 100 shot attempts last season, putting him in the 95th percentile of all NBA players, per Cleaning The Glass.
Though neither can be replicated at Irving’s level, the Nets will do their best to find alternate sources of offense as microwave scorers and to replace him length time on-ball.
The Other Guards
First, let’s examine Brooklyn’s remaining guard rotation. It, of course, features James Harden, as well as a trio of offseason acquisitions, each in a radically different phase of their career — Patty Mills, Jevon Carter, and Cam Thomas.
Mills signed with the Nets to a two-year contract in free agency after a decade of building championship pedigree with the San Antonio Spurs. A 39 percent career shooter behind the arc, Mills is another unorthodox point guard who will likely spend time off the ball, but unlike Kyrie, will fire up shots quickly after the catch. Last season, over 60 percent of Mills’ field goal attempts came with a touch time of under two seconds.
Like Mills, Jevon Carter is another smaller guard who can space the floor, but won’t be featured as the lead ball handler of the offense. (That experiment was already tried in Brooklyn’s first preseason game, and the results were far from ideal)
Carter’s volume won’t be as impressive as the Aussie, but should still be an efficient knockdown shooter from beyond the arc. He shot north of 41 percent on all catch-and-shoot threes last year, per NBA Stats, and those numbers only improve in the corners.
Cam Thomas was one of Brooklyn’s first round draft selections back in June, and is already a fan-favorite after his summer league eruption where he averaged 27 points per game and won co-MVP of the tournament in Vegas.
Thomas’ iso-heavy style is, dare I say, nearly reminiscent of Irving’s. He will often body his way into less-than-ideal shot attempts, but there’s nothing to criticize when they fall through the net. Thomas has reportedly been taken under Kyrie’s wing in training camp and practice, and Nets fans can only hope the prolific scoring abilities of the former number one overall draft pick can seep into Brooklyn’s most promising rookie.
Superstars step up
Let’s be frank: part of the comfort in losing a player of Irving’s caliber is that, well, there are two other superstars already on the roster for the Nets. Harden’s arrival in Brooklyn last year changed every part of the equation for Brooklyn, who have already reaped some of the benefits of having a surplus of individual talent on the roster.
When accompanied on the floor by the two other members of the “Big Three,” Harden’s play style changed from his time in Houston. He became less ball dominant and shot-focused, and his usage rate reflected as such.
The Nets weren’t going to let any potential go untapped, however. With Kevin Durant and Irving off the floor, Harden manned the bench unit, flanked with shooters — and his usage rate jumped back up to the 40s, à la Houston.
This year, Harden will share the court with improved backup unit, but could also see his usage rate spike with the starting group in Irving’s absence.
Kevin Durant usually waits until the postseason to takeover for Brooklyn. Last year, his backcourt touches spiked in the playoffs as he started bringing the ball up more often, which usually resulted with him raising up in a hopeless defender’s face, leaving them with no choice but to watch the ball swish through the net.
Like Harden, KD could see an increased role as a facilitator with his friend Kyrie away from the action. He, too, saw an increase in usage rate with Irving sitting last year, and the Nets had no reason to bring in another ball handler to take those touches over the offseason.
Durant was a willing passer last season, notching multiple double-digit assist games en route to an average of 5.6 on the year. Most of those plays, however, came within the flow of the offense and Durant hasn’t yet proven to be the level of ball-handler to consistently run a pick-and-roll offense.
But that’s no issue, because…
Ball movement and passing big men
The Nets already have an overwhelming amount of perimeter talent, with players up and down the roster being able to create separation from their defender. They don’t need a new pick-and-roll maestro, just for everyone to keep the ball moving and the defense on their heels.
Without Irving’s ball-dominant dominating touches and time of possession, the Nets will favor ball movement, maintaining an advantage created early in the play.
We’ve already seen early glimpses of Brooklyn skipping the rock around Barclays in the preseason, forcing Milwaukee to scramble after a James Harden feed contorts their defensive alignment.
The play finishes with Blake Griffin slipping a bounce pass around a Buck for the dunk, which should come as no surprise to viewers.
The once slam-dunking superstar has always been an eager ball-mover, with his AST percentage and Assist-to-Usage ratio each consistently ranking at the top of the league (both were in the 85th percentile last year, per Cleaning The Glass).
Griffin isn’t the only Brooklyn big man who can pass the rock. The newly acquired Paul Millsap is a more-than-adequate facilitator as well, and has proven it in the past. Millsap’s playmaking responsibilities were diminished in the past couple of seasons next to MVP Nikola Jokic, but the smart veteran can still orchestrate with comfort.
And orchestrate he has, even very early on into his Nets tenure. In his first preseason appearance against the Lakers, Millsap was a staple at the top of the key, running dribble hand-offs with various Nets slashing towards the rim.
Lastly, there’s LaMarcus Aldridge. After playing five games with the Nets last year and then subsequently abruptly retiring due to a heart issue, LMA is back with the Nets, focused on helping deliver a championship to Brooklyn.
Aldridge isn’t known for his playmaking and likely won’t take any significant steps in that area this season, but still draws attention in the post even in Year 16 — and has proved he can find the open shooter when faced with a double-team.
Without Irving, the steady post-up big is sure to be a release valve for the Nets on offense.
Ultimately, the Nets should have a plethora of options if Kyrie Irving does indeed miss more than half the season. Some mimic Irving’s playstyle and others provide whole new looks to the Brooklyn offense. Either way, everyone should hope that Irving can return to his home court as soon as possible.