By Pete Baxter
Kyrie Irving is a fantastic basketball player. He is one of the greatest ball handlers in NBA history. He is a thrilling finisher for a 6’2” player. Irving hit one of the most iconic shots in recent NBA history in game seven of the 2016 NBA finals. He is a seven-time NBA All-Star and three-time All-NBA selection. He is a top-20 player in this league.
Irving is also an enigma. As enormously talented as he is, his impact on a team runs deeper than just his impressive stat line (career stats of 22.8 points, 5.7 assists, and 39.1% from three), and not always in a positive way. The drama surrounding Kyrie Irving’s current vaccination status and his inability to join his team in Brooklyn is the latest example of Irving’s complex reputation as a player and the varying impacts he has had on the different franchises that have employed him.
He is also an incredible humanitarian, who’s dedication to improving his local community and the world cannot be questioned. We will spend some time looking at some highlights of Irving’s amazing generosity later in this article.
With all that said, admittedly, suggesting that an NBA team could potentially be in a better position without the services of an elite point guard is a ridiculous notion at surface level. However, if we dig a bit deeper, it may at least be a conversation worth having.
Let’s take a closer look at Kyrie’s career, his current situation, and what it all means for Brooklyn.
Cleveland: The Early Years
Irving hit the ground running in the NBA as the first overall selection in the 2011 NBA Draft. He averaged 18.5 points and 5.4 assists that season on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. His stats and his play improved year-after-year in Cleveland.
However, Irving’s Cavaliers teams prior to the return of Lebron James had a three-year record of 78-152 (an abysmal 33.9% winning percentage). Certainly not all Kyrie’s fault, as those were teams otherwise devoid of talent, but it became apparent Kyrie was simply an All-Star caliber player who would need a lot of help to get a team over the hump (whether he knew it or not).
Irving was really, really good, but could not carry a team on his own. This is not unusual, as very few players in league history have had that sort of solo impact. For Kyrie, that help came in the form of Lebron James.
Lebron returned to Cleveland for the 2015/16 season. All-Star Kevin Love came aboard as well, and the Cavaliers had a legitimate big-three. The team instantly became contenders and made the 2015 NBA Finals in which they ultimately fell 4-2 to the up-and-coming dynasty in Golden State. The next season, the Cavaliers won their first NBA title, exacting revenge on Golden State in seven games after the Warriors completed a record setting 73-9 regular season record. As noted, Irving hit the clutch, iconic shot to seal victory for Cleveland.
The Cavs and their big-3 made the finals for the third straight year in 2016/17, eventually falling again to the Warriors. Despite the loss, it was clear this Cavs big-three was a dynasty in the making.
Until it wasn’t.
During the 2017 offseason, Kyrie Irving shocked the NBA world by requesting a trade from Cleveland. Despite their incredible success together, Irving was unhappy playing sidekick to Lebron, and wanted to move on to lead his own team again (despite his inability to do so in Cleveland prior to James’ arrival). The tension between Irving and James slowly became evident through Irving’s behavior, including his disgusted response when asked if James was a “father figure” for him in the league. Granted, that was a stupid question.
This was one of the first mainstream examples of Irving’s “different” view on the world and his own career, abilities, and role in the world. Irving wanted to be the Alpha on a team once again and was granted this chance when the Cavs traded him to the Boston Celtics for a package headlined by Isaiah Thomas. Irving was a clear upgrade over Thomas in Boston, and this Celtics squad was fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Should be an easy-peasy path to contention and a chance for Irving to prove that he did not need Lebron, right?
Onward to Boston
Welp, not so much. In his first season in Boston, Irving looked great during the regular season until he aggravated a left knee injury. This caused him to miss the end of the regular season and the entire post season. Amazingly, the Celtics were able to replicate their same playoff success from their previous season, without Kyrie (or even Thomas, for that matter). The good news was, this was clearly a talented squad, with or without Irving. The bad news was that it wasn’t necessarily Irving’s team.
Oh, and by the way, this was around the time Irving became quite vocal around his “Flat Earth” beliefs. This became an unwelcome distraction and a next key piece of evidence that Irving was, well, again let’s just say “different.”
Season two in Boston saw Irving return from injury for another strong regular season, though the team fell slightly in the standings. This time, finally with their star point guard available, the Celtics failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in three years. They exited the playoffs in a second round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
That offseason, there was chatter that the Celtics were a better team without Kyrie Irving. A ludicrous thought, again, at surface level, but the evidence was there. With Irving healthy, the team fell in the standings and exited the playoffs earlier than they had without him. There were also questions around Irving’s chemistry with the team’s other young stars in Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown.
Not surprisingly, Irving left in free agency after two unspectacular seasons in Boston. Chalk it up to injuries and bad chemistry, right?
Heading to Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Nets shocked the world by landing two superstars during the 2019 offseason. Irving and Kevin Durant opted to combine their forces in Brooklyn (though Durant would miss the season as he recovered from a torn Achilles tendon). Perhaps Irving had learned a lesson in Boston and recognized that he needed a fellow superstar to contend for another ring.
Without his costar, Irving was unable to lift the Nets beyond the middle of the pack. Irving was in and out of the lineup due to injuries and personal reasons, and eventually his season ended early as he underwent surgery on his injured shoulder. The team finished a disappointing 35-37 during the Covid-shortened season. Interestingly, and with maybe a bit of déjà vu, the Nets had a worse winning percentage than they had prior to Irving’s arrival in which they finished 42-40 the previous season and snuck into the playoffs behind a relatively anonymous cast featuring Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen.
A New Big Three
2020/21 was supposed to be the Nets big break. Durant and Irving would both be back and healthy, and in January the team was able to acquire disgruntled superstar James Harden from the Houston Rockets. Irving suddenly found himself in a big three that, at the very least, challenged the one he had been a part of in Cleveland. While Irving had been unable to make it on his own in Boston, he had a chance for redemption to show he could still be a key cog on a championship team.
However, Irving was once again in and out of the lineup. He played 54 games. Irving left his team and fans in a state of confusion while taking seven games off due to “personal reasons” following the insurrection at the Capital. Irving was seen taking part in Zoom conferences during this time, and it was clear Irving was simply not making his team or his career his top priority. Ultimately, he returned to the team but his season ended with an ankle injury during the second round of the playoffs. The Nets had a disappointing exit in the same round, falling to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Even with another team of superstars, Irving was unable to recapture the success he had earlier in his career with Lebron. Even more concerning, he seemed to be continuing his trend of failing to consistently prioritize his team and his basketball career. However, the upcoming season would be different, right?
Fast Forward to the Present
Here we are in October of 2021. Kyrie Irving has managed to outdo himself in the arena of self-sabotage and has found himself banished from team activities due to his refusal to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. Playing in Brooklyn, Irving is required to be vaccinated to take part in any team activities in New York (as well as other vaccine-mandated locales like San Francisco).
The Nets organization has now banned Irving from joining the team for any activities (even in non-vaccine mandated locations) until he gets vaccinated. An understandable decision, as the logistics, impact to the team’s chemistry, and overall horrible look of allowing a player to essentially be “part-time” for road games would not be remotely worth it.
James Harden and Steve Nash seemed exasperated in recent press conferences and refused to discuss Irving’s situation further. Kevin Durant has walked the line between fully supporting Irving or condemning his behavior and has tried to stay positive and neutral.
I don’t consider myself qualified to comment on Irving’s ultimate goals here, and I am not going to go into a pro-or-anti vaccine lecture. However, the inarguable fact here is that Irving has once again prioritized his own “different” (and, ok, maybe increasingly delusional) views and behavior over his teammates and his commitment to a franchise that pays him $30+ million annually.
Irving has attempted to justify his behavior by simultaneously claiming to represent “the voiceless” while also saying he is simply trying to do the research and make the right decision for himself only.
While putting himself and his team in this position, Irving has also communicated through his agents that he will retire if traded from the Nets. In doing so, he has truly put his franchise in a very challenging position. He seems to blame his franchise, the league, and state and local politicians for the situation he has created for himself.
Looking at the Facts
So, moving forward, are the Nets better off without Kyrie Irving? First, let’s take a look at why asking this question seems ridiculous:
- Kyrie Irving is a top-20 player in the NBA, an All-Star, an All-NBAer, and a champion.
- Kyrie is a close friend to Kevin Durant, and the guy who ultimately brought the duo to Brooklyn in the first place.
Next, let’s take a look at why they may in fact be better off without their star guard:
- Kyrie has simply made the past two teams that he played for worse after coming aboard. Both the Celtics and Nets, relatively superstar-free squads prior to his arrival, took a step back when he joined up.
- Kyrie has become an increasingly self-centered teammate over the course of his career. Since joining Brooklyn, he has repeatedly shown that he has a decreasing level of passion for basketball. His selfishness is exemplified best perhaps by his declaration that he will retire should he be traded, meaning his team currently can’t have his services but also can’t get anything back for him or the giant percentage of the team’s cap space that he represents.
- Kyrie is an expert in creating distractions for his teams (see recent Steve Nash/James Harden interviews).
- Kyrie’s inability to stay on the court due to personal reasons, injuries, and now his handling of the Covid vaccine situation make it virtually impossible for him to achieve the chemistry with his teammates needed to maximize the team’s winning potential with their “big three.” He also can’t be counted on to stay healthy for the full length of a playoff run.
- If the Nets were able to trade Irving, they could almost certainly receive a more available All-Star or multiple talented role players to flesh out their depth.
So, in the end, yes, there is at least an argument to be made that Nets would be better off without Kyrie Irving. That is not to say that, if Irving does get vaccinated and rejoins the team sooner than later, and can beat the odds and stay on the court all the way through their playoff run, he couldn’t help this team win a title. However, as we have seen historically, it would take a miracle for that exact scenario to play out.
Unfortunately, we will just need to wait and see. Irving seems hell-bent on making a trade impossible, as between his vaccination status and threats of retirement no team in their right mind would touch him.
In his recent Instagram post, he shot down the idea that he was otherwise considering retirement, although that would be a logical move for him if he really is as disenchanted with the sport, the league, and his franchise as it appears.
So, give him credit. Irving has his team by the balls. Durant, one of Irving’s closest friends, has stayed positive and hopeful that things will work out. That should give Nets fans something to hang on to for now.
And once again, I don’t want this to simply be a Kyrie Irving hit piece. Irving has proven himself to be a damn good basketball player, and a great person who cares about his community and humanity in general. As highlighted by Kristian Winfield of the NY Daily News in a great piece in January, Irving donated $3.5 million to WNBA players who were left unpaid while sitting out during the season’s restart due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He purchased a home for George Floyd’s family. Irving has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to hungry families, school supplies to needy kids, soil to Greater Newark Conservancy, masks and food to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, and the list goes on and on. He is an amazing humanitarian, and his passion for humanity and improving the world is more than evident.
However, Irving the humanitarian and Irving the player are two separate topics for discussion. While his positive impact on the planet and on humanity can’t be questioned, his impact on a basketball team can be.
So, in the end, from this blogger’s perspective, yes. The Brooklyn Nets may be better off without Kyrie Irving.
What do you think?