NEW YORK — The Brooklyn Nets‘ message is simple: They’re moving on. A day after general manager Sean Marks announced that they would not permit Kyrie Irving to be a part-time participant in the 2021-22 season, they practiced without him. Coach Steve Nash said he supports the decision, describing it as a difficult but sound one. The alternative was allowing Irving to play in most road games but miss all 41 games at Barclays Center and two at Madison Square Garden.
“It was a tenuous situation to have a player in and out like that,” Nash said Tuesday. “So there’s more clarity, and we can focus on the future and keep going.”
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To hear Nash tell it, the Nets essentially swapped an All-NBA guard for that sense of clarity. It is “important,” Nash said, that Irving’s inconsistent availability is no longer “kind of hanging over us.” In this sense, he thinks the decision “can be beneficial to us” as they try to come together as a team. This echoed Marks’ comments on Monday about trying to create “chemistry and collaboration” among the players who are available full-time.
“We were living in a world that was very uncertain,” Nash said. “We weren’t sure from one day to the next what was going to change, what was going to happen, and that can be difficult. And that can put an extra strain on everybody.”
Brooklyn star James Harden said that he, Marks, Nash, Irving and Kevin Durant “all had conversations” in advance of the decision, but he hasn’t talked to Irving since. “Obviously, we would love to have Kyrie here,” Harden said, but he and the front office have made their respective decisions.
“Kyrie believes in his beliefs, and he stands firm and strong on that,” Harden said. “And for us, we respect it. We all love Ky. But as far as us, we have a job to do. And individually, myself, I’m still wanting to set myself up for championship. And I feel like the entire organization is on the same path and we’re all a collective unit. So we’ll keep pushing forward and we’ll try to do our best every single day to get better and keep going as a collective unit.”
Harden said that, separate from the Irving issue, the Nets are “trying to catch up, we’re trying to put it together.” Their final preseason game is Thursday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and they will open the season in Milwaukee next Tuesday.
“Now, every single game, we got guys that know what their role is consistently and what they’re supposed to be doing night-in and night-out,” Harden said.
“The mindset of the group now is this is the group, this is who we have to have, we gotta control what we can control right now with who’s here,” guard Patty Mills said. “And today was a good first step in that right direction.”
Mills is one of several Nets who might have more responsibility with Irving out of the picture. Brooklyn also signed guard Jevon Carter in the offseason, and he’s been impressive in three exhibition games. Fellow free-agent addition DeAndre’ Bembry has experience playing on the ball, as does the returning Bruce Brown.
“I’ll try to do a little more if the team needs me to do that,” Brown said.
As Brooklyn showed throughout last season, it is as equipped to withstand the loss of a high-volume playmaker as any team in NBA history. The roster is a bit different now, but much of the load will still naturally fall to Harden and Durant. The Nets’ style of play will be “the same thing,” Harden said. Maybe there will be more touches for Blake Griffin in the post and LaMarcus Aldridge on the block.
Nash said he hasn’t made any firm decisions about the rotation. He plans to be “adaptive” and “fluid” when it comes to the starting lineup. When a team loses an elite player, it is even more important that it becomes more than the sum of its parts.
“We have to be tighter,” Nash said. “We have to be more connected, we have to have guys play bigger roles and be more responsible with the details. No one’s gonna come in and imitate Kyrie, so how we can make up for his loss as best as possible? And that’s through the details, through all the collective work we do, and from us coming together and really building a team.”
Mills stressed that “the purpose of why we’re all here” hasn’t changed. Brown laughed when asked if he feels like Brooklyn can stay afloat without Irving, and he said he doesn’t think the Irving situation will “affect us at all” in terms of starting the season strong.
“We’re here to win,” Brown said. “We know what happened last year left a terrible taste in our mouth, so we’re coming into the season knowing what we need to do. And we’ll get it done.”
The Nets have less room for error with two superstars instead of three, but they are surely still title contenders. They might still be title favorites. As opening night nears, though, questions about Irving still linger. Will he get vaccinated at some point? If he doesn’t, will Brooklyn trade him? The certainty that the franchise has gained is valuable, but it is relative and might only be short-term.
The door is open for Irving’s return. Nash said that, if Irving becomes eligible to play in home games, “it would be incredible to have him back in the fold. Brown said that, “when Ky wants to come back, we’ll welcome him back with open arms.”
But what if he doesn’t come back? Brooklyn is the epitome of all-in. A franchise like that cannot be comfortable with the prospect of keeping a healthy player on the roster but away from the team for an entire season, let alone one with a $34.9 million salary. Yes, the Nets are moving on, but something still has to give.