The Brooklyn Nets knew they would be without Kevin Durant this season. His signing was an investment in the future, a sign of things to come, a good faith gazillion-dollar gesture.
That was not the case with Kyrie Irving. He was the present ready to be opened. He would help the Nets imagine what it would be like when he and Durant, best buddies for life, would be on the floor together beginning in 2020-21.
Things have not worked out that way. Irving missed 26 games with a shoulder injury he suffered in early November that seemed to grow more mysterious by the day. There was talk he might be unhappy or at least unsettled.
Nets fans began to worry the things they heard about Irving might be true, that his extreme talent was matched only by his aloofness. There are bad investments. And there are bad investments.
Well, now at this middle-stage of the game, Irving is back for the first time since Nov. 14 and we’re about to find out whether it’s too late for the Nets to make more noise than 18-22 in the Eastern Conference.
How much did the Nets miss him? Irving was averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds in the 11 games he played. He dropped 50 in 38 minutes on Minnesota on opening night.
Yes, that much.
His return on Sunday was celebrated. He scored 21 points in 20 minutes in a 108-86 win over the Atlanta Hawks. He missed only one shot.
“He was really efficient,” coach Kenny Atkinson said after the game. “I liked that he didn’t force anything and he just played like a pro. My fear was being out so long, he’d try to really force things. He was just in a perfect flow — had a nice demeanor and nice rhythm about him. Normally when you come back after a long time, your rhythm is off, you’re going too fast or too slow, you’re not in the right tempo. He was in the right tempo, right place, and I thought defensively (he) competed his tail off.”
Part of the mystery was due to Irving’s self-imposed silence. He didn’t talk to Nets media for two months after hurting himself against the Pelicans on Nov. 4. That fueled rumors Irving might not be right mentally.
Meanwhile, the Nets struggled to reach .500 and impatience quickly skyrocketed. When Irving finally got around to updating reporters, he mentioned that he couldn’t raise his shoulder when shooting jump shots and he’d received a cortisone shot as a last-ditch effort to avoid what he feared might be surgery.
“It was a long road back,” Irving said Sunday night. “There was a lot of questions I had to answer. Health for my shoulder. Longevity. What would have been the best option for my health, long-term. Once I got that set, it was easy to make the decision to come back.”
The return gave Atkinson a chance to pair Irving with Spencer Dinwiddie in the starting lineup. That moved Caris LeVert back to the bench. It’s too early to tell how that’s going to work out, especially defensively. But it’s finally a step in the right direction.
“Every time someone asks about chemistry, you’ve got to have reps,” Irving said. “You have to be out there together. But I think something that doesn’t really get mentioned a lot is that when you’re a great basketball player or a great basketball mind, you’re able to play with anyone out there on the floor.”
Irving said he’s always been a Nets fan and being on the floor with Atlanta’s Vince Carter – a former Nets great – conjured up the type of memories the Nets organization would sustain him through any dark periods this season.
“I’m a diehard New Jersey Nets fan before they came to Brooklyn; now that I’ve adjusted, I love Brooklyn the same,” Irving said. “That was a kid’s dream to go see Vince Carter and Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets play. Specifically, Vince Carter did some amazing things. It was incredible for a kid to watch. Big fan; always will be. I got his jersey in my bookbag, and I’m a happy New Jersey Nets guy.”
The Nets still have a long way to go. Irving had a great game on Tuesday at home against Utah, scoring 32 points. But they lost by 11 in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Irving scored only 14 points, shooting 6-of-21 from the floor.
“I’m going to continue to reiterate it. We’re going to do the best with the guys that we have in our locker room now, and we’ll worry about all the other stuff, in terms of moving pieces and everything else, as an organization down the line in the summer,” Irving said.
“Collectively, I feel like we have great pieces, but it’s pretty glaring we need one more piece or two more pieces. …We’ll see how that evolves.”