DALLAS — When Kyrie Irving was traded to the Mavericks last season, most Nets fans likely were happy about the inevitable close to a tense situation.
But as Irving noted Thursday, there’s still love between him and the few players left from the team he departed. Irving singled out Cam Thomas and Nic Claxton for their support last season.
Thomas returned the favor Friday at the Nets’ shootaround. Ahead of Irving’s first game against the Nets since last February’s trade, Thomas praised him for taking him under his wing as a rookie and continuing that bond as teammates.
“Obviously, when I first came into the league, I wasn’t expecting us to be teammates,” Thomas said. “But these are the moments that I dream of, playing against guys like him. So I’ll definitely go at him whenever he’s on me . . . He’s still my brother, but he’s my opponent today.”
Irving, who spent four years with the Nets, also taught Thomas life lessons off the court that still resonate with him. But their time together also coincided with Irving’s tenure becoming more controversial.
In 2021-22, Thomas’ rookie season, Irving played only 29 games after refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The Nets initially ruled Irving ineligible to play but then allowed him to play road games. He played only six home games because of New York City’s indoor vaccine mandate.
Last season, Irving was suspended for eight games for posting a link to a movie with antisemitic tropes. That was bookended by a pair of trade requests before the season and right before the trade deadline.
Thomas, however, saw a nurturing side to Irving, who was one of the players who encouraged him when he fell out of the rotation.
“It was just brother vibes, playing the game together,” Thomas said. “We were just always like, just like a little big brother-little brother time thing. So to me it’s just more than basketball. But today, it’s about basketball right now. So it’s about ball. Got to handle that.”
Spencer Dinwiddie also had a connection to Irving. He not only played two seasons with him with the Nets but was part of last season’s trade of Irving that brought Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith to the Nets.
Dinwiddie’s respect for Irving as a player remains high. He called him one of the best scorers of all time.
“[He’s] truly a savant of the game in terms of talent and artistry,” Dinwiddie said. “It’ll be a fun game.”
Finney-Smith was less focused on Irving than his first game in Dallas as a visiting player. He spent his first seven seasons with the Mavericks after going undrafted in 2016 and expected to be emotional for a place he called a second home.
“It’s going to be fun. I get to play against some of the guys I done went to war with,” Finney-Smith said. “We’ve been talking about it over the summer, so it’s finally here. It’s gonna be fun.”
He joked that the Nets scheduled this game early so he could get his tears out. His family was in attendance, and he expected a warm welcome from fans at American Airlines Center.
Thomas doesn’t usually greet players before the game, but for Irving, he said he would make an exception for someone who’s like family.
“If he comes up [to me], I’m gonna do it, but I’m not just gonna go out of my way and do it,” Thomas said. “I’m going to get him after the game. And he knows how I am, so he’ll understand. So it’s good.”