He’s back. Or will be very soon.
Nets coach Steve Nash stopped just short of guaranteeing that Kyrie Irving will play his first game of the season on Wednesday in Indianapolis, but all signs seem to point to the seven-time All-Star making his season debut against the Pacers.
"Yeah, we’re hopeful," Nash said in his news conference before the Nets game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, "but no determination has been made. So we’ll see how he does between now and then."
Irving, who is unvaccinated, is ineligible to play home games at the Barclays Center because of New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. He is also ineligible to play home games at Madison Square Garden or in Toronto.
Initially, the Nets decided they didn’t want to deal with a part-time player, so Irving did not play at all. After a variety of injuries and COVID-related absences put major pressure on healthy Nets players, the Net reversed their position in mid-December and announced that they would let Irving play in road games.
Irving had to pass through the NBA's health and safety protocols and get back into game shape before he was ready to return. Nash said the determining factors on whether Irving plays on Wednesday will be "how he feels and whether we determine it is safe for him to come back."
Right now, Nash likes what he has seen from his All-Star point guard in practice.
"I think Kyrie looks great," Nash said. "He’s such a talented and gifted player and to see him on the floor with our guys has been great. We all look forward to him coming back."
The Nets have been holding their own without Irving, despite their lack of manpower. Heading into the Memphis game, they were 23-11 and a game behind the Bulls in the Eastern Conference.
The timing for Irving’s return is crucial in that beginning on Wednesday, the Nets play 12 of their next 18 games on the road.
If Irving does not return against Indiana, his next chance would be Monday Jan 10 in the team’s rescheduled game at Portland. The team originally was supposed to play Portland on Dec. 23 but it was postponed because too many players were out with injuries or in protocol.
When Irving plays, it will mark the first time that the Nets’ Big 3 has been on the court together since the first minute of Game 1 of the Nets' Eastern Conference semifinals series against Milwaukee. James limped off the court just 43 seconds into that game with a sore hamstring.
Irving then sprained his ankle in Game 4 of that series, which the Nets lost in seven games.
The Nets headed into Monday night’s game against Memphis having lost back-to-back games for the first time this season. The team is certainly looking forward to getting another shooter back on the floor to take some pressure off of Kevin Durant and James Harden.
"There are some challenges when we lack shooting and spacing and optionality, but [the complimentary players] are doing a great job of handling it when it’s not their skill set," Nash said. " . . . I’m so proud of those guys for adapting and adjusting and handling it.
"Well there’s two things going on. One, we’ll get better at [shooting] and two we’ll have more shooting coming into the lineup. So some will be resolved by health and some will be resolved by experience. I think this period has helped us with the experience part and learning to play with less shooting on the floor."
Irving’s return will certainly end their shooting problem. Last year, he led the team in field goal attempts with an average of 20.1 a game.