After missing the first 29 games of the NBA season because he is not in compliance with New York City’s COVID vaccine mandate, star Nets point guard Kyrie Irving is on the verge of returning to play road games.
With seven veteran players out because of NBA health and safety protocols, the Nets decided to change their previous stance against allowing Irving to be a part-time player.
"After discussions with our coaches, players and staff, the organization has decided to have Kyrie Irving rejoin the team for games and practices in which he is eligible to participate," the Nets said in a statement issued Friday night.
"We arrived at this decision with the full support of our players and after careful consideration of current circumstances, including players missing games due to injuries and health and safety protocols.
"We believe the addition of Kyrie will not only make us a better team but allow us to more optimally balance the physical demand on the entire roster. We look forward to Kyrie’s return to the lineup, as well as getting our entire roster back together on court."
The bombshell news of Irving’s imminent return first was reported Friday afternoon by ESPN and The Athletic. Team officials are expected to address the subject before the Nets face the Magic Saturday night at Barclays Center.
The Nets' change of strategy toward Irving was precipitated in large part by the fact that seven veteran Nets, including James Harden, tested positive earlier this week for COVID-19 and entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols, which require a 10-day quarantine or two negative tests within a 24-hour period before a player is allowed to return.
The Nets played with the minimum allowed eight players in a win over the Raptors on Tuesday and added a ninth via a free-agent signing for a win over the 76ers on Thursday.
Over the past week, reports surfaced that Kevin Durant and other members of the Nets were pushing for Irving’s return. When asked about those reports following Tuesday’s game against Toronto, Durant said, "We’ll see. I mean, of course Kyrie is my brother and we talk about everything. I’d rather keep those conversations in house, though."
Even before the Nets lost so many players to COVID protocols, Durant was logging heavy minutes. Coach Steve Nash acknowledged his concern before the game against Philadelphia.
"It’s really an important topic," Nash said. "I don’t know that we can continue to lean on him the way we have. It doesn’t feel right. I know he’s enjoying playing at the rate he’s playing at and trying to bring his teammates along with him and all the responsibility he’s accepted and crushed basically. It’s been incredible.
"At the same time, we know that’s not safe or sustainable to continue to lean on him like that. We’ll have to find out a way to give him some breaks."
Although the Nets currently are in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 21-8 record and have a four-game winning streak, Nash on several occasions earlier this season said the Nets would be a long process because they began training camp with one team that included Irving and then another after he informed them of his refusal to comply with the New York City vaccine mandate, which meant he would be ineligible for 41 home games plus two visits to Madison Square Garden.
Irving is the only member of the Nets who is not fully vaccinated as general manager Sean Marks confirmed when the team announced on Oct. 12 that Irving could not practice with the team or play road games until he is fully eligible.
When asked directly that day if Irving was vaccinated, Marks said, "Well, if he was vaccinated, we wouldn’t be having this discussion."
Marks said that decision ultimately belonged to himself and owner Joe Tsai, who has made it clear the Nets’ goal this season is to win their first NBA title.
"We are looking at putting a group of people [together] that are going to be able to participate fully, and that is what this comes down to," Marks said at the time. "We’re not looking for partners that are going to be half-time . . . That is why this decision ultimately was made."
At the same time, Marks said, "The hope is that we have Kyrie back. We’ll welcome him back with open arms under a different set of circumstances."
The Nets’ manpower shortage plus the growing workload on Durant and Harden was the tipping point that changed the circumstances and permitted Irving’s return from exile.