Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving against the Utah Jazz at...

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving against the Utah Jazz at Barclays Center on Jan. 14, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

After missing 26 games with a painful right shoulder impingement, Nets star Kyrie Irving took a cortisone shot that enabled him to return and play three games in four nights. After playing spectacularly in a win over Atlanta, Irving played 32 minutes and 37 minutes in back-to-back losses to Utah and Philadelphia and came out of it none the worse for wear.

But instead of raising optimism about a Nets turnaround in the second half of the season, Irving’s comments after the loss to the 76ers seemed to raise new questions about his leadership role on his third NBA team.

In the aftermath of a frustrating fourth-quarter meltdown in which the Nets (18-22) managed only 16 points and Irving capped a tough 6-for-21 shooting night with a 1-for-7 effort in the final period, he seemed to question whether a Nets team he helped to assemble has what it takes to rise to championship caliber in the future.

After observing that many have called this a “bridge year” for the Nets while free-agent superstar Kevin Durant recovers from right Achilles tendon surgery, a reporter asked if the Nets need more to achieve Irving’s championship goals in the future.

“It’s transparent, it’s out there, it’s glaring in terms of the pieces that we need in order for us to be at that next level,” Irving said. “I’m going to continue to reiterate it. We’re going to do the best with the guys that we have within our locker room now, and we’ll worry about all that other stuff in terms of moving pieces and everything else as an organization down the line in the summer.”

Referring to the decision he and Durant and center DeAndre Jordan made as free agents to join the Nets, Irving added, “It’s just something that we signed up for. We knew what we were coming into in the beginning of the season. Guys were going down left and right for us — [Garrett Temple] is out, DJ got hurt tonight, Wilson [Chandler] is just coming back. We have complementary young guys as well that have done a great job for the last three years.”

Naming himself, Durant, Jordan, Temple, who also was recruited by Irving, and Nets core players Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, Irving said, “Collectively, I feel like we have great pieces, but obviously, it’s pretty glaring that we need one more piece or two more pieces that would complement myself, KD, DJ, GT, Spence, Caris and we’ll see how that evolves.”

Reaction to Irving’s comments was sharp and critical of him for supposedly throwing teammates under the bus. Some noted Irving’s omission of core players Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen, both of whom Irving has praised multiple times previously.

Given the impromptu nature of his postgame comments, it’s likely Irving simply was feeling some frustration with all the injuries the Nets are dealing with, including the dislocated finger Jordan suffered against the 76ers, the fact that Temple was unable to play and his own long-term recovery.

The big piece the Nets are missing is Durant, and Irving underlined that fact when asked for his goals for the remainder of the season.

“To just be healthy,” Irving said. “To be as healthy as possible. You never know what could happen for us as the season progresses. You’ve just got to take every day as an opportunity for you to lead these guys and do what you can.

“Like I said, it’s glaring that we’re missing a big piece here [Durant]. We all know that, but we can’t continue to make that excuse. We’ve got to go out there and compete, continue to lock in and just see where we end up.”

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