When it became clear two months ago that Kyrie Irving would not comply with the New York City vaccine mandate and therefore only would be eligible to play in games outside the city, general manager Sean Marks said he and owner Joe Tsai decided Irving could not practice or play any games with the Nets because they were "not looking for partners who are going to be part-time."
The Nets committed to that philosophy for two months and then pivoted abruptly on Friday when they announced Irving could return as a part-time player to a team torn apart by injuries and positive COVID-19 tests.
Explaining the change in philosophy in a Saturday night media interview, Marks said, "Everyone knows they’re here to win basketball games. We’re sitting here faced with a roster that has been decimated over the course of the last several days, and I’m forced to make decisions … In essence, this is the best decision for this team at this juncture right now with what we’re dealing with."
When the Nets announced Irving’s return on Friday, they had seven players out because of NBA health and safety protocols, including James Harden. As if to underline the gravity of the situation the Nets had two more players enter the health and safety protocols earlier Saturday – MVP candidate Kevin Durant and Irving himself. Rookie Day’Ron Sharpe became the tenth Saturday night.
Like the seven before them, Durant and Irving either tested positive for COVID-19 or returned an inconclusive test. Because Irving remains unvaccinated, he also could have entered as a result of contact tracing. That means Durant, who leads the NBA in scoring with a 29.7 average, and Irving likely will be out for a 10-day quarantine period unless they return two negative COVID tests 24 hours apart before it ends.
The repercussions are far-reaching. Durant now is expected to miss six games, starting with the Nets game against the Magic Saturday night at Barclays Center and including a three-game West Coast trip that begins Thursday in Portland before moving to Los Angeles for a Christmas Day encounter with the Lakers followed by a Dec. 27 date with the Clippers.
The Portland game originally figured to be the first for which Irving is eligible. Now, he likely will miss the entire three-game trip. The Nets play seven of their next nine at home. The two road games are Jan. 5 at Indiana and Jan. 12 at Chicago, meaning Irving will be eligible to play just two of the first 15 games after his reinstatement.
Asked if that haphazard schedule underscored the Nets’ original concerns about a part-time player, Marks said, "Well, I’m not sure when there’s a great time to integrate somebody new. The good thing is Kyrie knows our guys. In order for him to be able to practice with us, get back in the swing of things, there’s obviously going to be a ramp up.
"We have not seen him on the court, so I can’t tell you what physical shape he looks like. But this gives him an opportunity to be around our guys and to continue working on team chemistry even though it’s going to be in practice. I really don’t want to talk about the hypotheticals of when and if he can come back because there’s a lot of things pending on the status for him."
Prior to Irving’s return, reports surfaced that Durant and Harden were eager to have him join the team, and Marks acknowledged as much. "This one, a hundred percent we talked to our players," Marks said. "We never make a decision without the players being aware of what’s coming down the pipeline. Everybody was on board with the decision, and they understand the set of circumstances that we’re facing here. I hate to say this, but it’s almost like we’ve gone back to six months or a year ago, unfortunately, with the cases rising."
Nets coach Steve Nash said he’s "excited" to welcome Irving back. "He’s an incredible player no matter what capacity we incorporate him in," Nash said. "It’s a positive. We first took the decision not to have him with us for continuity at the onset of the season. Frankly, continuity has been thrown out the window with COVID and injuries. We’re putting a lot of extra strain on our guys. He can help us with his talent … as we continue to face different adversities."