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Nets season preview: How will Steve Nash's team replace Kyrie Irving's production?

Head coach Steve Nash of the Nets instructs

Head coach Steve Nash of the Nets instructs his team against the Boston Celtics in the first half during Game 1 of the first round of the NBA playoffs at Barclays Center on Saturday, May 22, 2021. Credit: Steven Ryan

When training camp began, the Nets were the consensus favorite to win the 2022 NBA title, but now that Kyrie Irving has been subtracted from the equation and their "Big 3" has been reduced to the "Big 2" of Kevin Durant and James Harden, the Nets face one overriding question.

How do you replace a seven-time All-Star with the ballhandling and scoring skills possessed by Kyrie Irving? Because Irving admittedly is not vaccinated and therefore can’t play in New York under the local COVID-19 mandate, Nets owner Joe Tsai and general manager Sean Mark decided he can’t practice or play with the Nets until he is eligible for all games.

Their stunning decision spares the Nets from a cloud of uncertainty, but it also weakened their status as a title contender. "When you are losing somebody like Kyrie Irving, it’s hard on the fly to figure out where you are going to get that production from," Durant said. "Over time, we are going to start to figure out which guy is going to step up and fill that void of those minutes, those shots, those opportunities. I think we will do it as a collective."

Given the depth of veteran talent on their roster, the best option for coach Steve Nash is to assemble a committee to make up for Irving’s loss. "When you lose an exceptional talent like that, your roster is built in a certain way over the parameters of having three guys," Nash said. "So everyone has to slide up a spot, so to speak.

"We have to win with corporate knowledge, growth from last season, connectivity, team spirit and building those bonds that I think transfer on the court and off. Those are the things we’ll figure out as we go."

Last season, the Nets acquired Harden in a mid-January trade, and he was a revelation. He dialed back his scoring from an NBA-best 34.3 the previous season with the Rockets to 24.6 with the Nets and emphasized his playmaking with 10.9 assists per game.

But Nash and Durant agree Harden might have to return to filling up the scoring column to make up for Irving’s absence. Nash noted Harden still is coming back from the hamstring injury that sidelined him toward the end of the regular season and that recurred in the playoffs.

"I want him to be aggressive and score, but he’s still trying to get his legs back under him, get his rhythm, get his conditioning and get his feel for the game," Nash said. "It’s going to take time. He’s not going to be at his best early in the season, but he’s showing a little more burst, more ability to get downhill, and if he continues on that path, he’s going to be great."

Durant to suggested it’s possible Harden can maintain his playmaking along with his prolific scoring. "I think he’s going to have to do both," Durant said. "There are going to be nights where he is going to have to get 30. James is ready for anything, and he has been through everything in this league. Whatever you throw at him, he will be prepared."

Ultimately, Nash admitted the first half of the season will be spent experimenting with big lineups and small lineups. It’s possible Bruce Brown could replace Irving in the backcourt, or Joe Harris could slide from small forward to shooting guard. If Harris moves and Durant shifts to small forward, that leaves an opening for a big at power forward alongside center Blake Griffin.

Either LaMarcus Aldridge or Paul Millsap could start in the frontcourt in that case. The Nets also added veteran sixth man Patty Mills in the backcourt, and he figures to lead the second unit while possibly teaming with guard Jevon Carter, who was acquired in a trade.

Nash said the process of figuring out starting lineups and rotations "is going to take months." Meanwhile, Durant expects Irving’s shadow to loom over the Nets, but he’s hopeful circumstances might change.

"This is not the ideal situation coming into the season," Durant said. "But it’s out of our control . . When Ky is ready, I am sure he will talk to Joe and Sean and they’ll figure it out and tell us. Until then, we are going to keep grinding."

Season prediction

The Nets’ status as NBA favorites took a hit with loss of Kyrie Irving for medical protocols related to his unvaccinated status. They struggled in the preseason and will do well to finish third in much-improved Eastern Conference behind the defending NBA champion Bucks and the 76ers. Record: 49-33.

Greg Logan has covered the Nets for Newsday since 2016.

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