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Nets’ Kyrie Irving preparing for return, as the East gets tougher for struggling Sixers

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday evening the Atlantic Division got some seismic news. Brooklyn Nets superstar Kyrie Irving, who has been out all season long, is now preparing for a return to game action. Irving is not vaccinated for COVID so is not eligible to appear in home games in New York City.

But we got this first nugget from Shams Charania of The Athletic that something was changing:

That update left many of us wondering: how is Irving coming back? Is he changing his mind about the vaccine? Or is the team changing their minds about letting him play in road games?

Rewind. We first learned that the Duke product was not vaccinated back in September. By early October, the Nets’ braintrust decided they did not want to accommodate any “part-time players” by allowing him in road games. That’s why one of the league’s best players hasn’t played in a single game so far, and part of why the East has seen increased parity too.

The preseason favorite Nets took a major hit with this Irving situation. But their title odds will certainly increase now.

ESPN Insider Adrian Wojnarowkis reports that indeed, the Nets are changing their tune about the 2011 first overall pick’s status for road games:

According to Woj:

“The Brooklyn Nets are bringing back All-Star guard Kyrie Irving as a part-time player for games outside of New York, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

The unfolding circumstances of Brooklyn’s season — including injuries, players lost to health and safety protocols and an inordinate minutes load on their superstar players — led the team to this move, sources said.”

So there you have it. Pretty much every single Nets game, head coach Steve Nash has been asked about the minutes total his MVP candidate Kevin Durant has logged. Recall, Durant missed the 2020 season following an Achilles injury he suffered in the 2019 NBA finals against the Toronto Raptors. In the 2020-2021 season, his first full year back, KD only played in about half of the regular season games. It’s all a far cry from this season, where Slim Reaper is logging a staggering 37 minutes per game, the highest number since his MVP season in 2014, the second highest rate in the league today.

Before the contest against the Sixers, here was what coach Steve Nash had to say, something that feels more significant in hindsight.

“It’s a really important topic,” admitted Nash, regarding the minutes burden KD has taken on this season. “I don’t know if we can continue to lean on him the way we have. It doesn’t feel right.”

It sounds like that is the biggest reason Governor Joe Tsai and GM Sean Marks are allowing Kyrie back for away games, to lessen the toll on Durant and help push for a championship while he’s playing at this high of a level.

It’s pretty wild. Irving is not around the team purportedly, because he poses a threat to his fully vaccinated teammates and would be a distraction. Then the Nets get this full on outbreak where seven fully vaccinated players including James Harden are now out with COVID. That’s when they decide they’re shorthanded enough they want to bring Irving, not vaccinated back. What do you think about that logic? Does this present an opportunity for them to kinda sorta save face and say ‘we were worried about Irving infecting the team, well that happened anyway so that’s not our top concern now?’

It introduces some interesting concepts of organizational principles, public safety and epidemiology versus the responsibility a team has to support a superstar in his prime and gun for rings. What should fans want the most?

It seems as if the Nets are valuing the prime of one of the greatest players ever in Durant and saying “OK, we owe it to this dude and our fans to go for it.” If it were Joel Embiid in the situation Durant is in, carrying a shorthanded team with a superstar on the shelf and Embiid asked for the front office to let his teammate play would you feel differently?

Maybe the Nets would argue that their players having COVID now (Nash said they’re mostly asymptomatic so far) and being vaccinated, increases their immunity and decreases future risk, who knows?

From a basketball standpoint, it’s likely terrible news for the Sixers. The mere possibility that had existed of Irving missing the season, then leaving in unrestricted free agency opened the door for Philadelphia. You can bet Daryl Morey had until this moment rather enjoyed this unexpected leveling of the playing field atop the East during algorithmic machinations.

Had the Sixers swung a blockbuster for Ben Simmons, or even just returned Simmons to the lineup while Irving was out, that would have represented a big shift in the Sixers’ favor. As it stands now, the Sixers are still mired in a stalemate with their star and it’s the first place Nets who will vastly improve, further distancing themselves from a team they just beat 114-109 with a skeleton crew supporting Durant.

This would seem to decrease the already slim chances we see a Simmons for Irving swap. Unless... the Nets already have a deal for Simmons lined up and just want to showcase to Morey and Elton Brand that Kyrie is in decent enough shape before they fax the paper work. It may decrease the already slim chances James Harden gets a wandering eye next summer too.

Plenty to unpack. Morality, epidemiology, supporting star players, the landscape of the east... but for now, we’re penciling this in as not great news for the Sixers.