Despite Kyrie Irving's thrilling return, history has proven his presence doesn't translate into team success
Irving shined in his long-awaited return to the Brooklyn Nets, but how long will it last?
The excitement was palpable. Kyrie Irving was back and he was balling. In his on Sunday night, the Nets' star point guard dropped 21 points in 20 minutes on an uber-efficient 10-of-11 shooting, a dazzling performance that helped his squad beat the Atlanta Hawks, 108-86.
Media raved. Nets fans crowed. The chatter about Irving's seamless return and certain excellence nudged its way into the NBA's echo chamber.
But here's the truth behind the gleam of that game and Irving's impressive night: Sometimes in basketball -- and, perhaps more to the point, with Irving himself -- the things that shine the brightest lack, behind the luster, what's truly essential.
Irving, in many ways, is a riddle: NBA champion, prodigious talent, shot maker, scorer, clutch performer, flat-earther, magician with a basketball, locker room disruptor, All-Star, teammate, friend, enigma. The answer to what all this adds up to will go far in determining whether or not in the years ahead the Nets are bound for championship contention or the special purgatory of those teams that captivate and win during the regular season only to fall short come the playoffs.
There is more at play here, of course, in what transpires for Brooklyn than just Kyrie. The Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving duo that became an Eastern Conference fulcrum will not take shape until next season, when Durant returns from his Achilles injury. The Nets' front office is very well run. Their coaching staff formidable. But Irving's season to date, and the history that brought him to Brooklyn, offer some clues that all may not be smooth sailing.
His limited Nets season has been bookended by two statistical feats that paint the picture of Kyrie the would-be savior. Fifty points in the season opener, way back in October, and those 21 points in a nearly-perfect statistical return from a nagging right shoulder injury Sunday night. But let's look closer.
That 50-point Nets debut came in an overtime loss to a Timberwolves team that, with the benefit of hindsight, is again a very beatable basketball team. Sunday's win came against an Atlanta Hawks squad that arrived in the Big Apple with the NBA's worst record and an injured Trae Young who did not play.
A loss, and then a win that isn't exactly the stuff of mettle and struggle.
In the world of NBA gossip and water-cooler talk, Irving is something of a cipher for the person with whom you're talking. Having run my view that Irving has been a clear net negative in almost any NBA situation in which he's competed without LeBron James as his teammate, two GMs gave me two very, very different answers that reflect the divergent views:
Let's go back in time, to a less informed time, to make the point: You can believe your eyes and the overwhelming view of the day, and find yourself thinking the world is flat. But sometimes, to be correct, you need some perspective, some distance, and a willingness to ignore the crowd's groupthink -- to see that the world is, in fact, actually quite round. Or that Kyrie may not be the sure-thing star Brooklyn requires.
Just like Boston needed before them. Just like Cleveland had, before Irving bolted from a championship contender and winner to be the man elsewhere, only not to be.
History does, in fact, sometimes repeat itself. Including in the NBA.
Bill Parcells used to say that people tell you who they are, so listen. Irving has told us. He can hit huge shots, outduel a two-time MVP, put a permanent stain on a 73-win team and dazzle with a level of basketball beauty that borders on art. But outside of LeBron James' complicated but winning world, it hasn't amounted to much.
Consider: The Nets sit at 18-20, seventh in the Eastern Conference and good for a .474 winning percentage, with the Utah Jazz up next on Wednesday night. But Kyrie's effect on the team has made them worse, albeit in a small sample size. In the 12 Nets games he's played in, his team is 5-7, a .416 winning percentage. They're 13-13 this season without him.
And those games with Irving weren't exactly a Murderers' Row of opponents. Eight of the teams Irving laced up against this season are sub-.500 squads. Throw in the fact that last year's Nets team won 42 games and made the playoffs sans Irving, and it's hard to see the positive impact he's made.
Beautiful things can be deceiving, and the siren song of the way Irving plays when he dazzles as he did Sunday can be overpowering. But let's stick with some facts.
Before Irving arrived in Boston, the Celtics made their way to the Eastern Conference finals, only to fall to Irving's Cavs. In 2018, with Irving a Celtic but injured for the playoff run, the Celtics again made the Eastern Conference finals, again against the Cavs, this time pushing that series to seven games before coming up short.
So last year had to be the season for Boston, with a battle-tested roster getting a superstar who'd already won an NBA championship and had time with the team. As with the Nets now, the Celtics saw in Irving the catalyst to push them over that line. We know how that story ended. Irving playing, and Boston falling to Milwaukee in the second round.
Which brings us back to Irving's net-negative impact on this year's Nets team. Small sample size, you may say. But his Celtics story -- and the pattern it paints -- suggests Irving is not the difference-maker many think.
Some fast facts on the Celtics' record with and without Kyrie during his time in Boston:
|2017-18 Regular Season||Record|
Celtics' overall record
Celtics with Kyrie
Celtics without Kyrie
So the Celtics were marginally better when Irving played his first year in Boston but, as we mentioned and as they did the year before, were able to make the Eastern Conference finals without him (Irving was injured). In Year Two in Boston, as Irving's place in the locker room became more divisive, his impact on the court also became more of a distraction than an advantage.
|2018-19 Regular Season||Record|
Celtics' overall record
Celtics with Kyrie
Celtics without Kyrie
When Irving did play, even the frequency with which he shot the ball had an impact. In his final regular season in Boston, the Celtics were just 11-15 (.423) when Irving shot 20 or more times and 28-12 (.700) when he took fewer than 20 attempts. Diving deeper, they were 15-6 (.714) when he shot 15 or fewer times and 4-2 (.667) with 10 or fewer shots.
There's more, but the point is the same. Since exiting Cleveland to lead a team himself, Irving's leadership and presence have largely been a detriment. And the argument that a shotmaker and transcendent talent like Irving is both a requirement for postseason upside and worth whatever peculiarities one brings to the table were demonstrably not true for Irving in Boston.
Yes, he's talented. Yes, a Nets team or a Celtics team without a superstar is unlikely to win an NBA championship, or so goes the conventional wisdom. And yes, a host of other factors both past and future -- the rise of the Bucks and the 76ers last season, Durant's eventual return next season and any lessons or growth Irving has taken from his two years with the Celtics or will learn this season -- may end up mattering significantly.
Time will certainly tell, and I for one would love to see Irving and Durant turn Brooklyn into a center of the NBA universe.
But one other thing is also true.
All that glitter isn't gold. And Irving, as bright as he and his talents can shine, may not translate on the court into the ultimate currency: playoff wins without LeBron James at his side.
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