The Brooklyn Nets are bringing guard Kyrie Irving back into the fold because "the overall environment has changed, as we all know, drastically," general manager Sean Marks said Saturday, as COVID-19 case counts surge because of the Omicron variant. The unvaccinated Irving had been shelved since Oct. 12 and remains ineligible to play in home games, per New York City regulations.
"Several months ago, we made a decision that was based around what was best for the team," Marks said. "What was best for the team at that point was continuity. And I think we all see that continuity right now over the course of the last week and whatever the future looks like may be out of the window for a while, and we're going to navigate that as best we can."
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Ten Nets players are in the league's health and safety protocols, including Irving himself. With two players injured, Brooklyn will have only the league-mandated minimum of eight players available for its game against the Orlando Magic on Saturday: Veterans Patty Mills and Blake Griffin, plus three rookies (Cameron Thomas, Kessler Edwards and David Duke.) and three players on 10-day contracts, signed using hardship exceptions ((Langston Galloway, Shaquille Harrison and James Ennis III). In this context, the Nets decided that having Irving around for practices and road games -- after he clears protocols, and not including games against the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors -- is preferable to not having him around at all.
"At the end of the day, we're sitting here faced with a roster that has been decimated over the course of the last several days," Marks said. "And I'm forced to make decisions, and I don't make those decisions by myself -- we collaborate, like I mentioned before -- but in essence, this is the best decision for this team at this juncture right now, with what we're dealing with."
Marks said that "COVID has done a number on the team and on society in general," and that Irving's part-time presence would help them with "managing our overall player load." Kevin Durant has averaged 37 minutes this season with a 31.4 percent usage rate, and Mills was reactivated for the Magic game a day after the team announced that he would rest.
Brooklyn coach Steve Nash described Irving as "an unused resource" that the team can "lean on to help us navigate the season and patch this thing together as we continue to face different adversities." Marks said that "the workload for our players has been immense" and "unforeseen circumstances" led to the team reversing its initial decision.
"I'm excited to have Kyrie back," Nash said. "Obviously, he's an incredible player. No matter what capacity we incorporate him in, it's a positive for our group. And knowing that we first struck the decision not to have him with us for continuity at the onset of a season, and, frankly, continuity has been thrown out the window with COVID and injuries and whatnot, I think it's important for us to use all the resources we have to navigate the season. And we're putting an extra strain on a lot of our guys."
Marks declined to address when Irving specifically might be able to practice or play again.
"There's obviously going to be a ramp-up," he said. "We have not seen him on the court, so I couldn't tell you what physical shape he looks like. I assume he looks pretty decent."
On the subject of Irving potentially getting vaccinated and rejoining the team full-time, Marks said: "I have not talked to Kyrie about vaccination status."
Neither Marks nor Nash directly answered questions about the possibility of Irving remaining a part-time player during the playoffs.
"Down the road, I don't know what we're dealing with," Nash said. "I don't know what the protocols will be. I don't know what the league will look like, the world will look like. The playoffs is so far off. I think we just cross the first bridge of getting Kyrie back incorporated into this group."
Sixty-seven days after saying that the Nets were "not looking for partners that are going to be half-time," Marks said they're trying to "be as flexible as we can during this moment in time" and will embrace Irving upon his return.
"Everybody was on board with the decision that's being made," Marks said.