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Kyrie Irving’s full-time return makes the Nets a contender again

The Nets have a path to contention if Kyrie Irving is going to be fully available.

Brooklyn Nets v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Kyrie Irving has only been available for about 23 percent of the Brooklyn Nets’ games this year. His regular absence from the lineup is the biggest reason why his team went from the preseason title favorites to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break.

Irving’s infamous and ignorant refusal to get the Covid vaccine and New York City’s vaccine mandate for gyms (which includes its two NBA arenas) was the perfect storm to crack the Nets’ championship foundation. James Harden reportedly grew tired of Irving’s limited availability and demanded a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond replaced Harden, giving Brooklyn a roster that’s lighter on shot creation but perhaps more versatile on both ends of the floor.

If the Nets were going to re-emerged as a title threat this year, the first order of business was getting Irving available for every game. That’s seemingly on the brink of happening after NYC mayor Eric Adams announced the city’s vaccine mandate will soon be rolled back.

The Nets look nothing like the team that was projected to win it all at the start of the year, but Irving becoming a full-time player would give Brooklyn a puncher’s chance if a few other things fall into place. Yes, getting Durant healthy is paramount. He’s been out since Jan. 15 with a sprained MCL, and he’ll need to be in his top form — which might be the top form in the world — by playoff time. Simmons’ integration into the lineup is also vital, and that seems like a far taller order given that he hasn’t played a game this season.

If the Nets really do have Irving back for every game, though, there’s suddenly the outline of a team that can legitimately believe it can compete with any in the conference. Here’s why the Nets getting Kyrie back to regular playing status is so important.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have always killed it together

The biggest reason the Nets were considered the preseason favorites is because their offense was completely unstoppable with Durant, Irving, and Harden together on the floor, even though we barely saw it. Subtract Harden from that mix, and Brooklyn’s original superstar pairing of Kyrie and KD is still pretty damn good.

Nets lineups with Irving at point guard and KD at the four have only played 91 possessions this year, but they outscore opponents by more than 16 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Yes, KD and Irving have played all of three games together so far, so it’s not much to go off of, but there’s still a solid tracK record with the pairing. Last season, the Nets played nearly 900 possessions with Kyrie at point guard and KD at the four, and they were +11.6 in net rating over those minutes.

Irving doesn’t get enough credit for being extremely active off the ball, bending defenses with the threat of his movement shooting or finding creases to attack off the dribble. He’s been a lethal catch-and-shoot threat throughout his career — last year, he hit 43.4 percent of his spot-up threes on 3.1 attempts per game — which is a huge benefit for an offense with KD attracting so much defensive attention with the ball in his hands.

If Kyrie was only going to be available for road games, Durant would feel like the only shot creator on the team when the Nets were home. Kyrie’s full-time availability would mean Nash can stagger his stars to give every lineup shot creation, and play them together when he wants to super charge the offense at the end of games.

Ben Simmons unlocks some super versatile lineup combinations

It’s fair to say that Simmons brings more questions than answers as he arrives to the Nets, but the best case scenario with his introduction to the lineup is tantalizing. Simmons is a serious talent as a 6’11, 240-pound forward who has been an All-Star in three of his four seasons. It’s easy to forget after his playoff meltdown against the Hawks, but Simmons finished second in Defensive Player of the Year last year by using his quickness and agility to put a lock on perimeter offensive players while also holding up inside because of his tremendous size.

It’s a big ask to expect Simmons to be the best version of himself in the playoffs after he didn’t play all season, but the Nets will have a ton of versatility if he can do it. Simmons allows Nash to play super small with him and KD at the four and the five, or they can slide both stars down a position and insert a center. We like the idea of pairing Nicolas Claxton’s outlier quickness and length with KD and Simmons, and then playing two smaller shooters.

Speaking of those smaller shooters: it’s damn hard to build a good playoff defense with Kyrie, Curry, and Patty Mills as your backcourt options, but Simmons’ ridiculous ground coverage (and KD’s length) makes groupings with those guards together more palatable.

Do not forget that Simmons is a damn buzzsaw on defense when he’s fully engaged:

Simmons should be more comfortable on offense in the dunker’s spot with KD, Irving, and another knockdown shooter on the perimeter like Curry, Mills, or Joe Harris. Defensively, he covers up a lot of the holes those lineups would otherwise have. Nash said he believed Simmons’ best ball was in front of him when the Nets acquired him, and that makes sense for a 25-year-old. If Simmons can be even better than he’s been in the past, even with the glaring holes in his game, Brooklyn could really have the start of something big.

The Nets arguably had a worse roster last year, and still gave the Bucks hell in the playoffs

If you’re buying into the Nets as a title contender, you’re buying into Durant’s ability to get back to his peak level, and for that level to be as high or higher than any player alive. While I’d argue Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic are the two best players in the world right now, Durant’s absolute peak gives him the ability to compete on that level. He proved it in last year’s playoffs, when KD almost dragged the Nets past the eventual champion Bucks despite Irving and Harden out or limited by injuries for basically the entire series.

Durant had multiple instant classic performances in the second round of the playoffs last year. In Game 5, he dropped 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, and five stocks (steals+blocks) while playing every second of the game. In Game 7, he dropped 48 points in 53 minutes (again not coming off the floor), and gave a toe-on-the-line away from pushing Brooklyn onto the next round.

There have always been so many ifs since KD and Kyrie signed in Brooklyn. The Harden experiment brought the promise of a historic offensive ceiling, and now it’s over without anyone truly knowing its full potential. Even as Harden exits, Brooklyn still has enough talent to compete for a Finals appearance if several swing factors swing their way.

Kyrie’s playing status was perhaps the flimsiest of any swing factor. Now it looks like he’ll be back in the lineup full-time soon. As he returns, so do the Nets’ postseason hopes.