It’s been just about a month since Kyrie Irving finally made his season debut for the Brooklyn Nets on January 5, where he scored 22 points in an eight-point win against the Indiana Pacers.
The seven-time NBA All-Star had missed the entire season up until that point in compliance with local New York laws that prevent him from playing in home games due to his unvaccinated status. The Nets did not want anything to do with a part-time player and initially barred Irving from appearing even in road games.
Their stance suddenly took an about face in late December when their roster was simultaneously struck by several injuries and a Covid-19 outbreak. This left them severely shorthanded, leading to Irving finally getting the green light to rejoin the team and participate in road games.
His first match back was a resounding success and Brooklyn was set to finally have their complete “Big 3” on the floor for the first time this season. Around that time, many around the NBA quipped that the Nets would start losing games on purpose in order to have Irving available for more games come playoff time.
It was a lighthearted comment, yet the circumstances around the team have changed so dramatically in January that this joke has actually become their reality.
Brooklyn led the Eastern Conference from the middle of November up until the end of December. They were tied with the Chicago Bulls for first place in the Eastern Conference at the end of 2021 with a 23-10 record before they proceeded to drop 12 of their next 18 games to kick off the new year.
They are now 29-22 and in the midst of a devastating six-game losing streak that has sent them tumbling down the standings. The Nets have slid to the sixth seed, giving them the last guaranteed postseason berth in the East. The rest of the pack is slowly closing in as well, as they have just a 1.5 game lead over the Charlotte Hornets while the resurgent Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are not far behind either.
More than anything else, their poor play during the past month has coincided with them missing the league’s leading scorer Kevin Durant. The 11-time NBA All-Star has been sidelined since suffering a sprained MCL three weeks ago and this team has been left scrambling to make up for his absence ever since. He is averaging 29.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.8 assists this season and was among the Most Valuable Player favorites before his extended break.
The variability of Irving’s availability has definitely hurt them too, since it prevents the team from building lasting momentum and chemistry given the inconsistent line-ups that they have to field.
Meanwhile, James Harden managed to single-handedly carry them from late December until early January as he rediscovered his form that won him the league’s MVP award in 2018. However, a right hand strain forced him to miss two games last week and he has looked like a shell of himself in the two games since his return.
With Durant out, Irving available only here and there, and Harden not playing at full strength, Brooklyn can no longer rely on outscoring their opponents. The grave limitations of their top-heavy roster, especially on defense, have now been thrust into the spotlight.
Their ineptitude as a group was on full display in their most recent 112-101 loss to the Sacramento Kings. While the feisty Kings have a couple of promising young prospects, they are far from juggernaut status and should be easily beatable for the Nets even when short-handed. Instead, eight Sacramento players scored at least nine points in a game that Brooklyn led until the Kings seized the lead for good with a strong third quarter run.
Starting center Nicolas Claxton broke out for his finest statistical game of the season with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks, although it was a rather hollow performance for the third-year center. The Kings’ frontline capitalized on his slight frame and overwhelmed him in the paint as they grabbed 15 offensive rebounds to the Nets’ 10 over the evening.
Harden and Irving both struggled from the field and the rest of their team was seemingly sapped of energy in the third contest of their five-game road trip.
During this stretch, it has become increasingly obvious that the roles that the veteran duo of Patty Mills and Blake Griffin have had to play on this team are far greater than what can be expected from them at this point in their careers. Griffin was actually already benched earlier this season and has only returned to their rotation due to LaMarcus Aldridge’s ankle injury.
Their role players James Johnson, Bruce Brown, and De’Andre Bembry have been solid, though expecting anything beyond their current level of production is a fool’s errand. Rookies Cam Thomas and Kessler Edwards have shown potential, but remain too raw to contribute to a theoretical title contender at this point in their careers.
The Nets are definitely one of the teams that will be looking forward to the All-Star break, and they’ll be hoping that the rest will allow them to come back and solidify their playoff position as they close out the season.