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Irving, who was suspended this month for at least five games after he refused to disavow an antisemitic film he shared on his social media accounts, missed his sixth straight game, a 116-103 road loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nets declined to provide specifics on Irving’s exile: Coach Jacque Vaughn said Saturday he had “no update or timetable at all,” while team owner Joe Tsai told the New York Post that Irving, who apologized on Instagram following his suspension, still must “show people that he’s sorry.”
When the Nets banished Irving because they concluded that he was “currently unfit to be associated” with the organization, they gave themselves an extended opportunity to see how the team might function without him. The early answer: mostly swimmingly but with continued cause for concern.
Brooklyn has gone 4-2 without Irving thanks to more energetic defense, better ball movement and some sound rotation tweaks from Vaughn, who stepped in after the Nets parted ways with Steve Nash following a 2-5 start. Sunday’s loss to the Lakers, though, was a reminder that ongoing health questions around Ben Simmons, Joe Harris and Seth Curry leave the Nets overly dependent on Kevin Durant to carry what has been an unspectacular offense.
During Irving’s eight appearances, Brooklyn ranked 20th in offense, 27th in defense and 27th in point differential. Since his suspension, the Nets rank 11th in offense, first in defense and first in point differential, albeit against a fairly weak schedule and in a small sample size. But a team that was lethargic and aimless early in the season has cranked up its focus and togetherness, thereby pushing back against the notion that the front office should trade Durant and tear down the roster.
“The mentality behind the defense [has changed],” Vaughn said after a 110-95 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday. “You see everyone participating every single play. There’s not too many plays where a shot isn’t contested, we don’t run back or we don’t box out. You see plays over and over where we’re covering for each other.”
Vaughn, 47, deserves credit for his role in guiding this turnaround. Nash, a former star, was hired to cater to Brooklyn’s stars. By contrast, Vaughn has sought to use his varied experiences as a college standout and NBA backup to form bonds up and down the roster.
The new coach’s first major test was how to handle Simmons, who has been a shell of himself this season. Nash started Simmons and played him heavy minutes, even as it became clear that the three-time all-star was badly compromising Brooklyn’s spacing and getting into constant foul trouble. In a savvy and gutsy move, Vaughn has dumped Simmons, the 2016 No. 1 pick earning $35.4 million this season, to the bench and slashed his playing time.
That decision has actually taken pressure off Simmons, who now often functions as a center surrounded by four shooters in small-ball lineups. This grouping sacrifices size, but it enables Simmons to focus on what he does well: passing, defending multiple positions and making effort plays. Importantly, less Simmons has translated to more room for Durant — who is averaging 30.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists this season — and the starters to operate.
Brooklyn also has benefited from greater contributions from Harris and Curry, shooting-minded guards who have helped pick up the slack after battling ankle injuries. Harris has played off Durant for multiple years, and Curry gives the Nets a conventional sixth man capable of initiating offense and scoring in bunches. Unheralded guard Edmond Sumner has been another pleasant surprise.
“We’re going to have to be one of those teams that on any given night somebody else has to step up and make huge plays for us,” Durant said. “Obviously, we’re missing [Irving], so we’re going to look for where those points are going to come from, and guys are doing it as a group.”
The Nets couldn’t find that secondary source of offensive juice against the Lakers; Durant dealt with pressure defense for most of the night and his teammates shot a combined 5 for 24 (20.8 percent) from deep. Simmons was a late scratch with knee soreness, Curry rested on the second night of a back-to-back, and center Nic Claxton suffered an eye injury. Those absences stretched the Nets’ depth past the breaking point, and their thin front line had no answers for Anthony Davis, who finished with a season-high 37 points and 18 rebounds.
Brooklyn’s weekend in Los Angeles therefore revealed both sides of the Irving dilemma. When things are going well, such as in Saturday’s convincing win, it’s possible to imagine the Nets landing a playoff spot without Irving. During tougher times, such as in Sunday’s shorthanded loss, Durant looks like a superstar stripped of his sidekick and Brooklyn appears too rickety to take seriously.
The case to move on from Irving, who will be a free agent next summer, is straightforward: He missed most of last season because he refused to get vaccinated, then performed poorly in last year’s playoffs and sought a trade over the summer. Tsai said last week he wanted to “put the joy back in basketball,” an impossible goal unless Irving’s constant distractions are eliminated.
But waiving Irving, trading him or sending him home without crafting a better alternative would further complicate the Nets’ relationship with Durant, who said last week he wished the organization “could have just kept playing basketball and kept quiet” during the recent controversy. Brooklyn faced a similar issue last season during Irving’s vaccination ordeal and ultimately relented by allowing him to come back on a part-time basis. Durant, ever loyal to Irving, made it clear Saturday he expects his partner back again.
“His spirits [are] high,” Durant said. “He’s looking forward to playing again. You know [Irving]; he’s a gamer. He loves to play. Hopefully all this stuff is over with and we can move past it and get him back on the floor soon.”
Tsai sat courtside Saturday, standing and cheering throughout the fourth quarter. The merry scene was a far cry from Irving’s recent spats with the media, General Manager Sean Marks’s unsteady news conference following Irving’s comments and Tsai’s scolding Twitter posts about Irving. Brooklyn, for once, looked like a normal team rather than a nonstop public relations disaster.
Unfortunately, the unresolved tension surrounding Irving’s fate hasn’t gone anywhere, even if it was momentarily buried beneath the surface. The Nets appear damned if they welcome Irving back and damned if they don’t, which might explain why their verdict is taking so long.