In Brooklyn, the Big 3 always made sense because of how often it would be reduced to a Big 2. Trading for James Harden was akin to acquiring insurance on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, whose long-term availability figured to be uncertain at best.
Durant was coming off a major Achilles injury and was on the other side of 30, while Irving was Irving — a visionary ballhandler with a history of injuries and big-picture concerns that weren’t always aligned with the base responsibilities of an NBA player. The Nets knew there would be days when Irving wouldn’t show up for work.
They had no idea there would be seasons when Irving wouldn’t show up for work.
But that’s where the Nets are as they open Season 2 of their own Neftlix drama in Milwaukee on Tuesday night, when the defending-champion Bucks will receive their rings in a pregame ceremony punctuated by the unveiling of the Bucks’ championship banner in the Fiserv Forum rafters. The Nets should stay out on the court and watch to recall just how much it hurt to lose to Milwaukee in Game 7 of the conference semis in Barclays Center, and just how badly they need to dodge that feeling this time around.
And then the Nets should go out and hammer the home team in an opener they treat with Game 8 urgency. That result would put the league on notice that the Durant-Harden pairing can beat anyone anywhere, and send a message to Irving that Brooklyn can win the whole thing with or without him.
Up front, understand that the Nets would prefer to try to win a title with a fully engaged Irving and his special talent for taking the ball to wherever he wants to take it on the floor. The league would prefer to see that, too.
“I hope that Kyrie, despite how strongly he feels about the vaccination, ultimately decides to get vaccinated,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Monday, “because I’d love to see him play basketball this season. And I’d love to see the Brooklyn Nets have their full complement of players on the court.”
But Irving opposes the New York law requiring vaccinations for indoor activities, and to date has declined to take the shots he needs to play 41 games in Brooklyn, and two more against the Knicks in the Garden. Faced with the prospect of suiting up Irving only on the road, or only in the cities that don’t adopt similar mandates during the season, the Nets made the decision they had to make. They decided against turning their title chase into a complete farce. They decided to tell Irving to take his ball and go home.
“I never wanted to give up my passion, my love, my dream over this mandate and what’s going on in this world,” he said in his Instagram Live broadcast last week. Of course, Irving doesn’t have to give up the job he loves. As he says that he is not anti-vaccine, he can take the shots, rejoin his teammates, and use his very public platform before and after games to speak out strongly against mandates. The media will report his comments just like it reported his comments last year on racism, systemic inequities and global conflict.
Irving can really have it both ways, as an eligible NBA player and passionate anti-mandate spokesman. It’s up to him to figure that out.
Meanwhile, with Irving potentially ready to sit the whole season, Brooklyn remains the betting favorite to win the championship. And why not? The Nets have a devastating backcourt force in Harden, who can run the point, and a surplus of complementary wise men in Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills and James Johnson.
Oh, and they have in Durant a ruthless titan who will likely finish his career just behind LeBron James and just ahead of Larry Bird on the all-time small forward list. Durant was a couple of inches away last year from dethroning the Bucks before they were even crowned, and from leading the Nets into the conference finals without Irving and with Harden going on one leg. His performance was a pretty powerful response to all that grief he took for winning those titles with the loaded Warriors.
Durant signed up to play with Irving in Brooklyn, but no, he doesn’t need him to win his third ring. “Our goal hasn’t changed,” said Nets coach Steve Nash.
So Tuesday night in Milwaukee offers a great opportunity for Nash’s team. After the Bucks’ pregame festivities, Durant and Harden can steal the show. They can announce to the league, and to Kyrie Irving, that no stubborn opponent or teammate will stop the Nets from booking their own ring-and-banner ceremony next fall.