The Nets Go As Kyrie Irving Goes

One month after Brooklyn acquired James Harden, it has become clear that the team will go as far as Irving takes it.
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Kyrie Irving is a microcosm of all the most alluring and bothersome qualities exhibited by the Nets. One month after the James Harden trade, it’s Irving’s own strengths and weaknesses that most embody the team’s. Every Nets game is chock full of majestic offense and myriad debilitating pratfalls on the other end. It’s messy and frustrating but hardly inconsistent.

Irving is who he is and does what he does; few stars have ever been more captivating while holding their own franchise captive. In this case, despite having two all-time stabilizing Hall of Fame talents onboard, Brooklyn’s on-court identity has been indistinguishable from its third All-Star, the one who most frequently turns basketball games into a brake-free joy ride.

How Irving’s dualism reflects and impacts the team’s style is fascinating. He is singular in countless ways, as are the Nets, who suffer through his lackadaisical lapses while being elevated by a pursuit of offensive excellence that appears to innovate on the fly. Irving has always been an artistic genius with the ball, but this season his shot-making is an E-ZPass glide into the 50/40/90 club, while averaging more than 27 points per game, a benchmark reached by just three other players in NBA history: Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Larry Bird (twice).

Much of that production comes from grueling dribble displays that liquefy the hardwood before melting the rim. Irving is shooting 56% on contested long twos; he’s never before made over 50% of them and is now more accurate than just about every player who takes at least two per game. If NASA could distill energy from shots like the one below they’d have no trouble powering daily trips to the moon.

He has one of the league’s highest effective field goal percentages among those who hoist five or more pull-up jumpers per game. In fourth quarters, he’s shooting 62.5% from deep off the bounce, a preposterous number. He’s eighth in offensive real plus-minus, has the highest true shooting percentage of his career by a wide margin, and Brooklyn’s offense boils water no matter who is out there cooking with him.

Irving is the closer, too. He takes a higher percentage of Brooklyn’s crunch-time shots than any of his teammates, leading Durant in this category by nearly 10 points, and is also the single biggest reason why the Nets are controlled chaos on the open floor, zipping up the court quicker than everybody else after they force a missed shot. (On opposing field goals missed at the rim, the Nets are more of a blur than any team in recent history by a very large margin.)

There’s essentially no way to stop him, even when Durant isn’t on the floor—Irving’s usage, true shooting and offensive rating all rise in those minutes. At the same time, even though Brooklyn has several candidates that could be argued as its worst defender, Irving’s issues on that end are the most intractable.

He ranks 429th in defensive real plus-minus and is continuing on a decade-long trend of contributing to teams that can’t stop anybody when he’s on the floor. (His only two seasons as part of a good defense were spent in Boston, but the Celtics were better on defense when he didn’t play.) Right now the Nets rank 27th in defensive rating and even though they aren’t statistically worse when Irving plays, some opponent shooting percentages that are way below average should tick up as the season goes on.

On any given possession, his approach wafts between ambivalent and overly propulsive, with effort that appears to serve a team-wide defense mechanism: So long as the Nets don’t try when the other team has the ball they can sell themselves on being able to flip a switch when games matter. It’s like when a student doesn’t fully understand the material, so instead of studying as much as they can for a final exam they opt out of preparing, just so when they do fail they can say it has nothing to do with their own intellect.

The Nets switch almost every ball screen because in most of their smaller lineups it makes sense. But sometimes too much of it can replace the more laborious characteristics inhabited by an effective defense. It’s easier than trailing over a screen and contesting a jumper from behind, or working in tandem with the screener’s man to force a ballhandler toward the sideline.

Irving’s most frustrating moments occur when he goes off script in a way his teammates aren’t ready for. Based on their reactions, some of his switches are entirely unprompted and hard to justify.

None of this is particularly new. Irving was notorious for it during his final playoff series with the Celtics. Here he is taking Giannis Antetokounmpo head on, directing Marcus Morris (Giannis’s man) to the weakside corner.

Stuff like this happens all the time. One of the oddest examples came recently against the Raptors.

The Nets are small here against a larger unit, but that doesn’t quite explain Irving’s decision to jump a switch by preemptively shoving Jeff Green off Pascal Siakam so he could gift wrap a mismatch for Toronto on the quarter’s final possession.

Not every case is as obvious, though. Sometimes he’ll just switch onto DeAndre Jordan’s man when Jordan thinks he’s supposed to drop back and protect the paint, giving up the sort of look they aren’t trying to surrender. Irving’s defense is filled with mistakes that have nothing to do with any physical limitations, too. We know this because when engaged, his quick hands and fast feet can be a nightmare to get around.

And then there are sequences like this one against the Heat, where Irving simply decided not to pick up Goran Dragic after the Nets made a basket despite having plenty of time to do so. Harden isn’t a model for defensive discipline, but even he can’t understand what’s going on.

Another quirk Irving has on the defensive end is he’ll communicate something to a teammate and then not follow through on what his own responsibility should be after delivering the instruction. So was the case in this example from the 2017 NBA Finals, where he tells LeBron James to cover Curry and then ... runs at Curry, allowing Durant a wide-open path to the basket (hat tip to Ben Falk and Gibson Pyper’s Learn Basketball course for highlighting this play).

On many counts, Irving will turn his back to the ball and then direct his teammates as a play unfolds, pointing out switches and directing traffic as if he has no direct role in physically getting the stop.

Plays like this make it so hard to celebrate the Nets’ unstoppable scoring options without being stressed about the (very avoidable!) damage they regularly inflict on themselves. Irving is the same way. They’re one in the same. And while Irving is not the Nets’ best scorer or least capable defender, his impulses often make both feel true. He doesn’t feel like one piece of a larger puzzle, either. Instead, Irving is his own scheme. And when he’s in the game, that scheme is wide enough to eclipse so much of what Brooklyn might otherwise look like.

Kyrie is the Nets. He’s their highs and their lows. Their best and worst. And one of this season’s most important, completely unpredictable subplots is whether, when push comes to shove, all that brilliance—the impossible shots and insatiable flourishes—can outweigh everything else.