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Kyrie Irving Could Guarantee a Nets Title Run—or Derail One

The Nets star refused to discuss his vaccination status during media day, calling it a personal matter.

From the player who brought you a bizarre feud with LeBron James and a dysfunctional final year in Boston, Kyrie Irving Productions brings you this: Unvaccinated, the story of how one player could derail Brooklyn’s championship season.

Irving wasn’t present at the Nets’ media day Monday. Not physically, anyway. New York laws prevent unvaccinated individuals from entering certain buildings. The Barclays Center is one of them. Two hours into group interviews, long after Kevin Durant and James Harden had left the dais, Irving popped up on a screen, Zooming in from his home in New Jersey.

Irving was asked: Did he plan to get vaccinated?

“I like to keep that stuff private,” Irving said. “I’m a human being first. Obviously living in this public sphere, there’s a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world of Kyrie, and I think I would love to keep that private and handle it the right way with my team and go forward together with a plan. Obviously I’m not able to be present there today, but that doesn’t mean I’m putting any limits on the future for me being able to join the team.”

Later, Irving was asked whether he expects to play in home games this season.

“Again, I would like to keep all that private,” Irving said. “Please just respect my privacy. All the questions kind of leading into what’s happening, please, everything will be released at a due date once we get this cleared up. As of right now, please respect my privacy.”

Look—medical decisions are personal. And often should be private. But this is different. Unless the law changes, an unvaccinated player for a New York team, like Irving, will not be eligible to play indoors. That means Irving cannot play in Brooklyn’s 41 home games. He would presumably also be ineligible for the two games the Nets play at Madison Square Garden. An All-Star point guard could miss more than half the season.

These aren’t medical questions.

They are basketball questions.

And Irving owes everyone answers.

Monday should have been a good day in Brooklyn. The Nets are loaded. Kevin Durant, two years removed from a torn Achilles, is the best player in the NBA again. James Harden, a volume scorer over eight-plus seasons in Houston, seamlessly slipped into a playmaker role last season. The trio of Durant, Harden and Irving is the most dynamic combination since Durant paired with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State—maybe better. Blake Griffin returned, LaMarcus Aldridge is back after a heart issue forced a brief retirement before the playoffs last season, Paul Millsap and Patty Mills have hopped onboard while Bruce Brown and Cam Thomas bring a little youth and energy off the bench.

With Irving, Brooklyn is a favorite to win a title.

Without him … who knows?

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Teammates didn’t look comfortable discussing Irving’s status Monday. “I expect it [not to be an issue],” said Durant. “That’s on Kyrie. That’s his personal decision. What he does is not on us to speculate on what may happen. But we trust in Kyrie. I expect us to have our whole team at some point.” Harden said less, suggesting reporters bring it up with Irving, adding, “Obviously, Kyrie is a huge part of what we do.”

Indeed. On the court, Irving remains a terror. He averaged 27 points in 54 games last season. He shot a career-best 50.6% from the floor. He eclipsed 40% from three for the fourth time in his last five seasons. Irving played just 202 minutes over eight games with Durant and Harden, but in that time the Nets posted an offensive rating of 119.6, outscoring opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions during that stretch.

Last season, Harden warned of “scary hours” for the rest of the league.

This season?

“It’s even scarier,” Harden said.

That depends on Irving. The Nets don’t need Irving. Durant, Harden and Brooklyn’s depth alone makes them arguably the top team in the conference. And remember—without Irving, Brooklyn was a Durant toe on the three-point line away from sending Milwaukee home in the second round.

But Irving can’t be a distraction. He can’t play in half the games this season. He can’t force his teammates to talk about him every day. Irving knows it. “The last thing I wanted to create was more hoopla and more distractions,” Irving said. But he has. The question is—what is he going to do about it?

Last week, Nets GM Sean Marks said he didn’t expect New York’s vaccine law to be “any sort of hindrance” to the team. “We feel confident that in the following several days before camp, everybody will be allowed to participate and participate fully.” But camp is here. And Irving is not. The Nets will head to San Diego for the first week before playing an exhibition game in Los Angeles on Sunday. (Irving is expected to join the team then, according to ESPN.) On Oct. 8, they will play the Bucks at the Barclays Center. If Irving is vaccinated, he will play. If he isn’t, he can’t.

More than 90% of NBA players are vaccinated. But the ones that aren’t appear dug in. Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors forward who is in the same situation Irving is due to San Francisco’s vaccination laws, was recently denied a religious exemption. Bradley Beal, who lost out on an opportunity to play for USA Basketball last summer because of COVID-19, said he remains unvaccinated. “I would ask the question to those who are getting vaccinated,” Beal said, “why are you still getting COVID?”

Ugh.

Privately, some team and league officials have expressed optimism Irving will get vaccinated. But this is Irving. He has been a flat-Earther and a JFK conspiracy theorist who has parroted the theory that the CIA attempted to kill Bob Marley. You would think a $35 million salary and a chance to win a championship would be enough for Irving to get a jab of a vaccine billions have safely received. But no one really knows how far Irving will take this.

If he gets vaccinated, this story is vapor. The focus will return to the Nets, on a potentially historically good offense, on a team that could bring the superteam era roaring back. If he doesn’t, it’s a disaster. Irving is virtually untradeable. Utilizing him in only road games seems untenable. Keeping the focus on basketball would appear impossible. Irving could help begin a championship era in Brooklyn. Or he could stall one before it starts.

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