The Brooklyn Nets may soon have their big three back together. Kyrie Irving, who has not played this season due to his unvaccinated status, has started the process to return to the Nets, the team announced on Friday. Irving does not plan to get vaccinated, which means he will return as a part-time player, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
At this point, it is unclear when Irving will get back on the court. The Nets will need to assess his fitness level, and he’ll have to go through the health and safety protocols, which include extensive COVID-19 testing. And once he’s been cleared he’ll then only be allowed to play on the road due to New York City’s vaccine mandate.
In any case, the key fact here is that with a roster in disarray due to injuries and COVID, and the season not going quite as smoothly as they’d hoped, the Nets have backed off from their stance that Irving would not be allowed to participate as a part-time player. He will, at some point, play basketball this season.
As Irving makes his way back, here’s everything you need to know:
Why has Irving not played this season?
Irving has chosen not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, a decision he attempted to explain in an Instagram video back in October.
“It’s reality that, you know, in order to be in New York City, in order to be on a team, I have to be vaccinated,” Irving said. “I chose to be unvaccinated, and that was my choice. And I would ask y’all just to respect that choice, and I am gonna just continue to stay in shape, be ready to play, be ready to rock out with my teammates, and just be part of this whole thing.”
“And no I’m not retiring and no I’m not leaving this game like this,” Irving continued. “There’s still so much more work to do and there’s still so many other youngins to inspire. Because I know they want to be better than me. And I can’t wait to play against all y’all on this stage.”
While the NBA does not have a vaccine mandate, New York City does, as does Toronto. Until he receives at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Irving is not allowed to play in games at Barclays Center, the Nets’ home arena, or in their remaining road game against the Raptors. He is allowed to practice with the team at their training facility, and under the NBA’s rules, he can still play in road games.
Up until this point, however, the Nets had decided that in order to maintain continuity and avoid distractions, they were not going to allow Irving to participate as a part-time player. Now, they have changed their mind.
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Why did the Nets change their mind?
When it became clear that Irving was not going to get the vaccine, the Nets made the difficult and rather brave decision to send Irving home. “We’re not looking for partners that are going to be half-time,” Nets GM Sean Marks said. But it’s one thing to say that in the beginning, and it’s another to actually follow through for an entire season — especially once the circumstances change.
One of the primary reasons for the Nets’ initial decision with Irving was to preserve continuity. But as a result of injuries and players entering the health and safety protocols, they haven’t found any in the first place. Patty Mills is the only player on the roster to appear in all 29 games this season, their injury report heading into Saturday night features a whopping 13 players including Irving.
In addition, the Nets likely figured that with Kevin Durant and James Harden, they would still be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and could cruise through the regular season without Irving. While they are currently the No. 1 seed in the East at 21-8, it hasn’t been easy due to Irving’s absence, Harden’s slow start and their various injury problems.
As a result, they’ve changed course and decided to use Irving on a part-time basis after all. Below is the team’s statement on the matter:
“After discussions with our coaches, players and staff, the organization has decided to have Kyrie Irving re-join the team for games and practices in which he is eligible to participate. We have arrived at this decision with the full support of our players and after careful consideration of our current circumstances, including players missing games due to injuries and health and safety protocols.”
“We believe that the addition of Kyrie will not only make us a better team but allow us to more optimally balance the physical demand on the entire roster. We look forward to Kyrie’s return to the lineup, as well as getting our entire roster back together on the court.”
When will Irving make his season debut?
Now that Irving is in the league’s health and safety protocols, the latest he could return would be Dec. 28, which would be 10 days from his initial positive COVID-19 test. If he were to return two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests, then he would be allowed to return to the team sooner. Before entering the league’s protocols, Irving was expected to undergo five days of consecutive testing before rejoining the team, but once he returned a positive or inconclusive test, it automatically landed him in protocols. Irving can now either wait the full 10 days to return, or return sooner after registering two negative tests on consecutive days.
Beyond that, the Nets will have to assess Irving’s conditioning level. While he’s surely been working out and staying in shape on his own, there’s a big difference between individual workouts and being in game shape, and the last time Irving suited up for an NBA game was Game 4 of the Nets’ second-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks in June.
We also know that Irving will only be allowed to play in road games in the United States, and only certain road games at that. For example, he cannot play against the New York Knicks due to the city’s mandate, and he also cannot play against the Toronto Raptors. Unvaccinated players will be prohibited from traveling to Canada starting on Jan. 1.
All of that makes it difficult to predict exactly when Irving might be on the court again. The Nets have a three-game road trip starting on Dec. 23, and if he were to return two negative tests he could make a season debut on the first game of that road trip against the Portland Trail Blazers. After they return, the Nets will have just two road games — Jan. 5 vs. the Indiana Pacers and Jan. 12 vs. the Chicago Bulls — over the first two weeks of January.