The Brooklyn Nets entered the 2021-22 NBA season as the team to beat according to DraftKings Sportsbook. The Nets held the best title odds at +200, as well as the best odds to win the Eastern conference at +100. This was the conventional thinking after the Nets took the eventual 2020-21 champions Milwaukee Bucks to seven games with Kevin Durant and a hobbled James Harden.
What oddsmakers, fans and the Nets couldn’t have foreseen was a New York City COVID-19 vaccine mandate sidelining one of their top players, who now happens to be their most polarizing. Kyrie Irving remained a staunch opponent to the vaccine, which prevented him from playing in the team’s home games and road games at Madison Square Garden. As a result, the Nets said Irving would not be able to participate as a part-time player and his future with the team looked to be in jeopardy after it pulled a contract extension for him.
Fast forward to the end of the 2021 calendar year and Irving is back on the team as a part-time player, something the Nets vehemently opposed early on. COVID protocols and injuries have ripped through the roster to the point where the Nets were willing to cave to their star point guard, who has shown no indication he will take the vaccine. Irving entered the league’s protocols shortly after being given the green light to return, and is now reportedly still a few weeks away from returning.
If we ignore the drama for a second and focus strictly on basketball, the Nets haven’t really missed Irving. They are 23-9 and sit atop the Eastern conference. Durant is averaging 29.7 points per game on 52/38/88 shooting splits, while James Harden has recovered from his slow start to post 22.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game. Joe Harris, a 46.6 percent three-point shooter, should come back from his injury soon. Brooklyn is still the odds-on favorite to win the East (+130) and the NBA championship (+245). That brings up the big question; is Irving worth bringing back for the Nets?
The earliest Irving can return to the court is January 5 against the Indiana Pacers. Assuming the guard takes two weeks to come back, he’d likely be targeting a return to the court against the Chicago Bulls on January 12. Assuming Irving does not take the vaccine, he’d be eligible to play in 20 games for the rest of the season as he cannot play the two games against the New York Knicks at MSG. If the Nets remain the No. 1 seed, Irving would only be able to potentially play in three games out of a seven-game series. He would not be able to play in a home Game 7, like the Nets had last year against the Bucks.
The Nets might not be able to overtake the Warriors, Suns and Jazz in the standings, so Irving would be able to play four games in a hypothetical Finals series against those opponents. Of course, that’s looking too far down the line for a guy who hasn’t played competitive basketball since the summer. The biggest concern at the moment for Irving should be the trade deadline, as other teams have had conversations about acquiring the guard from the Nets. Given Brooklyn’s current standing as title favorites, the questionable optics and on-court gymnastics of re-integrating Irving as a part-time player, a move at the deadline is not out of the question.
For now, the Nets remain title favorites regardless of Irving’s status. If the point guard returns and puts up impressive numbers, it could further boost Brooklyn as the best team on paper many felt it was at the beginning of the season. If Irving gets vaccinated or New York City lifts its vaccine mandate, the title odds could shift even more significantly in the Nets’ favor.