The clock is ticking as the NBA's offseason winds down and Kyrie Irving appears dead-set on keeping his collision course with the league, his Brooklyn Nets, and New York City's vaccine mandates. Irving has refused to get vaccinated to this point. This, of course, means he is forbidden from entering Barclays Center by order of NYC law.
This presents all sorts of problems. It appears that the NBA and the NBAPA have not yet actually agreed on what to do if Irving is still unvaccinated when the season begins; president Michelle Roberts told reporters earlier in the week that the Players Association hadn't agreed to players getting docked pay if they miss games due to local vaccine mandates, which is the only recourse the league has to discourage anybody from missing games for that reason. That seems like a protracted, ugly, and public battle waiting to happen. Which is bad. Then there's the whole thing about how not getting vaccinated affects people Irving interacts with every day. So on and so forth.
Let us look at this purely from a basketball standpoint, though. Irving's unvaccinated status means he'll not only miss half of his team's games this season, he will also be unable to practice anytime the team gathers in New York (which is often!). Brooklyn will be burning a roster spot on a barely part-time player if you include practice availability along with game availability. Everything we've heard from the Nets and teammates like Kevin Durant indicates they all thought Irving would put aside his personal beliefs on the matter in pursuit of winning by this point. Yet, he has not, and there doesn't yet seem to be a plan in place to deal with Irving's absence if he continues on this path.
The assumption has been that Irving is good enough to justify tolerating his absence for 41 games to enjoy the benefit of his skillset in the other 41. I am here to argue that he is not. No player is, really. The Nets won't keep Irving around as a part-time guy. If he doesn't get vaccinated, Brooklyn will just tell him to stay away. Here's why.
Even the best NBA teams have to run like a finely-tuned machine to win at a consistent and high rate. Practice matters. A lot. Chemistry between teammates matters. A lot! Players can only get into basketball shape by playing games and practicing hard, which also matters a lot. Irving is missing the team's run-up to the regular season as we speak. Brian Windhorst appeared on ESPN yesterday to note that Irving will be available to practice with the team exactly once between today and the start of the regular season on October 23. This isn't the same thing as Irving getting hurt and being unable to practice. In that circumstance, the team at least knows he can be around his teammates and will be at 100 percent participation eventually.
Then there is the matter of the games themselves. If the Nets played a consistent schedule of alternating home and away games, maybe that would work. But they do not! There will be long stretches of home games smattered amongst the schedule. In December, for example, Brooklyn is playing at home for 20 out of 26 possible games. That effectively means Irving would miss an entire month of basketball. Even if he was playing out of his mind going into December, it is entirely unreasonable to expect him to walk on the court in January and look like the same guy instantly. Even the best basketball players need a ramp-up. As good as Irving's personal trainers may or may not be, he needs the kind of ramp-up only team practices and workouts can provide. Especially given his lengthy injury history.
Keeping Irving around on a part-time basis may not be a net negative on the basketball court, but knowing how your teammates operate is crucial to winning important games. Brooklyn does not want to risk a mistake borne from the fact that Irving isn't as in tune with his teammates as he would've been otherwise. Against the best teams, all it takes is one errant pass at the wrong moment to sink their chances of victory.
It's pretty simple math at the end of the day. If the Nets keep Irving, they get 41 games of his basketball wizardry, but basketball wizardry operating out of sync with teammates, and they get to deal with the constant possibility that Irving's higher chance of testing positive and causing a team-wide outbreak derails a chunk of their season. If they tell Irving to stay home until he gets vaccinated or the mandate is lifted, they risk alienating Irving and perhaps his best bud Kevin Durant, but the chance of a coronavirus outbreak is lowered considerably and they operate like a normal basketball team throughout the year.
It's not a hard equation for Sean Marks and Co. They just don't want to call Irving on it until they absolutely have to. With each passing day, though, that's looking more and more likely.