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But are they actually a better team without him?
Based on such a small sample size, that’s still up for debate.
Irving hasn’t played since Nov. 14 due to a right shoulder impingement. He has progressed to on-court drills, but there is still no timetable for his return. The Nets are content to let Irving sit out until he’s 100 percent healthy. Still, what was initially projected as a short-term injury has turned into a nearly month-long absence.
“I think the timeline for his recovery is somewhat up to him, but also up to his body and how that progresses. It could happen quickly or it could take some time,” Nets general manager Sean Marks told Yahoo Sports before Wednesday’s 113-108 loss to the Charlotte Hornets in which Brooklyn blew a 20-point lead.
“And where we are at this stage of the season — and where we are as a team over the next couple years — there’s no point in forcing guys to come back too soon. Especially a player of his caliber and expectations.”
In the meantime, Irving has continued to face heavy criticism — especially from a trio of former Celtics who won a championship together in 2007-08.
Kendrick Perkins claimed Irving faked his injury to avoid a return trip to Boston on Nov. 27. Paul Pierce stated Irving deserved to be booed by Celtics fans, who ultimately chanted “Kyrie sucks!” and called him a “coward” that night. And Kevin Garnett later suggested Irving didn’t have the “cojones” to win in Beantown.
Irving responded to his harsh reception in Boston via a lengthy Instagram post, but hasn’t addressed reporters since being sidelined.
“I think everybody’s entitled to their opinion,” Marks told Yahoo Sports. “All I’m going to say is I’m never going to judge a guy on another team until I get to know that person. And I think it’s pretty clear that Kyrie’s not missing a game in Boston and going to sit out two weeks just to avoid one game. He’s legitimately hurt.
“I think we’ve seen how competitive Kyrie is when he was healthy at the beginning of the season. And I give him credit for wanting to be back out there at 100 percent. So let’s judge this book when we get through a few chapters here — not the first 5-10 games of the season.”
Irving averaged 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds out of the gate — including an incredible 50-point performance in his Brooklyn debut. But the Nets got off to a 4-7 start before he went on the shelf, fueling questions about whether he was making his teammates better.
“He’s definitely a special player,” Marks said. “There’s no question about that, and his talent speaks for itself. But again, I want to reiterate Kyrie’s previous quote — ‘The most important thing is to get wins.’ I think he’d be the first to tell you he’d trade those 50 points if our team won that night. So to be able to have a player that is able to go out there and do that I think is exciting.
“But part of this journey is going to be how these guys mesh together, so we’ve got to embrace that and I think it’s been fun to see the relationships grow on and off the court between our guys.”
Last season, the Nets started 8-18 and were plagued by injuries before coming together and turning their season around, paving the way for Irving and Kevin Durant to join forces in Brooklyn over the summer. This season, they lost Irving and Caris LeVert (thumb surgery) before rediscovering their winning ways.
LeVert, who hasn’t played since Nov. 10, is a month into his projected recovery timetable of four to six weeks. And Durant, of course, isn’t expected to play in 2019-20 as he rehabs from an Achilles surgery.
The wait is on for the 13-11 Nets.
“I think I’d be lying if I was saying no,” Marks responded when asked if he’s eager to see his superstars both healthy and on the floor together. “We’ve set this thing up to have some pretty good talent on the team here. Nobody knows how all this is going to pan out. I don’t know how it’s going to pan out. I don’t even think we’re at the halfway line yet.”
Spencer Dinwiddie helping Nets survive and thrive
Three years ago, free-agent journeyman Spencer Dinwiddie was languishing in the G League, his basketball career at a crossroads.
“I was trying to get out of there,” Dinwiddie told Yahoo Sports. “I wasn’t on assignment.”
But with the Nets coaching staff and front office watching courtside at a nearly empty Barclays Center on Nov. 29, 2016, Dinwiddie — who was already on Brooklyn’s radar — had 25 points and 12 assists for the Windy City Bulls.
The Nets took a flier on Dinwiddie nine days later. He has become the face of their rebuild ever since, transforming into an impact player in the process. The 26-year-old reserve, who signed a three-year, $34 million contract extension with Brooklyn this offseason, has risen to the occasion in Irving’s absence, averaging 23.8 points and 7.5 assists since moving into the starting point guard role.
“He’s a guy that’s always played with a chip on his shoulder, and he’s gotten where he is because of that,” Marks said. “But the great thing about Spencer is, he still isn’t satisfied.”
“When you believe you’re a certain caliber of player, and those things haven’t necessarily come to fruition, you keep pushing and trying to get there,” Dinwiddie said.
Perkins wondered recently on Twitter whether Dinwiddie should merit All-Star consideration.
“It’s big-time. I appreciate the compliments,” Dinwiddie said. “We’ve gone on this little winning streak [recently] and played good basketball, but without my teammates my name never gets thrown in the pot. So I’d like to thank them, because other than that it’s a popularity contest and that’s something I’m not winning. Hell, no. Stop it.”
Regardless, Dinwiddie is ready to see what the Nets are capable of when at full strength.
“When we get healthy, when we get Kyrie and KD and Caris back, we’ll be able to figure out how good of a team we can actually be,” Dinwiddie said. “Obviously we all want to play for championships. We understand that we’re far away from that level right now, but that’s the end goal and we’ve got to build everyday to get there.”
The Nets got to this point by preaching culture and player development. They were able to build an attractive core featuring the likes of LeVert, Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris. And it’s been that group — under the direction of coach Kenny Atkinson — that has proven adept at handling early adversity in back-to-back seasons.
“You learn not to get as flustered and stay the course a little better and trust the new guys,” Atkinson said. “I think you’re just a little bit more calm in a situation like that having been through it before.”
Even so, significant decisions lie ahead. Atkinson and his staff will need to figure out if Dinwiddie remains in the starting lineup when Irving returns. They’ll also need to figure out how Wilson Chandler impacts the rotation when he returns from his suspension on Sunday. And, most important, they’ll need to figure out how to get optimal performance out of Irving that jells with the rest of the group, with controversy never far behind.
The Nets have managed to beat the Celtics and Denver Nuggets without Irving. They’ve also missed him down the stretch in blowing leads late in the fourth quarter of losses to the Miami Heat and Hornets. So yes, it seems like they could use No. 11 again. And Irving himself could desperately use some success and wins on the court to quiet his critics.
“We set out to find resilient players and guys with a chip on their shoulder,” Marks said. “Resiliency is something that Kenny harps on. We all do. It’s on our walls here. You never want to see guys like Caris and Kyrie get hurt. But at the same time, it’s a great opportunity for our other players, and I think they’re seizing it. At the same time, we all know over the course of an 82-game season things can go in a lot of different directions. So by no means are we relaxing at all.”
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