Kyrie Irving's numbers are stellar, but the Brooklyn Nets are struggling. Is the Nets' new superstar the cause of their labors?
Even before the Brooklyn Nets were among the NBA’s most disappointing teams a month into the regular season, coach Kenny Atkinson knew exactly what challenges lay ahead.
Brooklyn was the league’s best story last season, a group of also-rans that relied on the culture and chemistry the organization had built over the previous two years to win 42 games and put up a fight against the heavily-favored Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs.
The Nets parlayed those accomplishments into one of the biggest free-agency coups ever last summer, signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
With the promise of contention that accompanies multiple superstars, though, was an inevitable sacrifice of the ethos that ushered in Brooklyn’s stunning turnaround.
“No one gave us an award for mastering the culture code,” Atkinson told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan in October. “We’re still learning.”
And as they struggle to live up to heightened expectations in the season’s early going, the Nets are also learning that Irving – without the injured Durant by his side, at least – may be more trouble than he’s worth.
Irving’s individual numbers, as always, are stellar. He’s averaging 28.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game, all career-highs.
Brooklyn, 6-8, has won two of three with Irving sidelined by a sore shoulder, but it’s not like the numbers say he’s been a destructive force when available. The Nets’ offensive rating drops a whopping 10 points without him in the game, and his subpar defensive data generally aligns with that of other starters.
But digging deeper into the numbers reveals that Irving’s overall influence has eroded the attributes that helped propel Brooklyn to success.
The Nets rank 27th in passes per game, down from eighth last season. Their average amount of seconds per touch has spiked from 19th to fifth, and Brooklyn is running more pick-and-rolls and isolation plays – further evidence of a lack of ball movement prompted by Irving’s presence.
This time last year, it was hard to imagine Irving playing for the Nets. At a preseason fan event, he made headlines by saying he planned not only on re-signing with the Boston Celtics, but having his jersey retired at T.D. Garden.
The Celtics underachieved last season, though, struggling to coalesce despite a wealth of talent. By the time their season was over, it had become clear both parties would be best served by going their separate ways.
It’s still too early to say Irving has been similarly corrosive in Brooklyn. But as the Celtics thrive and Nets labor, every rumor of discontent warrants more attention.
This is hardly the first time those murmurs have bubbled to the surface during Irving’s time with the Nets, either.
ESPN famously reported on “mood swings” that left Brooklyn in the dark during a preseason trip to China, while Irving’s mid-possession shove of Dzanan Musa further inflamed talk about his deficiencies as a leader.
Through it all, the Nets have stuck behind Irving, acknowledging the growing pains of adding a player of his talent and personality while insisting that just as big an onus to change is on them. Atkinson, in particular, has defended Irving, knowing his team’s long-term interest is to keep him as happy as possible until the cavalry comes next season.
But this one has barely started. Brooklyn will only reach its utmost potential once Kevin Durant is healthy if Kyrie Irving is fully integrated both on and off the floor. As the first month of 2019-20 and all of last season laid bare, though, that’s a challenge easier accepted than completed.
This article was edited by Josiah Wilmoth.