Now that James Harden has arrived, Kyrie Irving is suddenly the third banana for the Brooklyn Nets.
It’s not a role Irving expected when he signed a four-year, $136.5 million deal with Brooklyn in July of 2019, and it’s likely not a role he’s ever played in his basketball life.
So how will the All-Star point guard respond?
As a caveat, trying to understand Irving’s psyche or predict his behavior is generally a fool’s errand. This is a guy who said he was “committed to show up to work everyday … alongside my teammates,” before the season.
More so than Kevin Durant — who won two titles as the secondary-ish playmaker with the Golden State Warriors — Irving thrives better with the rock in his hands. His handle is amongst the best in the sport’s history, and his ability to break down defenses and create shots off the dribble is the signature aspect of his game.
Notably, these skills are distinct specialties of Harden, too.
Irving likes to promote good vibes, but he hasn’t been the most cooperative employee. The mercurial star has missed the past five games for “personal reasons” and is possibly facing league-sanctioned isolation (in other words, an extended punishment) for breaking COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Understandably, the Nets’ brass is reportedly not thrilled about this.
And, according to unconfirmed reports from SNY’s Tommy Dee this week, Irving was previously “furious” at the franchise over his lack of input in the hiring of head coach Steve Nash.
On Wednesday night, The Athletic’s Shams Charania said that the team expects Irving to return “at some point.”
This morning on “Get Up,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the communication between Irving and the organization has been minimal in recent days.
Durant is well-documented friends and former teammates with Harden. By contrast, when Harden initially requested a trade to Brooklyn in November, Irving, reportedly, did not advocate for the move. According to Fox Sports 1 analyst Chris Broussard, Irving was not particularly enticed by a third-banana role, noting the presence of assistant coach Mike D’Antoni.
“People around the league are saying Durant wants Harden and Kyrie does not. Because Harden might likely have the ball in his hands,” Broussard said. “D’Antoni says Harden is the best offensive player he’s ever seen. D’Antoni, every offense he has created, has had one guy handling the ball and creating the offense for everybody else. Who you think he’s giving to give the ball in Brooklyn if they get James Harden? It’s James Harden. … I don’t see Kyrie wanting to be the third-best player on a team.”
If he’s willing to comply (and show up to work), Irving, like Durant, can become a devastating catch-and-shoot artist. Plus, if Harden’s game reverts back to normal basketball — as opposed to the Hardenball (Beardball?) that’s been happening in Houston for years — he could embrace unique two-man set pieces with Irving. After all, the combination of Durant alongside the Splash Brothers backcourt produced arguably the most unstoppable offense in league history.
Nash is one of the smartest and most unselfish point guards of all-time, and D’Antoni is a brilliant offensive tactician. But, unlike Durant, neither Irving nor Harden has ever shown an interest in moving without the basketball. Naturally, one envisions the star guards alternating possessions as the lead ball-handler while the other stands around as Durant and Joe Harris run off screens. Durant will see his fair share of isolations, while DeAndre Jordan-based pick-and-rolls will pop up, too. By the way, this would create endless buckets.
Who knows how this will all shake out. Beyond step-back threes, Harden provides the Nets with superstar insurance in case things irrevocably sour between Irving and the organization. In that case, GM Sean Marks can find a trade partner for the 28-year old, who will be eligible for free agency after the 2021-22 season.
We’ll see how this goes.