Kyrie Irving is undoubtedly one of the most electrifying players in the NBA. His ability to skillfully handle the ball, dish out smooth passes and finish at the rim are all qualities that showcase his superstar talent. However, while Irving’s talent is undeniable, his actions off the court have been contentious. Specifically, his recent leave of absence from the Brooklyn Nets, as well as his general demeanor towards the team, has caused a stir among the basketball community.
Irving first missed a game on Jan. 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers due to what the team described as “personal reasons.” His absence from the team continued for the following seven games, perplexing fans and analysts alike. As the number of missed games rose, so did the buzz about Kyrie leaving his co-star Kevin Durant to shoulder an even larger load.
Fueling the mystifying nature of Irving’s departure was a lack of clarity from the Nets’ front office and staff. Head coach Steve Nash provided a vague update on Jan. 12, stating that he had spoken with Irving, but that he wanted to keep the details of that conversation private. The complex situation only became more confusing as videos surfaced on social media of Irving attending a family birthday party without a mask, violating the league’s current COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Meanwhile, the Nets struggled on the hardwood, losing a string of games that they likely could have won with their perennial superstar.
Irving finally rejoined the Nets squad on Jan. 20 to play against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The full details of why he decided to take a leave of absence still have not been revealed. “I’m back, I’m happy to be back … I let my actions and my game speak for itself like I planned on doing. [I] just needed a pause” Irving said upon his return, via ESPN.
Initial negative speculation from around the league surrounding Kyrie’s absence put his level of commitment to the Nets and his passion for the game in question. Irving responded to his critics saying that, “they have no idea who I am or what I’m about, or what I stand for or even attempt to take the time,”.
“When things become overwhelming in life you just got to take a step back and realize what’s important” Irving continued. Other players, like Durant, have been outspoken in showing their support for Kyrie’s choice to take personal time. “I won’t speak on Kyrie. I’ll let him do that for himself,” Durant said. “I’m sure you guys will see him soon whenever he comes back. We support him 100 percent and pray for the best.”
The fabric of the Nets team had changed dramatically during the time Irving was away: On Jan. 14, the Nets acquired superstar guard James Harden in a blockbuster deal, trading away young talents Caris Levert and Jarret Allen along with three first-round draft picks and four first-round pick swaps. The trade made Irving’s return to the team even more contentious, as the media debated how Irving, Harden and Durant could share the ball.
So far, the results have been mixed. Due to the loss of roster depth following the Harden trade, the Nets defense has ranked worst in the league, playing at historically bad levels. However, their offense has been prolific, scoring the most points per game of any team. Since Irving’s return, he has played significant minutes and put up tremendous offensive numbers, averaging 27.8 points per game and contributing immensely to the Nets’ five victories.
Still, there are persistent rumors of him being a distraction in the locker room. Irving is a player whose skills on the court are overshadowed by his actions off of it and his struggles to communicate clearly with the media. A meaningful contribution to a winning culture seems necessary if Kyrie wishes to alter the state of his reputation among the NBA community. All eyes will be on Kyrie Irving and the Nets as they look to dismiss all doubts that they are capable of overtaking the favored Los Angeles Lakers as NBA champions.