Don’t expect to see Kyrie Irving stroll right into the Nets’ starting lineup as soon as he clears the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
The All-Star guard — who hasn’t played a second this season — is going to have to go through that two-word phrase that triggers Nets fans.
“No, I think he has to do some sort of ramp-up, some sort of playing not just [go right in],” Nets coach Steve Nash said of Irving, who went into protocols on Dec. 18 after testing positive for COVID-19. “When you’re at home working out by yourself, it’s a lot different.”
The reasons Irving is at home by himself are as divisive as they are well-documented.
After New York instituted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for players in the city to play in either Barclays Center or the Garden, Irving surprised the Nets by refusing to adhere.
Irving wouldn’t get vaccinated, and hasn’t practiced regularly with the Nets since the San Diego leg of training camp. He hasn’t played since hurting his ankle on June 13 in Game 4 of last season’s Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the eventual-champion Milwaukee Bucks.
The Nets initially opted to shelve Irving altogether and not have him play or practice at all until he became fully available. But after he expressed a desire to play and the team suffered a rash of players landing in health and safety protocols, the Nets decided to let him be a part-time player on the road.
Irving didn’t get past the initial process, testing positive. But even when he clears protocols, the All-Star is going to have to get back in game shape. No matter how diligently he worked out back home in New Jersey during his layoff, it’s still been over half a year since he played an NBA game.
“It depends on what you’re doing, but usually individual workouts are half-court and one-on-none, one-on-one,” Nash said. “Maybe he gets a little bit of pickup basketball, but that probably was out the window once everyone starts playing again, whether they’re pros, high school, college kids, whatever. They’re back in their seasons; it’s probably harder and harder for him to find that.
“So there is, I think, a ramp-up, an opportunity for him to play a little bit, whether it’s with our group or the ‘stay-ready’ group whenever he’s out of protocols. So I think there’s a ramp-up, for sure.”
Upon returning from facing the Lakers and Clippers, the Nets have seven of their next nine at home, where Irving is ineligible. Their next road trips are single-game visits to Indiana on Jan. 5 and Chicago a week later.
The Nets don’t have a lengthy road trip again until a four-game swing Jan. 17-23. Irving is still ineligible not just for the Nets home games but also tilts against the Knicks at the Garden on Feb. 16 and April 6, and the Toronto Raptors on March 1, with Canada having banned all unvaccinated individuals from the country.
Joe Harris (ankle) is out for the LA swing, but the Nets are hopeful Nic Claxton (wrist) can play at some point on the trip.