Nets must now ‘learn how to play with’ Kyrie Irving

In allowing an unvaccinated Kyrie Irving to play only road games, the Nets have caved. In becoming a part-time player rather than asking for a trade elsewhere, Irving is surrendering half the games he could play.

But as the point guard returns to the Nets, an overlooked sacrifice comes from players whose roles and minutes will change.

It is possible that Patty Mills, who entered the starting lineup in mid-November when Joe Harris went down, will become a part-time starter. As the Nets embrace two distinct lineups, one at home and one on the road, Mills (or Harris eventually) may be starting at Barclays Center and coming in as sixth man for games in which Irving is eligible to play.

For a Nets team that has shuffled its roster all season amid injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak, Mills is comfortable with his job description continuing to spin for “the betterment of the team.”

“We’ve pretty much been doing that over the course of the year, just taking it day by day,” Mills said before the Nets battled the 76ers on Thursday night at Barclays Center. “So I guess my role has always been to be able to provide that energy and that impact on the floor.

Kyrie Irving’s return will likely mean less minutes for Patty Mills (top right), Bruce Brown (bottom left) and DeAndre’ Bembry (bottom right).
USA TODAY Sports. Getty (3)

“I guess those are the things that won’t change for me.”

Plenty will change after the Nets, whose roster had been decimated by the coronavirus, turned back to the star point guard as a part-time body. Irving’s first practice in two and half months came Wednesday at the Nets’ training facility, where he has been welcomed by a roster that sees its title chances elevated.

Mills said he talked with Irving for the first time in a long while. By all accounts, the seven-time All-Star is being regarded as immediate, welcomed help and not as an unvaccinated pariah.

The Nets kept in touch with him through group chats, and Irving has been watching — and offering some help — from afar.

Upon seeing Irving back at the practice facility Wednesday, Bruce Brown gave him a hug, and the conversation quickly turned to Brown’s progress with lefty floaters. The two have been texting about that part of Brown’s game.

“He’s definitely been watching all the games — he knows what’s going on,” Brown said. “He’s definitely a leader for us.”

Brown’s role, too, will be in question as the season proceeds. DeAndre’ Bembry already has leapfrogged Brown as the starter at small forward, and if Bembry is shuffled back when Irving and Harris rejoin the team, it would be harder for role players to find their roles.

That has not been a worry.

DeAndre' Bembry
DeAndre’ Bembry
USA TODAY Sports

“We just added a great player, so I think it’ll be easy for us,” Brown said. “This group already knows how to play without [Irving], now we have to learn how to play with him.”

Adding a coming-and-going third star to a squad that already was tops in the Eastern Conference perhaps threatens continuity, but also hikes the Nets’ ceiling. Irving, Durant and Harden — as well as the Big 3 complements — will have as many as 22 regular-season road games, beginning as soon as Wednesday at Indiana, to jell after playing in just eight games all together last season.

“I may be a little naïve, but I think just keep it really simple. Kyrie plays on the road, and we figure out how he rejoins the group,” coach Steve Nash said. “And when we come home, we’re back to normal, the way we’ve been all year.”

Figuring it all out on the fly is a concern, but one that is overwhelmed by the potential of the Nets putting three of the best players in the NBA on the court at the same time.

Besides, with this group, there is a wide margin for error.

“At the end of the day, you always know that you can throw the ball to certain guys and then they’ll be able to get the job done,” Mills said.