Kyrie Irving returned to TD Garden for the Nets’ preseason game with the Celtics Friday night and he’ll be back on Christmas Day as Brooklyn begins a much-anticipated season with its two cornerstones, Irving and Kevin Durant, playing together for the first time.
This is what Irving said he wanted. He wanted to go home, as he embraced his New Jersey roots and clamored to be near family. He wanted to play with Durant, as was evidenced by his hallway conversation in Charlotte, N.C., before both took the floor for the 2019 All-Star Game. And he wanted to choose his own destination, as is his right.
So he’s finally here and healthy, and he won’t have the TD Garden fans to offer him a hearty welcome. It’s about time Irving does his talking with basketball again. He played in just 20 games last season because of a shoulder injury that required surgery.
He hasn’t been healthy in a few years. He said he is now. And with Durant back from his torn Achilles tendon and ready to prove he can win a championship without the help of Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, the Nets are picked by some to win the East and face the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
A couple of weeks ago, surly Kyrie refused to speak with the media and then was fined. He ended his self-imposed media ban after about three days. He walked back his media are “pawns” comments and was actually engaging, excited, and polite. There are many sides to Irving, as the Boston faithful learned over his two years with the Celtics.
He is in better spirits now, but for how long? That’s always been the question with the mercurial star.
“We’ve been putting this thing together for the past year,” he said this past week. “Ups and downs. It’s only fair to admit that when we committed here we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. It’s not just me. I’m grateful I get to share the floor with so many other great players. Good players with high IQs.
“It’s just so different here, I love it.”
Then again, he said the same about Boston. He joined a Brooklyn squad that has prepared for this moment since gutting the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce team after that ill-fated trade with the Celtics. Finally, the Nets were able to attract premium free agents — Durant and Irving — and then both had to get healthy.
The Nets have been preparing for this season for five years and it’s here, despite the COVID-19 conditions, no fans, and an abbreviated season.
“I’m just grateful to be here with you guys,” Irving said. “You don’t want to take any day for granted. You want to be able to come in, be happy, be secure, and feel protected, and the guys have been able to make me feel like that. The difficulty is there. It’s life. It’s COVID. We can’t do much about it.”
Irving was asked why he decided to conduct his brief media boycott and why he decided to call out former teammates by saying Durant was the first player he played with who was equally capable of hitting game-winning shots. Irving played three seasons with LeBron James.
“The focus is what is going on here and I wanted to make that clear, no distractions,” Irving said. “Nothing about dispelling anything. Nothing about going back and forth. Nothing about calling out one person or another. Not even to refer to media as pawns.
“It’s how I felt about the treatment of certain artists when they get to certain platforms when we get to a certain platform when we make decisions in your lives to have full control and ownership. We go through a rigorous season. We do everything we’re asked to do and we want to perform in a secure and protected space, and if I can’t do that, have my voice protected on this platform where I offer myself and my art, just inviting everyone else to it, because this is what I’ve been blessed to do. It’s just finding a balance. That’s all.”
When he signed with the Nets, Irving took some responsibility for his uneven tenure in Boston, saying he could have been a better leader. In truth, there were a lot of reasons for Irving’s disappointing ending, including health.
“It’s not the first time I’ve had a significant injury,” he said of his shoulder surgery. “It was very disappointing. Having disappointing seasons the last few years hasn’t necessarily been the best reflection that I wanted to put out. But it’s a different show, a different stage, and that includes 7/11 [he and Durant], so get to know us.”
The Nets are not playing for any typical first-year coach. Steve Nash is a two-time NBA MVP who had never coached before this job. Irving said this summer the team will basically have many coaches, including himself. He walked back that statement, too.
“Steve’s been amazing; it’s a reflection of the type of person he is and his IQ for the game,” Irving said. “I’ve got to take back my comments about the head coach a few months ago. Coming in with [former NBA coach] Mike D’Antoni with Amar’e Stoudemire, they have been able to guide us to come together as a group.
“You can’t make up experience. You can’t make up time. We’ve got to continue to make progress every single day and craft.”
Meanwhile, the James Harden trade rumors hover over the team. Brooklyn is one of Harden’s preferred destinations. The Nets would have to send several key players — other than Irving and Durant — to Houston to get the deal done. Houston, however, doesn’t appear interested in those parts that do not include the two superstars.
“James is a great player and we wish him well,” Irving said. “That part of the business is going to be what it is. I just want him to be happy, be secure in who he is as a man first and then as a basketball player, whatever happens between those conversations is between them.”
For now, the Nets are moving forward with a team that’s impressive on paper. Brooklyn soared to an Eastern Conference favorite in the offseason, but now it’s time to back up those predictions on the floor.
“Me and [Durant] have a great relationship, but our synergy carries over to everyone else and we allow each other to teach, to learn,” Irving said. “We had to wait a year and a half and it came to fruition. Our greatness is even better together.”
HOUSTON HAVING A PROBLEM
Harden wants a trade, Rockets want star in return
James Harden finally reported to training camp and played in two of the Rockets’ preseason games. He wants to be traded and didn’t deny that in his first interview since reporting, but it’s a complicated situation because Harden is a complicated player.
First, Harden’s off-court nightlife has been known league-wide for years. When the 2011-12 Thunder reached the Finals and played the Heat in Games 3, 4, and 5 in Miami, Harden hit South Beach more than once, even though he could have spent a month or more there had he helped the Thunder win the title. Instead, he was seen in south Miami after the Thunder lost Game 4, which put them in a 3-1 hole.
NBA general managers will have to determine whether Harden is worth the drama. He has not been to a Finals since. He has burned through three future Hall of Fame teammates — Dwight Howard (don’t cringe, he’s going to the Hall), Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook. The Rockets have accommodated him and his lifestyle for years without complaints, and the moment that the club decided to retool, Harden requested a trade.
Second, Harden has a major impact on any offense and that may not be such a good thing. He is one of the best offensive players of this generation, has revolutionized the game with his mastery of moves and drawing fouls, and has shown the knack of distributing the ball, but it hasn’t resulted in success beyond the conference finals. In the bubble, the Rockets won Game 1 against the Lakers, looked as if they were going to make it a competitive series, then lost the next four games.
After that, Westbrook wanted out and was traded to the Wizards for point guard John Wall and a protected first-round pick. The Rockets also moved Robert Covington, allowed Austin Rivers to sign with the Knicks, then added DeMarcus Cousins and promising big man Christian Wood.
Longtime assistant Stephen Silas (son of former Celtics champion Paul Silas) is the new coach. Harden said he has not had a substantive conversation with Silas or GM Rafael Stone. The Rockets are trying to move forward and want to know if Harden wants to be part of the program. He doesn’t.
The Rockets are in the power position because they don’t have to move Harden. He has two years left on his contract and a player option for a third. And they are not going to move him for just young prospects and draft picks. The salaries will have to match and the Rockets want a superstar in return.
As for the 76ers, where former Rockets GM Daryl Morey now resides as president of basketball operations, they are trying to build fresh with coach Doc Rivers and his influence on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Rockets want Simmons, 24, a potential cornerstone for the next decade-plus, in any deal for Harden.
Morey is on the record as saying the 76ers won’t trade Simmons. But how long before he gets the itch to acquire the player he has been attached to most of his career? Harden is the model of the Morey offensive system that was built around jacking up 3-pointers and spreading the floor with shooters, without a true center.
Morey said repeatedly he’s not going to adopt that system in Philadelphia because of the presence of Embiid, but it’s tempting to acquire a former MVP and the league’s best scorer. Criticize Harden, but he’s an elite scorer who is virtually unstoppable, despite not being an above-average athlete. Just as Stephen Curry taught young, gangly players they could flourish with the 3-point shot, Harden is a prime example that game mastery and IQ is equally as important as athleticism.
Harden addressed the Houston media this past week, which is admirable because he was obviously going to field questions about his trade demands, tardiness to training camp, and off-court life. He addressed those issues, sort of.
“There’s a lot of changes,” he said. “Obviously the entire coaching staff, some of the front office, a lot of the players. This is where we are. Coach is doing an unbelievable job of communicating with the guys and putting the structure in and getting things going.”
When asked if he’s requested a trade and why, Harden said, “I can only focus on right now. And for me, the best James Harden is making sure I’m in shape. Like I said, I’ve haven’t had the opportunity to play five on five. Basically I’m in catch-up mode as far as things offensively, defensively that Coach Silas has implemented. I’m a little behind.”
It’s interesting to ponder the possibilities for Harden in Houston with Wall, Cousins, Wood, Eric Gordon, Danuel House, and P.J. Tucker. The Rockets were able to give opponents issues with their smallish lineup, but with Wood and Cousins able to offer an inside-outside component at center, Harden splashing threes and pairing with Wall could turn the Rockets back into contenders.
But first, Harden would have to change his mind about his trade demand. The Rockets are in no hurry to make a deal, but it would help team chemistry and cohesion if Harden were on board with the Rockets’ plan. So far, he’s saying all the right things but waiting for that call to let him know he’s been shipped to a contender.
“Since I’ve been here, nothing has been said about it,” he said. “Everybody in the locker room, the coaching staff has been focused on ramping up and preparing for the season, so that’s all that matters. Obviously they’re motivated, they’re excited for the opportunity, and the players are the same way. [Wall] looks like he’s getting back to his normal self, [Cousins] as well. They’re all excited as far as new opportunities.’'
The NBA has dramatically improved its COVID-19 testing numbers, reporting this past week that of the 549 players tested, just one player tested positive. Positive tests are not made public and the players are privately placed into COVID-19 protocol. Harden had to test negative for COVID-19 six consecutive days before joining his team in training camp. The players will not have any interactions with the media other than Zoom calls, and the media will be seated hundreds of feet from the floor. It will not be a similar situation to the bubble, where all parties who attended games tested negative … The Grizzlies waived former first-round pick Zhaire Smith after he was acquired from the Pistons. The 76ers had high hopes for Smith when they traded for him on draft night in 2018, but the swingman missed nearly the entire season after an allergic reaction. Smith played 13 games over two seasons in Philadelphia before being moved to Detroit. The Pistons waived Smith before he was signed by Memphis. Teams have to determine whether to field G-League rosters for a potential season in the bubble and Smith could be a candidate. Philadelphia swapped former Villanova standout Mikal Bridges for Smith on draft night in 2018 and Bridges has become a reliable contributor for the Suns … One of the early preseason story lines has been the improvements by the Lakers, who added Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell through trades and free agency, and will also feature Talen Horton-Tucker, a 2019 second-round pick out of Iowa State who may have landed in the perfect situation despite likely being a lottery pick had he stayed in school for another season. Horton-Tucker learned from playing with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, drawing raves from James. Horton-Tucker is going to make playing-time decisions more difficult for coach Frank Vogel and it could turn into a competition with former first-round pick Kyle Kuzma, who had an uneven season in 2019-20, shooting 31.3 percent from the field and averaging 6 fewer points than the previous season. Horton-Tucker scored 31 points in the team’s preseason win over the Clippers and is one of the reasons the club was comfortable parting ways with Danny Green and J.R. Smith.