The Brooklyn Nets received some good news this past week when New York’s mayor, Eric Adams, lifted the vaccine mandate on local athletes and entertainers, allowing the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving to play at home on Sunday against the Hornets.
The Nets can thank the Yankees and Mets, who each have several unvaccinated players who would have faced the same fate as Irving — banned from playing home games — if Adams had not made this decision.
It became apparent once Major League Baseball ended its lockout that Adams would have to drop the mandate unless he wanted both New York teams fielding shorthanded lineups. After all, baseball rules in New York.
The NBA and the Players Association released a joint statement supporting Adams’s decision. The union encouraged players to get vaccinated but fought the NBA on any mandate. Commissioner Adam Silver had said prior to Adams’s decision that unvaccinated visiting players being allowed to play in New York and San Francisco, but not players on those home teams, didn’t make sense.
“The NBA and NBPA have achieved a 97 percent vaccination and 75 percent booster rate among players, required both for league staff, team staff, and referees, and will continue to be strong advocates for vaccination and boosters,” the joint statement read. “We support the mayor’s determination that the old rules treating hometown and visiting players differently no longer made sense, particularly because unvaccinated NBA players will continue to test daily. We applaud the mayor for listening to the concerns of our New York teams, players, fans, and communities, and for leveling the playing field for home teams and their opponents.”
In February, Silver predicted Adams would eventually make the change.
“In terms of New York City, I’m not sure exactly what will happen specifically there,” he said Feb. 19. “But as I watch what’s happening around the country, many of these restrictions are being lifted, and in places that had vaccine requirements and in some cases masking requirements, those are also being lifted. I haven’t talked directly to Mayor Adams about this, but judging based on what other communities are doing, my assumption is they will look at local rates of infection and testing. As those continue to come down, if they continue to come down as they have, my sense will be certain restrictions that are in place will be lifted.”
Even with Irving now allowed to play in home games, the Nets are not whole. Ben Simmons has yet to play for Brooklyn and the Nets are preparing for a play-in game, which could cause another issue.
If the Nets are the eighth seed, which is likely, and they play at seventh-seeded Toronto in the opening game, Irving would be ineligible to play because of Canada’s vaccine mandate. (Irving’s situation is likely not to change the stance in another country.)
That means it would be Kevin Durant and a supporting cast with the season on the line against a Raptors team nobody wants to face in the postseason. But even if they were to get through the Raptors or Cavaliers (a game in which Irving would be eligible to play), the Nets are unlikely to have a fully healthy Simmons.
Simmons came to Brooklyn in a trade from Philadelphia with back issues, and he recently had an epidural injection to relieve discomfort. Simmons has been working out with the team but has yet to participate in a five-on-five practice with just two weeks left in the regular season. It appears unlikely Simmons would be able to get into proper shape and vintage form prior to the playoffs.
The question is whether the Nets should risk using Simmons, who has not played since June 2021, in a playoff game, knowing he came to the Nets with his confidence shattered after a horrible playoff series against the Hawks.
Durant and Irving got together in Brooklyn with the goal of winning a championship, but their tenure has been clouded by injury and controversy. Durant missed his first season in Brooklyn recovering from a torn Achilles’. Irving was limited that season with shoulder issues. After the Nets acquired James Harden early last season, they were rolling through the Eastern Conference semifinals before Harden and Irving went down with injuries.
This season, Irving refused to be vaccinated and then was prohibited from playing at home. A fed-up Harden asked for a trade and was sent to the 76ers. While the Nets have played well with Irving and Durant in the lineup, they haven’t been impeccable, with losses to the Celtics and Grizzlies (who were without Ja Morant). The Nets have a strong supporting case with Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and Boston native Bruce Brown, but are they championship contenders or just a team contenders don’t want to play?
At the time of the trade, the Nets expected Simmons to return after a couple of weeks of workouts and practice, but it’s been nearly six weeks and there is no sign of a return.
So, while the Nets cleared a major hurdle thanks to Adams, they may not be whole until next season. And that’s if Irving re-signs. He has a $36 million option he most certainly will decline.
THIS ONE HURTS
Warriors again without Curry
When the Celtics began their recent four-game West Coast trip with an impressive win at Golden State, their fourth straight in the Bay Area, the result was overshadowed by an injury to Warriors star Stephen Curry.
Curry, who has a history of foot and ankle issues, got caught under Marcus Smart, who dived for a loose ball in the second quarter. Curry screamed in pain and left the game. He has been diagnosed with a sprained foot ligament and could miss the rest of the regular season.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr thought Smart diving was unnecessary, and he told Smart that soon after. Curry, who instead knelt for the ball, didn’t blame Smart. Former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green of the Warriors also said it wasn’t a dirty play.
Curry now has to watch his teammates try to hold on to the third seed in the Western Conference. But he is used to rehabbing an injury and said he’s using his time wisely.
“Obviously, it was painful at first, getting better by the day and just trying to assess the recovery in real time just to know how much we can push it on a day-to-day [basis],” he said. “So, just trying to stay patient and know that it’ll continue to get better and make the necessary steps to get back on the floor, get my other shoe back on, and get reps in and hopefully get back out there as soon as possible.”
There was much debate about whether Smart tried to hurt Curry in his pursuit of the ball. Smart said he was just playing hard.
“He didn’t try to hurt me,” Curry said. “There’s a certain way that he plays that I don’t think many other people would have made the play that he did, but I don’t think it was malicious or dirty or trying to hurt me. Kind of just a tough situation. Like I said, it’s just the way that he plays. There’s conversation just around should he or shouldn’t he have, but it wasn’t like he looked at me and was like, ‘I’m trying to hurt that dude.’ It’s basketball.”
There is no guarantee Curry will be completely healthy in three weeks, but he is expected to be back by the postseason. The Warriors will be cautious with Curry, as they have been with second-year center James Wiseman, who was declared out for the season because of a knee injury.
Curry will be examined early next month before ramping up his rehabilitation.
“That two weeks is kind of the marker just to know how it’s healing,” he said. “Just in terms of the ligaments around the injury and the bone that’s kind of underneath there, you want to not rush the beginning phases of healing, because that’s where you can get the most progress so that when you do put the shoe back on, get back on the court, get reps, that you’re not dealing with crazy soreness or anything, and you give yourself a better shot.
“This is one, I guess, if you push it too soon it can linger and be a real nuisance, and so obviously anything with your foot, your ankle, anything down there, you want to be cautious, but just because you don’t want there to be something that lingers when you get back out there on the floor. I think we’ve got enough time for that, but I’m an optimist.”
As for Wiseman, he tore his meniscus last April and has been trying to make it back since. He returned to the G-League in hopes of making an impact by season’s end, but the knee swelled after three games. He’s been shut down. It’s a blow to the Warriors, who lack a true big man and were hoping Wiseman would provide support in the middle.
“We’ve maintained throughout his entire rehabilitation process that we’re going to be patient and look out for James’s best interests in what we anticipate to be a long and successful career,” general manager Bob Myers said. “As a 20-year-old, his entire career is ahead of him. For us as an organization, our focus is on James’s long-term health and we’re confident — and our doctors are confident — that this long-term approach will help James become the player we believe he will evolve into when he returns to the court.”
Magic just can’t catch a break
The last time we heard from Magic forward/center Jonathan Isaac, he had torn his ACL in the bubble August 2020. ACLs are among the most common knee injuries in the NBA and usually require one year of rehabilitation. But the Magic just revealed Isaac will miss an entire second season, leaving his status as a potential cornerstone in doubt.
Isaac is in the first year of a four-year, $70 million extension he signed in December 2020, four months after his injury. With Mo Bamba a restricted free agent this summer, the Magic are banking on Isaac returning next season. The franchise has been besieged with injuries to its younger core.
“Our performance staff likes to have a long ramp-up back to actual play,” GM Jeff Weltman said. “And that includes a long period of unrestricted access, and we’re just running out of time on the back end to realistically expect that to happen.”
Isaac was the sixth overall pick in the 2017 draft, taken three selections after Jayson Tatum. Isaac also was taken before quality big men such as Bam Adebayo, John Collins, Jarrett Allen, and OG Anunoby.
The Magic have lived in the draft lottery over the years but have had little to show for it. They may have scored well in the past two drafts with Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs, but Isaac and Bamba have not come close to realizing their potential, leaving the franchise scrambling.
Isaac was emerging as a stretch-4 with athleticism and defensive prowess prior to his injury. But there is concern as to whether he will return to previous form or whether the knee will ever be completely healthy. Missing two years with an ACL injury has been disappointing for a franchise trying to take the next step.
“Obviously, it’s a frustrating process to go through,” Weltman said. “There hasn’t been a setback, it’s more just a timeline issue. We set our goal for opening night next season. We do the daily work and let that develop. We’re always going to do what’s right for the player. There’s no one we’d rather bet on.
“I know there’s frustration from the perspective of when Jonathan is going to return. The fans want him back. Everybody wants him to come back, but I promise you, the most frustrated person is Jonathan.”
The Magic decided on a total rebuild when they traded Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vucevic within days of each other in February 2021. The goal was to pack the roster with young talent and rejuvenate with a new system under coach Jamahl Mosley. The result has been the league’s second-worst record, a porous defense, and slew of injuries to young players. Suggs has missed 28 games, former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz just returned after missing a year with his own ACL injury.
There is hope with Anthony leading the team in scoring and Franz Wagner a likely All-Rookie selection averaging 15.4 points. But they need to add a premium free agent and eventually stay healthy. The road back to respectability is a long one.
“We see good progress in our young players,” Weltman said. “We see the coaching staff beginning to understand who our guys are and they’ve developed a way of working with our players. Our team is in a very good place right now. This is part of the process we embarked upon last year and so far we’ve been pleased with the direction.”
Mark Cuban is as intelligent and tuned-in an owner as there is in the NBA, and he’s taken to social media and websites to push Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson for Most Improved Player. Brunson is a prime candidate for the award and he’s also an unrestricted free agent this summer. Brunson is expected to be pursued by several teams … The Knicks are expected to keep coach Tom Thibodeau despite the disappointment of this season. The hope is players such as Julius Randle and Fournier will have bounce-back seasons, and RJ Barrett continues to develop into All-Star consideration. The difficulty for the Knicks is they have no salary-cap space this summer because of committed contracts. The most significant to come off the books is that of retired center Joakim Noah, whose deal finally expires after being bought out. The Knicks, of course, will have to find a landing place for Kemba Walker, whose signing was an abject failure for both sides. He wants to find a new team, but he’s committed to the Knicks for $9 million. Look for New York to attempt to pull off a major deal to upgrade the roster with perhaps Randle as the centerpiece … The Hornets signed former Celtic Isaiah Thomas for the rest of the season after a positive 20-day stint as a backup point guard. Thomas has maintained he would accept a reserve role and also serve as a mentor, and he’s had a positive influence on All-Star guard LaMelo Ball. Thomas is averaging 9.3 points and 42 percent 3-point shooting in eight games, which is one of the reasons he was retained. One of the issues for Thomas in his previous stints was his lack of shooting. Thomas, 33, has sought a guaranteed contract since returning from a second hip procedure that eliminated the pain from a torn labrum suffered in 2017 while with the Celtics … The Harvard women’s team is seeking a new coach after the retirement of Kathy Delaney-Smith, and Celtics vice president of player development Allison Feaster was approached about the position but declined. Feaster is a rising star in NBA management and is expected to emerge as a candidate for a GM position.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.