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ESSAY: Crucial week begins with no resolution of Kyrie Irving status

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

The Nets go into Boston Sunday afternoon with the prospect of heading back to Brooklyn with a losing record and only 17 games left. On Thursday, they’ll play in Philadelphia in what might be the biggest game of the season. Kyrie Irving will be available for both games as he will be Tuesday night in Charlotte.

Irving’s individual numbers this season in 15 games are very typical of his career: 25.1 points, 5.1 assists, 4.8 rebounds with shooting splits of 46/37/92. But despite hopes that his return to part-time status would turn the Nets season around, Brooklyn is 5-10 with Irving playing. Of course, of those 15 games, Irving has played only three with Kevin Durant and is 2-1.

But after this week, things will change. He’ll only be eligible to play four more games in a month, on March 15 in Orlando, March 23 in Memphis, March 26 in Miami and April 2 in Atlanta. The new “Big Three” will likely be available for only the last three with Ben Simmons still ramping up and recovering from his back “stiffness.”

Despite professed optimism out of the front office and from his teammates, it appears that things aren’t going to change on the mandate front. So much fan energy has been wasted — no, exhausted — parsing what the mayor of the city of New York meant when he said this or that, trying to find loopholes that might provide the Nets an opportunity to play Irving, including the singularly dumb suggestion that the Nets should violate the city’s law, rooted in its public health priorities, and pay a small fine for letting Irving play, something the NBA would never permit.

Of course, virtually no fan energy has been expended in wondering whether Irving will relent and get vaccinated. That’s off the table. Steve Nash even admitted this week (before he was infected with COVID) that he hasn’t even spoken to Irving about getting the shot and resolve the issue.

And assuming the Nets make the play-in tournament, will they be faced with a nightmare scenario of playing the Raptors? Irving wouldn’t be able to play in either New York or Toronto. (Ian Begley wrote this week that “the prospect of playing the Raptors in the postseason was one of the reasons James Harden was concerned about Irving’s vaccine status earlier in the season.”)

That’s where we are and likely where we will be. Earlier in the week, Daily News editor Dennis Young penned an article that put the blame squarely on Irving.

Irving himself is the king of the blame game, muddling the situation more than anyone else has. He’s blamed the league and players union for giving him false assurances that they could find a loophole for his unprickable skin. “The NBA and the NBPA made it very clear that there would be things that I would be able to do to work around this,” he said last month. “And that’s off the table.” He called an ESPN reporter a “puppeteer” for having the audacity to ask if injuries to Durant and Harden increased his urgency to get vaccinated. And he blamed Adams and de Blasio. “I’m the only player that has to deal with this in New York City because I play there. We have Eric Adams, we have the New York mandate, we have things going on that are real-life circumstances that are not just affecting me, bro.”

Young of course is not alone in his criticism of Irving. Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley have gone after him on various grounds. He has few defenders.

There are those — fans and reporters — who think that the city is being petty in citing the private employer mandate as a way of keeping him off the court, But suppose that’s the case. Is it that unjustified?

Faced with the greatest health emergency in its nearly 400-year history, one that has killed 66,000 New Yorkers, the city believed that pushing vaccines would be its best solution. Mandates, along with a heavy and costly public relations effort, were seen as the best way to encourage people to get the shot, save lives. Then, one of the most prominent figures in city life decided not only wouldn’t he get the shot but on two occasions, he publicly cited mandates as the reason for his refusal. Now, after the program has proven successful, that prominent figure and his employer want a carve-out? Really? He may say he’s not an anti-vaxxer, but his actions suggest otherwise.

The Nets are in a bad place and not just in the standings. The team that was the odds-on favorite to win it all, with perhaps the greatest assemblage of offensive talent ever, is likely to wind up as a post-season afterthought, a participant in the NBA’s play-in tournament. Moreover, there is the question of whether the Nets are, in a word, likeable. Irving’s position is clearly polarizing. (Read the comments to this story.) Harden’s departure was ugly and no matter where you stand on what he did and how he did it, it hurt the team’s reputation.

The next month — and that’s all that’s left — will be crucial. As fans, we will hope for the best, but if at the end of the day we are disappointed, maybe it will be time to look at these last few months not just as fans, but a citizens.