The moment it became clear unvaccinated players wouldn't be able to play this year, all eyes were on Brooklyn. Soon we learned Kyrie Irving wasn't vaccinated, nor he had any intention to change that - even if it meant that decision would lead to his retirement. The possibility of Kyrie playing only on the road was quickly shot down by the Nets, and it seemed we were finally seeing an organization saying "no" to a superstar. Well, that didn't last very long.
PR damage control
Rumblings about Kyrie playing in road games were quickly shot down by Steve Nash in the beginning of October. "This is our home; this is where we're going to practice," said Nash to make it clear the Nets wouldn't start practicing in Long Island or New Jersey just so Kyrie could participate in workouts.
A head coach can only talk like this if he has the full support of the owner, and soon it became clear that's exactly the case. Joseph Tsai is a strong proponent of the vaccination and gave the head coach and GM thumbs up to take a firm stance - there will be no concessions to Irving. (Kyrie's unannounced vacation during last season didn't help with Tsai either).
So when the Nets announced Kyrie would be returning to the team to play in road games, everyone wondered why the sudden 180? The official version is that the number of players in Health & Safety due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant forced the Nets hand. Seems like it was just a facade to help Nets leadership save face.
“When I was with the Nets, there were rumblings [about Kyrie's return.] Those considerations were going on before the COVID wave hit the Nets. James Harden was complaining, not complaining, chirping about his minutes load, and even skipped a game in Detroit even though he had an off day on either side of it. Looking back, I think that was a part of a campaign to the team to say 'I need some help here.' I know that the Nets said that it was related to the COVID outbreak, and maybe they acquiesced at that moment because of the COVID outbreak, but the discussions about changing their stance started before the Nets roster got into COVID trouble.”
Brian Windhorst, The Hoop Collective
It's easy to have principles when everything is going well - they are tested when things get tough. The Nets may be in first place in the East, but the overall consensus is they are nowhere near a favorite without Kyrie. Durant and Harden understand what it takes to win in the Playoffs and they need Kyrie to do it. So as much as the Nets want to make it seem the outbreak forced their hand, that's not the case.
There's nothing they can say - they pivoted. And they pivoted because their star players made their opinions known. If you're gonna acquiesce to any player in the country, I can understand why you'd wanna go along with Kevin Durant.
Brian Windhorst, The Hoop Collective
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, soon after rejoining the team, Kyrie entered Health & Safety protocols. Omicron is higlhy infectious and seems like being on an NBA team is a "great" way to catch it. Given his unvaccinated status, we hope Kyrie's not experiencing serious symptoms and will be back with the team shortly.
After he rejoins the team, Irving will need some time to get back to basketball shape, but now that he's got the virus, the silver lining is that he should be OK until the end of the season. As KD is out at the same time as Kyrie, and Harden came back from Health & Safety on Christmas against the Lakers, the Nets should have all three stars available for the rest of the year - as far as COVID is concerned.
Still, the Nets pivot didn't come without backlash. Shaquille O'Neal has been very consistent in his criticism. If Shaq was on the Nets, he would've went up to management and politely ask to “Get (Kyrie) up out of here. Get him outta here. Get his ass out of here.” Now that the Nets flip-flopped on their position, Shaq was the first one to call them out.
“I hate when people make a big stand about what they’re gonna do. ‘Oh Kyrie if you’re not all in, don’t even come.’ The Brooklyn Nets organization wanna be all in, blah blah blah. Now since the Covid thing came up and a couple of guys are out. 'Oh, well, let you play, Mr. Kyrie. We can do that, Kyrie.' I don’t respect that. Of course, they panicked. They panicked for no reason. They sound like they’re number seventh in the league. You’re in first place, dummies. You don’t need him.”
Shaquille O’Neal, The Big Podcast
Joseph Tsai might've had enough of Kyrie and was willing to ice him out, but the moment KD and James Harden realized they aren't the favorites to win it all, Kyrie's return was only a question of time. No matter how many Hall of Famers call out the Nets, the only opinions that truly matter in that organization are the ones of Kyrie's superstar teammates.
I'm fine with that, but the players need to accept the responsibility that comes with the empowerment they fought for. When a different social issue comes up, and they start calling out decision-makers for double standards, this will come back to bite them in the ass - whether they like it or not.