Kyrie Irving
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Kyrie Irving’s return is almost upon us, which—and this could be shocking for some—will greatly enhance the product on the hardwood for the Brooklyn Nets.

We made it. Go ahead, give yourselves a round of applause, a pat on the back, times weren’t easy, but we powered through. It seems like another lifetime ago that Kyrie Irving went down with a shoulder injury (which really goes to show, an 82-game season is exhausting), but his return to action is imminent. And not a minute too soon for a Brooklyn Nets squad in the midst of their toughest stretch of the season.

Before we go any further, let’s give thanks to those who stepped up in Irving and Caris LeVert’s absence.

Players who frequented Brooklyn’s G-League affiliate in Long Island were forced into action and produced; Spencer Dinwiddie elevated his games to new heights; Kanny Atkinson proved yet again, he can get more with less, and most importantly, the team survived. In the 26 games Irving missed, the Nets went 13-13. Following a 4-7 start before the injury, I think the majority of fans will take that result.

Irving’s return synonymous with newfound hope

Alright, so what are we getting with Irving’s return? I mean, a quick glance at the resume shows a six-time NBA All-Star; 2016 NBA Champion; multiple All-NBA recipient, and a player that knocked down—arguably—the biggest shot of recent memory in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. But you knew that already, we knew that when Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted out Brooklyn’s “clean sweep” in June. Though he is still the player that his resume illustrates, now he also acts as a beacon of hope for brighter days.

The Nets are currently in the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. All things considering, not bad. This season may not be going in the direction most anticipated, but there is still excitement in the air. Why? Because fans believe that as a seventh seed, with Irving’s return and with a sleeping giant in street clothes occupying the bench, this is a team that can compete with the juggernauts of the conference.

Were the Nets a polished product in the 11 games that Kyrie Irving played in? Does a dolphin defecate in the woods? Answer: no. There was promise, there was intrigue, but the reality was they were 4-7. It was a disappointing start, but it also just that, a start.

Nets’ offensive dynamic with Irving

With Irving commanding the offense, the Nets had an offensive rating of 108.5—good for 10th in the NBA. The flipside to that coin being they had a defensive rating of 111.0, which was 25th at the time. This is a simplified explanation of what they were, they could score, but man, could they be scored on.

Without Irving in the lineup, the Nets have a 28th ranked offense (104.4 offensive rating). Likewise, they’re 30th in the NBA (31.6 percent) in three-point percentage without Irving, they were 12th (36.2 percent) with him in the lineup.

Irving’s ability to collapse opposing defenses onto his drives freed up catch-and-shoot threats from the perimeter. Joe Harris shot 56.5 percent from distance when receiving passes from Irving, Prince 52.0 percent, hell even Dinwiddie and LeVert both shot above 40 percent.

We know that Kenny Atkinson’s offense predicates heavily on the usage of pick-and-rolls, Irving thrived there, as well. He was in the 88th percentile (1.05 points per possession) on 13.7 pick-and-rolls per game as the primary ball-handler. And, in time, would’ve probably begun to build a strong rapport with Jarrett Allen—who is one of the better big men in the NBA off the roll.

He was averaging a career-high in assists (7.2). He also possessed a respectable assist to turnover ratio (3.0) despite a massive spike in his usage. Oh yeah, and he could in bunches too.

In summary, despite what people may think of Irving as an offensive player, the numbers illustrate that the Nets were better with him on the court. Who knew you couldn’t always rely on fabricated narratives?!

I mean… the defense could’ve been better…

Shockingly, progress was actually being made on the defensive end during the latter half of the first 11 games of the Nets’ season. In the final four games Irving played in, the Nets improved their defensive rating by 4.4 points. Which goes to show, a small sample size of games can really inflate stats for the better, or worse. We have to base an opinion on what we saw, but that isn’t to say things could not improve.

Individually, Irving was holding opponents to 46.1 percent shooting, and an impressive 28.6 percent from distance. His one-on-one defense was actually rather sound, he’s got good footwork and instinctive timing. Is he 1996 Gary Payton? No. But he’s not exactly Trae Young on that end, either.

Now the challenge is reincorporating Irving back into the lineup without forfeiting your fifth-ranked defense without him. I believe in you, Kenny!

In conclusion, be optimistic

So, all-in-all, Irving’s probable return to action Sunday against the Hawks could not have been better timing. Sitting at 17-20, neck-and-neck with the Magic for the seventh seed, the Nets could find themselves reinvigorated and play spirited basketball. Which, hypothetically, could translate to winning basketball. What I’m really looking for is rhythm and consistency, something that evaded this squad when they were healthy.

Because if they play to their capabilities, they could challenge whoever lands that second seed as a not-your-average seventh seed. Oh, and perhaps a certain sleeping giant awakens from his slumber this spring. I mean, it hasn’t officially been ruled out, it’s good to hold out optimism.

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