Through the first seven games of the season with his new team, Irving is averaging 32 points, eight assists and six rebounds while shooting 47 percent from the field, 38 percent from 3-point range and 93 percent from the free-throw line. The 27-year-old point guard currently ranks fifth in Player Efficiency Rating behind Karl Anthony-Towns, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.
A massive Nike billboard featuring Irving and a quote — “In my heart, I knew I always wanted to play at home.” — now sits near Madison Square Garden. It probably won’t make New York Knicks owner James Dolan very happy. But the “Blueprint For Greatness” may actually be for real this time around.
In Monday’s 135-125 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, Irving posted a 39-9-4 line while shooting 13-for-21 from the field. Afterward, his former GM in Cleveland, David Griffin, told Irving outside the home locker room at Barclays Center: “‘I don’t know how many shots you took, but you scored too many points.’”
Griffin was joking, of course. And the pair chatted for about 15 minutes before hugging and parting ways.
But that’s been a legitimate concern in Brooklyn: Can the Nets be successful with Irving dominating the ball this much? Is he going to turn out to be more Stephon Marbury than Jason Kidd? The Nets head into their first road trip — which begins on Friday — with a 3-4 record, having lost to Minnesota, Memphis, Indiana (minus Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner) and Detroit (minus Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson).
Irving has shouldered the brunt of the criticism, with his leadership abilities called into question. And given what transpired in Boston, it’s possible that history could end up repeating itself in Brooklyn.
But given his all-world production so far, Irving is hardly to blame for the team’s slow start.
“Just be patient with us and we’ll get there,” Irving told fans during an on-court interview after the game.
Here are a few areas the Nets need to clean up:
Defense: Brooklyn currently ranks 19th in defensive efficiency, allowing 109 points per 100 possessions. On Monday night, facing a Pelicans team that was without No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, the Nets yielded 48 points in the third quarter. Brandon Ingram posted a career-high 40 points on the night, as Brooklyn nearly blew a 20-point lead before holding on late. “That’s unacceptable,” Jarrett Allen said. Each loss has come with a different player going off — whether it be Towns (36 points), Ja Morant (30 points), Domantas Sabonis (29 points) or Andre Drummond (25 points). “They have lapses in intensity and effort,” one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. Against Houston, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson held up a cue card with Dennis Scott’s photo on it, encouraging his team to communicate and defend the 3-point line. Caris LeVert has been benched down the stretch of two games so far for defensive purposes, though he did score 10 points in the final period on Monday.
Turnovers: The Nets are seventh in offensive efficiency, scoring 110 points per 100 possessions, which is really good. But they could be even better if they’d simply take care of the ball. Brooklyn ranks 27th in turnover rate, with 18 percent of its possessions ending up in the hands of the opposition. The Nets had 23 turnovers against the Pelicans. They were able to survive that ghastly number versus a rebuilding team, but likely won’t be as fortunate on the road against the likes of Portland, Phoenix, Utah and Denver if it continues.
Bench: Atkinson was known for playing 11 guys in his rotation last season, but has shortened things up to eight or nine so far in 2019-20. And it’s going to be tough to sustain that over the course of an 82-game marathon. Spencer Dinwiddie is shooting just 39 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the arc. With DeAndre Jordan on the court, the Nets are being outscored by 13 points per 100 possessions. With Allen on the court, the Nets are outscoring their opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions. Jordan suffered a left ankle sprain on Monday night, and his status going forward is uncertain. Garrett Temple has been inconsistent, though he gives Brooklyn a capable floor-spacing option when he’s connecting from downtown. Rodions Kurucs has been a turnover machine. David Nwaba hasn’t played since the loss against Indiana. Atkinson has found success playing LeVert with the second unit, but the Nets need to be better with Irving off the court — and perhaps go to him a bit earlier at times before their leads all but evaporate.
It hasn’t been all bad, though. The Nets rank tied for the league lead in 3-point percentage (40) and third in rebounding (50 per game). Joe Harris is shooting 55 percent from beyond the arc, while Taurean Prince has shown flashes of why Brooklyn GM Sean Marks elected to give him a two-year, $29 million extension. Atkinson now has a few days of valuable practice time to help his team jell as a unit. He called it getting back into “training-camp mode.” “We definitely have some work to do,” Atkinson said. “We have a long way to go.”
“Just have to be prepared for whatever the game brings and manage a lead with maturity,” Irving said. “It’s going to take some time. But just staying with my teammates, staying patient with them is what it’s going to take.”
With Kevin Durant expected to miss the entire season due to an Achilles injury, some have billed this season a “development year.” And Atkinson has brought up on more than one occasion wanting to prove prognosticators wrong. It’s not like the team has to sell free agents this time around. Irving, Durant and Jordan are already in Brooklyn. Ticket sales are up 72 percent from 2018-19, while the team’s Instagram followers have doubled.
The Nets were virtually tied with the Knicks in television ratings during the 10 p.m. hour of their Oct. 25 victory over New York in Brooklyn.
Given the astronomical size discrepancy between the fan bases, that’s something. “We’re going to take over the whole city,” Irving said recently.
That possibility, of course, is remote. Championships would help close the gap. But this has always been a Knicks town. Regardless, the Nets have to shoot much higher than that. “We’ve never been focused on winning over New York,” Marks said during the offseason.
For Brooklyn, the focus needs to be on getting better. It needs to be on consistently winning games and — at the very least — making the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. The Nets are going to need to make adjustments for that to happen. Because lackadaisical defense and careless turnovers are no way to live. And it can’t just all be on Kyrie Irving.
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