PHILADELPHIA — The Brooklyn Nets knew Kevin Durant would not be on the court during the 2019-20 NBA season. But while the team awaited Durant’s return, it could at least hope to have Kyrie Irving for the duration.
This was the beauty of Durant’s and Irving’s pledge to sign with Brooklyn. While the Nets will go only as far as Durant takes them, they’d get a full season to watch Irving and their young core get acclimated.
Given those plans included Irving and his injury-filled history, they were far from foolproof. So when Nets coach Kenny Atkinson stood outside the visitors locker room at Wells Fargo Center before Thursday night’s 112-104 overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers — hours after the team announced that Irving’s season was over after 20 games because of an upcoming shoulder surgery — he thought about what could have been.
“You wanted some time to work things out, work on our continuity and obviously work on the chemistry of the team and how we’re going to use him,” Atkinson said. “We’re not going to have that opportunity.”
“We’ll have to start fresh next season and figure it out quickly. But that is the disappointing part.”
This isn’t the first time Irving has seen his season end prematurely. This is now his ninth NBA season, and he has missed at least 15 games in six of them — including four of the past five.
He fractured his left kneecap in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, causing him to have surgery that forced him to miss the rest of that series and the first two months of the 2015-16 season.
Injuries to the same knee prematurely cut short his 2017-18 season — his first in Boston after asking to be traded away from Cleveland Cavaliers the prior summer — when a pair of surgeries in March made him sit out the final month of the regular season and Boston’s run to Game 7 against LeBron James and the Cavaliers that spring.
And now this season is over early after first Irving earlier sat out two months because of a right shoulder impingement — only to come back for two weeks, miss another five games because of a right knee sprain and then decide to undergo surgery to end his first season in Brooklyn.
Those are just a few of the many injuries Irving has suffered throughout his career, going back to when a toe injury cost him all but 11 games during his lone season at Duke in 2010-2011. Since then, the injuries have piled up, including: a concussion, fractured finger, broken hand, facial fracture, a scratched cornea and multiple body bruises.
So it’s no surprise Nets general manager Sean Marks said the team was playing the long game with Irving’s health, especially in the wake of Durant officially ruling himself out for the rest of this season earlier this week.
“I think we look at our players’ long-term health as the No. 1 priority,” Marks said. “Kyrie has been adamant like the rest of us that he would take one cortisone shot and see how it goes.
“We are looking at the big picture here. We are not looking at the next two to three months. We are looking at the next two to three years.”
While the Nets are focused on next season, when Durant and Irving will presumably be back on the court, they have proven to be effective even when Irving isn’t available to play — similar to Irving’s previous teams.
After Thursday’s loss, the Nets are now an even 17-17 this season when Irving sits, compared to 8-12 in the games in which he has played. Last season, Boston was much better when Irving didn’t play (12-3) compared to when he did (37-30). Meanwhile, after making the Eastern Conference finals with Irving sidelined in 2017-18, Boston lost a round earlier to the Milwaukee Bucks last season.
Even in 2015, while James and the Cavaliers were severely undermanned after losing both Irving and Kevin Love to season-ending injuries during the playoffs, James took on a herculean load and dragged Cleveland to a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals almost by himself.
Brooklyn might have a harder time generating offense without Irving, but this version of the Nets has defended well, and they feel as if they have a point to prove. Only the Bucks have given up fewer than the 102.9 points per 100 possessions since Feb. 2, the day after Irving’s final game of the season; Brooklyn has won four of six games while giving up a league-low 8.2 3s per game in that span.
Much of the core of last season’s playoff team — including Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen — remains. Throw in additions like DeAndre Jordan, Garrett Temple and Taurean Prince, and there’s no reason the seventh-place Nets can’t remain above the eighth-place Orlando Magic and ninth-place Washington Wizards in the pillow fight for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots.
“I think our approach obviously is that it’s unfortunate, and it sucks, but we feel confident in the group that we have to be competitive,” Harris said before the game. “We still look at it like this is an opportunity for everybody in this locker room.
“We’re trying to make a push for the playoffs. We aren’t there yet. We are obviously sitting in a good spot in terms of being in the playoff race, but we are not satisfied with that. We know the second half of the year is big for everybody, and obviously the last 25 games are a chance for us to make a push and try to get better.”
The Nets hoped they’d spend this time improving around one of their two superstars. Despite the potential of this gap year without Durant, Irving’s latest setback means Brooklyn could enter 2020-21 with serious pressure to win right away combined with little continuity to give the roster an immediate boost.