Ian Begley, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Wondering why the Nets are hovering below .500 nearly 15 games into the season? Kenny Atkinson offered a succinct answer to that question earlier this week: "Below-average teams are inconsistent, and that's what we are right now."
The head coach made that statement on Monday, after the Nets lost for the fourth time in five games.
Brooklyn beat Charlotte on Wednesday, while playing without Kyrie Irving (shoulder) and Caris LeVert (hand). Given the injuries, it's understandable that the club is scuffling a bit.
But even before Irving went down, even the most ardent Nets fan would acknowledge that the club was playing below expectations.
Why is that?
ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said on Thursday "people are putting stuff out there" about Irving's "mood" and "attitude" negatively impacting the Nets. This comes a few weeks after ESPN's Jackie MacMullan reported that Nets officials were concerned about Irving's mood swings.
Publicly, Nets players and Atkinson have strongly refuted the claims.
That's happened privately, as well.
One person in touch with several Nets players told SNY on Friday that any suggestion that Irving's attitude or mood has negatively impacted Brooklyn is "inaccurate."
"It hasn't been an issue," that person said.
There will probably continue to be speculation about Irving's impact on the Nets this season for two reasons:
Irving is the face of the franchise until Kevin Durant returns from injury.
Fairly or not, he has been given less-than-glowing reviews as a teammate from people with his previous teams -- the Cavs and Celtics -- according to various reports.
Regarding Boston, Irving said, candidly, earlier this season that he failed the young Celtics in a leadership role last season.
The view here is that it's unfair to pin all of Boston's struggles last year on Irving (Gordon Hayward didn't play well in his first season following a major injury). But the Celtics have largely thrived this season with Kemba Walker replacing Irving at point guard. So until Irving, who has missed the past week with a shoulder injury, and the Nets start winning, the narrative questioning Irving's leadership will persist.
But it's unfair to state -- at this point -- that Irving's leadership is in any way negatively impacting the Nets.
As noted by The Ringer's Dan Devine earlier this week, there are troubling statistical trends - bench production, defense - that are independent of Irving. Devine also points out the Nets are isolating more and passing less, which can probably be attributed to Irving to some degree.
With Brooklyn set to visit Madison Square Garden on Sunday for the first time since Irving and Durant signed with the Nets, it's worth noting that the struggling Knicks enter the weekend with just two fewer wins than Brooklyn.
Amid the Nets' slow start, there's been some premature suggestions from NBA fans on social media that New York has a brighter future than Brooklyn.
"Just stop," one Western Conference exec said earlier this week when it was brought to his attention. "It's been 15 games."
No matter how things play out for the Knicks and Nets over the next few seasons, they'll always be linked by geography and by Irving and Durant's free agency decisions.
The Knicks believed they had a shot at Durant and, by extension, Irving, entering the summer.
Given how things unfolded in July, it's logical to see Irving as a catalyst for the move.
After committing to re-sign with Boston, Irving publicly stated early last season that the Knicks were one of the teams he would have considered in free agency.
How and why the Knicks ultimately fell off of Irving's list of preferred suitors is unclear.
After signing with Brooklyn, Irving said publicly that he wanted to return home and wanted an opportunity to play with Durant and Jordan. He commended the Nets for providing a family-friendly atmosphere.
But it's fair to assume there were other factors that led to Irving's decision that haven't been discussed publicly.
Some executives in touch with Irving's camp ahead of free agency said they were left with the impression that Irving was seeking a roster that was ready to win immediately and one that had a veteran presence after his experience with Boston.
That factor could have hurt the Knicks.
As reported over the summer, Irving and those around him assessed his free-agent suitors -- including the Nets and Knicks -- from a 'top-down' perspective, sources said. That included ownership, the front office and the roster.
It's unknown how heavily ownership factored in to Irving's decision -- if it did significantly at all.
But some people in touch with Irving ahead of his free agency were left with the impression that Nets owner Joe Tsai -- co-founder of the Alibaba group and someone who presumably could help players access the Chinese market -- would have been his preference over Knicks owner James Dolan.
Of course, it's also worth pointing out here that many with the Knicks were opposed to signing Irving as the team's lone free agent last summer, sources say. Those people saw Irving as a package deal with Durant, which, in their eyes, made the Irving acquisition palatable.
But given how Irving factored into the Nets' acquisitions and how those moves impacted New York, it's not an exaggeration to say the fate of Irving and New York be intertwined for the next few seasons.
If Brooklyn reaches its goals under Irving and the Knicks continue to flounder, we'll look back at the Knicks' 2019 free agency and say they should have pursued Irving with more fervor (along with a laundry list of other things New York should have done). But if Brooklyn falters under Irving and Durant and New York can build a competitive roster, perhaps the Knicks' 2019 free agency will be looked a little less harshly.