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Double dribble: Nets' title dreams hanging by a thread due to Irving, Harden dramas

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Expert
7th November, 2021
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Heading into the season the Brooklyn Nets were considered by many to be NBA title favourites but less than a month in and their championship hopes are a mess.

Kyrie Irving has chosen not to get vaccinated and James Harden has chosen not to get fit while also struggling with the new rules, leaving Kevin Durant as the sole superstar the Nets can rely upon.

Durant is still playing at an MVP level but the 33-year-old is carrying a heavy load for a player who missed the entire 2019-20 season with a torn Achilles and then sat out more than half of Brooklyn’s regular season last year due to various injuries.

Starting with Monday morning’s trip to Toronto, the Nets are entering a stretch of five road games over eight days.

They’ve got the vastly improved Bulls next in Chicago and then three teams they should steamroll in the Magic, Pelicans and Thunder.

At 6-3 leading into this road trip it’s hardly time to panic for Steve Nash’s squad and the Nets are still the favourites with the bookmakers to win the title, but would you drop any bitcoin on this team?

Irving may not suit up for a game at all this season after New York City mayor-elect Eric Adams said he would not be changing the COVID-19 vaccination that prevents the All Star guard from entering the Barclays Center, or Madison Square Garden for that matter, to play games.

Kyrie Irving.

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The Nets made the decision before the start of the season to tell Irving they would not welcome him back into camp just to play away games due to his stance, which he tried to justify recently in an Instagram Live post, which said a lot but explained little about his polarising beliefs.

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They’ve since made it known they’d be open to trading the former NBA championship winner from Cleveland’s 2016 upset of Golden State but there has been no movement on that front, at least nothing that has been made public.

The NBA has a proud history of players standing up for their rights and the the plight of the less fortunate.

Irving could have coupled his prodigious talent with righteous causes like NBA icons Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his former Cavaliers teammate, LeBron James, have done to great acclaim.

Players have united in recent years to use their platform to support the Black Lives Matter movement, the Bucks refused to line up for a playoff game after a police shooting while Irving’s former teammate Enes Kanter has spoken out about the authoritarian rule of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his homeland of Turkey.

But Irving has chosen a different path, one that he has never clearly articulated, which is doing untold damage to his reputation, his career and the team that signed him to a four-year deal worth $US140 million and runs until the end of the 2022-23 season.

Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets

(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

As the Nets have ruled he is ineligible for games outside New York state even though he could technically play in other arenas apart from the Warriors’ facility in San Francisco, he will still be paid his contract money for away games.

In rough terms he will still pocket around US$19 million if he refuses to get the jab this season but lose around US$16 million.

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And he only needs to get one COVID-19 vaccination, not even be double-vaxxed.

Harden has shown a similar lack of selflessness for his team by coming into the season woefully out of shape – at what point does a player’s lack of physical fitness become a breach of contract?

He claimed his off-season was disrupted by his recovery from a hamstring injury, which limited him to role player status in last season’s playoffs.

But no one who saw his embarrassing effort to chase down a ball against the Pistons on the weekend can say he’s in game-ready shape.

Weight issues aside, Harden has been the biggest loser from the NBA’s new points of emphasis for the referees who are no longer favouring offensive players making non-basketball movements in order to attract fouls.

James Harden #13 talks with Patty Mills #8 of the Brooklyn Nets

(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

After his first nine outings, his per game numbers have plummeted across the board – 24.6 points to 17.7, which is his worst output in a decade, his free throws are now at an average of 4.7, which is more than seven fewer than his peak at Houston three years ago, assists and steals are also down while he’s turning the ball over at a tick under five times per game.

Brooklyn’s support cast – apart from Boomers guard Patty Mills, who has been on fire from distance – is barely giving Durant enough back-up with the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap battling Father Time in a bid to add a championship ring to their illustrious careers before retiring.

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If the Nets can trade Irving or get him to change his mind and if Harden can overcome his fitness and output problems, they can still challenge for the title.

But the way things are going, this could be yet another ill-fated season for a franchise that has an unfortunate history of ‘what might have been’ scenarios.

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Keep your eyes on…

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Phoenix
The brilliant expose by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes on Suns owner Robert Sarver has the potential to derail their 2021-22 campaign after they went so close to their first championship in last season’s run to the NBA Finals.

While Sarver has denied the many claims of racism and misogyny in the article, his continued ownership of the team is now subject to an NBA investigation.

And that ongoing distraction could have dire results for coach Monty Williams and the team headed by backcourt duo Chris Paul and Devin Booker and centre Deandre Ayton.

Trae Young
After playing the pantomime villain role superbly to lead the Hawks in a surprise run to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals, the star guard is copping major backlash following Atlanta’s 4-6 start after saying he finds the regular season boring.

The new rules have also not helped Young and with road games against Golden State, Utah and Denver, followed by a home clash with champions Milwaukee, it’s a big week for the Hawks.

Trade talk at the Celtics
They’ve had the players’ only meeting then a couple of bounceback wins over Orlando (no great feat) and Miami, but Boston are back to 4-6 after their weekend loss to Dallas.

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Former coach Brad Stevens won’t pull the trigger just yet in the president of basketball operations’ chair on a trade, especially involving Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, but the likes of Marcus Smart and Dennis Schröder should not be renewing any leases in the near future.

Aussies in the big show
Hopefully we see Matisse Thybulle back on court soon. On the weekend he was placed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols after teammates Isaiah Joe and Tobias Harris are believed to have tested positive to COVID-19.

Thybulle, whose locker is next to Joe’s, sat on the bench next to him in the win over Chicago on Thursday and had to miss Sunday’s game, another victory over the Bulls.

Boomers big man Jock Landale made the most of his opportunity for the Spurs in garbage time during the week against Indiana.

After only getting six minutes and one free throw across three brief appearances and a few DNPs to start the season, he scored ten points in 5:20 minutes, plus an assist and a rebound.

Must-watch matches this week…

Monday – Bucks @ Wizards, 10am AEDT
Milwaukee are 4-5. Not many teams historically start the first ten games of a season at .500 or below and make the finals so the Bucks need to shake off their championship hangover against the surprisingly good Wizards (6-3).

Tuesday – Hornets @ Lakers, 2.30pm AEDT
LaMelo Ball versus Russell Westbrook, both teams 5-5, no LeBron James, this should be a beauty.

Wednesday – Blazers @ Clippers, 2pm AEDT
Damian Lillard versus Paul George, it’s pretty much a couple of one-man teams at the moment. They don’t like each other either after Dame drained a 37-footer over George to knock him and the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs a couple of years ago and he unsportingly called the Portland star’s game-winner “a bad shot”.

Thursday – Mavericks @ Bulls, 12pm AEDT
Each team has won six of nine, a nice start to the season, but questions remain over whether Chicago’s the real deal and whether Kristaps Porzingis, on the comeback trail from yet another injury, can be Luka Doncic’s wingman when the lights get bright.

Friday – Raptors @ Sixers, 11am AEDT
Toronto have soldiered on superbly despite Pascal Siakam being sidelined with injury while Philadelphia have done likewise despite Ben Simmons being away from the team, as yet with no trade package in return, and COVID-19 causing havoc with their squad in recent days.

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