Over the weekend, Kyrie Irving spoke publicly for the first time about the shoulder ailment that has kept him on the sidelines since the middle of November. Diagnosed with a shoulder impingement, Irving got a cortisone shot on Christmas Eve in an attempt to postpone or eliminate the need for surgery but has been unable to return for the Brooklyn Nets thus far.
For the Nets, who sit at 16-19 in seventh place in the Eastern Conference (as of this writing), that might actually be a good thing.
In the 11 games Irving played for the Nets before getting injured, he averaged 28.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 93.7 percent from the line.
Impressive numbers to be sure, except in one category: wins.
With Irving on the floor for those 11 games, the Nets only went 4-7, even losing an opening night game that saw the 27-year-old guard drop 50 points on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In the 24 games the Nets have played this season without the All-Star in the lineup, Brooklyn has gone 12-12, winning games against the Boston Celtics (25-8), Philadelphia 76ers (23-14) and Denver Nuggets (24-11) in the process.
Though the Nets have struggled of late, they’re still in the mix for a playoff spot and the biggest catalyst for Brooklyn’s improved play without Irving on the floor has to be his backup, Spencer Dinwiddie.
A starter last season who was relegated to the bench after Irving arrived in Brooklyn during the offseason, Dinwiddie averaged 27 points, 3.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists while shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 73.3 percent from the line in 13 December games. Overall, Dinwiddie has led the Nets in both scoring and assists 16 times this season, a feat Irving only managed five times.
Dinwiddie, 26, has done a great Irving impression that has one major difference from the original: the team is winning at a better clip.
That’s nothing new with Irving as subtracting him from the lineup also helped his last teams add victories in the win column. During his two seasons with the Celtics, he played a total of 127 regular-season games in all, missing 37 due to injury. With Irving in the lineup, the Celtics went 78-49, good for a 61.4 percent winning percentage. Without him, the Celtics went 26-15 during the regular season, a 63.4 percent winning percentage.
While that isn’t a huge difference overall, Boston’s play last season was markedly better during the regular season without Irving on the floor as the Celtics went 12-3 when he was away from the team.
There’s only a small sample size, but the Celtics were also better in the playoffs without Irving. During last year’s postseason, the team went 5-4 and lost in the second round. The year before when Irving was out with an injury, Boston went 11-8 and made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals before finally losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Looking at all of that data as a whole, the Nets and Celtics were a combined 87-60 with Kyrie in the lineup (59.1 winning percentage) and 49-35 without him (58.3 winning percentage).
While it may not be fair to say Irving’s last two teams have been worse with him playing, they certainly have not been better when he suits up. And that’s problematic, to say the least.
Part of the reason for that is he’s had great backups in Dinwiddie with the Nets and Terry Rozier with the Celtics, but part of the reason is that Irving, for all of his talent, has not figured out how to win when he’s the best player on a team.
Luckily for the Nets, that shouldn’t be a long-term problem as Kevin Durant should be able to return next season and take over as the alpha dog in Brooklyn. It may not be an issue in the short-term either because, as Irving revealed during his talk with the media, he’s still having trouble lifting his shoulder and could opt to have surgery which would likely sideline him for three or four months.
Should that end up happening, the Nets won’t be any better, but they certainly won’t be any worse.
Just ask the Celtics (25-9 with Kemba Walker instead of Irving this season).