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NBA Betting Observations: The Question of Kyrie Irving 

NBA

Following a lengthy absence due to a shoulder injury, Kyrie Irving made his return to the Brooklyn Nets’ lineup on Sunday in the team’s 108-86 blowout win against the Atlanta Hawks. In a mere 19 minutes, Irving reminded everyone of his supreme offensive talent. He scored 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting, for a career-high shooting percentage of 90.9%. Irving is known to let his play send a message, and this one was clear: I’m back. The question is, does he actually help or hinder the Brooklyn Nets? 

Like much with Kyrie, his recent shoulder injury was shrouded in mystery. At first, he was meant to miss only a few games. Then, there was a complete lack of information, as the missed outings piled up. Eventually, there was some discussion that Irving may get some sort of season-ending surgery. Yet, mere days after that chatter, Irving was suddenly gearing up to return. By Sunday, he was scoring for fun. There is not a person in the basketball world who would ever doubt Irving’s ability to score the ball. He’s an absolute maestro with the ball in his hands, and can hit any shot in the book. However, throughout his career, there have been a ton of questions about his overall impact on his team, his ability to play winning basketball, and his seemingly negative impact on team chemistry. 

After supposed issues working alongside LeBron James, this noise reached their zenith in Irving’s short two-year stay with the Boston Celtics. Irving was brought in after he demanded a trade from Cleveland, and was meant to lift the Celtics into title-contending status. Yet, throughout his time in Boston, many observers wondered if the team was actually better without Kyrie on the floor. All told, Irving played 127 games for Boston, and the team went 78-49, for a winning percentage of 61.4%. In the 41 games he missed, the Celtics went 26-15, victorious at a 63.4% clip. The questions got particularly loud as Boston went on a run all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019, after Kyrie was ruled out for the year. All told, the team went 11-8 in the postseason without Kyrie, getting to within a game of the Finals, and with him in the fold, the team went 5-4, and embarrassingly limped out of the second round in five games to Milwaukee. The chemistry issues were loud and clear during that series, and the writing was on the wall that Kyrie would never play for Boston again.  

Through his time in Boston, the advanced numbers told largely the same story. The Celtics were significantly better on offense, but faced a defensive drop-off with Kyrie on the floor. Irving has dealt with questions of his defensive effort throughout his career, and the numbers do not lie. In fairness to Irving, he was 14th in Offensive Win Shares, 17th in Win Shares, and eighth in assist percentage. The last number is particularly intriguing, and suggests that some of the ball-hogging concerns may have been a touch overblown. 

Despite the small sample size, his time in Brooklyn is off to much the same start. Brooklyn’s offensive rating is 8.4 points higher with Irving on the floor, but opponents’ offensive rating is 4.7 points higher when Irving is playing. However, in the thirteen games he has played, he has an assist percentage of 36%, even higher than last year’s mark. He’s also posting a PER of 26.6 and a Win Share Percentage of .220 in Brooklyn, both significant rises from last seasonIrving is ninth in the NBA in Box Plus-Minus. That said, the win-loss record tells much the same story. The Nets are 13-13 without Irving this year, and 5-8 when he plays. He really has yet to show that he substantially improves the prospects of an NBA basketball team, despite retaining superstar status.  

It seems obvious to say, but for awhile now, the chemistry issues that surround Irving seems strange, but real. There have already been a handful of moments where Irving’s actions and body language with the Nets has caused concern, and although Irving thinks such analysis is absurd, there have been rumors that the organization is already worried about his fit with a team whose selflessness was a calling card as it dramatically exceeded expectations last season.  

Another number that has risen substantially in his short stint with Brooklyn is his usage rating, which has ballooned to 32.6%, up from 28.6% last season. It is his huge role in the offense that threatens to complicate things for the middling Nets. When Irving went down, backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie stepped up. He was massive for the team, as it stabilized its season by going 6-2 SU in its first eight without Irving. Dinwiddie is averaging 22.1 PPG and 6.4 APG. He also has a usage rate of 30.3%. Obviously, these two players cannot dominate play to this extent when they are both in the lineup. For the time being, Dinwiddie looks set to continue starting for Brooklyn, this time alongside Irving, in what could be a weird fit. Dinwiddie became Brooklyn’s leader over the last 26 games, and is incredibly well-liked by his teammates. Now, Irving steps in as the self-anointed leader of ‘his’ team, and in the past, such conflicts have not gone smoothly when Kyrie is involved. It would be silly to overreact to one game, but the fact that Dinwiddie had his least impactful scoring game of the season in Irving’s first game back (seven points on seven shots), is somewhat telling.  

The real trouble is the Nets do not have much margin of error going forward, given their mediocre start. At 18-20 SU Brooklyn can be reasonably confident that it will make the playoffs in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, but its play would have to dramatically improve to have any hope of securing a top-six seed. Both so far this season, and over the last couple of Irving’s career, there’s little to suggest that is what is to come for Brooklyn now.  

It’s hard to imagine that Irving could have picked a more difficult time to reintegrate with his teammates. The next five games represent Brooklyn’s most difficult run of games this season. The Nets take on a surging Jazz team in Brooklyn on Tuesday. That is followed up by a four-game run that features two matchups against Philadelphia, one against Milwaukee, and one against the Lakers. It is hard to see Brooklyn performing particularly well in this ten-day period, given the changes it will be undergoing now that Irving is back as the team’s Alpha. What will be critical to monitor is how the team and staff react if the team does struggle in this stretch. The fact is, this is a tough run even if Irving was immediately back to his best and the team was more familiar with him in the lineup. How would the team’s chemistry be impacted if another slide coincided with his return? From a betting perspective, the best decision may be a cautious approach, given the uncertainty in how the team will react and the possibility that the Nets will continue to micro-manage Irving’s minutes. That said, Irving has the reputation of a superstar that exceeds his actual impact on the floor. There’s every chance that Brooklyn get too much respect on the lines during this period. Keep an eye out to see if that’s what takes place, in which case it may pay to fade the Nets as they restart the Kyrie Irving Era.