Kyrie Irving has admitted that during his time away from the Nets, he had no idea if he was going to get cut or traded away. And even after he did return, he never felt fully himself.
“I never felt like I was back,” Irving said on “The ETCs with Kevin Durant” podcast.
That may come as a shock to Nets fans who watched as Irving scored 50 points in a March 8 win at Charlotte, then topped that two games later by pouring in an NBA season-high 60 on March 15 at Orlando. The 60 points were a career-high and earned a standing ovation from Magic fans.
Still, despite the huge scoring nights and at-times spectacular plays, Irving claimed he never got his legs fully beneath him due to all the months he missed at the beginning of the season from his refusal to adhere to New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine command.
He said he was more or less running on adrenaline, just happy to be on the court playing.
“There was nothing to lose, do you know?” Irving said. “It was only the journey to enjoy at that point, because I was sitting at home and — I don’t even want to say sitting at home, I was wondering at home what my future was going to look like, you know? Whether I was going to be traded, whether I was going to be released, whether I was going to get the opportunity to be on another team, how I was going to spin this for myself in a positive way.
“So, I kept affirming to myself things are going to change. I had people around me — and I’m grateful for them — affirming that things were going to change. But I never felt like myself throughout the season, because I’m usually sustaining a level of growth throughout the year, instead of trying to catch up with everybody that’s been playing for four or five months. They’ve been at it every day since October or September.”
While it seems unlikely the Nets would have waived Irving, the fact is general manager Sean Marks and team owner Joe Tsai had tabled a four-year, $187 million max contract in the offseason, and talks stopped after Irving refused to get vaccinated against COVID- 19.
The city’s vaccine mandates at the time prevented him from playing home games and the Nets told him he couldn’t be a part-time player, essentially shelving him altogether.
But Irving waited out first the Nets, then New York City.
After the Nets relented and let him play on the road, Irving made his season debut Jan. 5 at Indiana. Then, once new Mayor Eric Adams gave athletes and entertainers an exemption from the vaccine mandate, Irving made his Barclays Center debut on March 27 against the Hornets.
“We’re trying to be practical. And I’ve always said I don’t want to make this a political issue,” Tsai told The Post the night the Nets made their decision to allow Irving to play on the road. “My only religion is to win games and win the championship. That’s where we are.”
And Irving boosted his numbers every single month as he began to acclimate to playing first just road games, then every night.
Irving averaged 24.5 points and 5.4 assists in January. I have bumped that to 25.7 and 5.3 in February, 30.0 and 6.1 in March and finally 30.0 and 6.4 in April.
“I was at it [for less time] … September, October, I was healing from my ankle injury, and I was still dealing with that,” Irving said. “And when we got into training camp in San Diego, I was not expecting a mandate to be brought down in a way that it wasn’t going to allow me to play at all like.
“I had the opportunity to play away games still, but there was no plan in place, there was no vision of how it’s going to work for our team. And I think that really impacted not just me, but a lot of people. SW [I] just had to sit; sit in that hot seat for a little bit and deal with it.”