Irving poured in 22 points on 9-17 shooting from the field while contributing three rebounds and four assists.
He played 32 minutes in his first game back after an eight-month absence.
Kyrie Irving tonight:
53% FG pic.twitter.com/oloBQepiJH
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) January 6, 2022
Kyrie’s return comes after the Nets doubled back on their decision from before the season started.
New York City’s vaccination mandate required all people 12 or older to show proof of vaccination for “Indoor entertainment and certain meeting spaces”.
This included the Barclays Center, meaning Irving would be ineligible to play in home games.
Brooklyn originally said they would not allow Irving to play with the team at all but changed their stance a month ago.
With the star point guard joining the team again for practices and away games, the questions will now be about on-court matters.
How should Nash stagger their minutes to ensure one is always on the court?
And most importantly, what should the ideal starting lineup be for when Irving is both playing and absent.
Ideal Lineup With Irving
Any starting five featuring Irving will have plenty of offensive firepower.
He will be flanked by his two co-stars in Durant and Harden.
The strain their collective talents put on opposing defenses will be immense.
So, the question becomes who are the two players that will complement them best?
Nic Claxton should be one of those players.
His length and athleticism make him an extremely versatile defender.
Claxton can switch across all five positions and hold his own against smaller guards despite his 6-foot-11 height.
On offense, he provides Irving and Harden with a lob target out of the pick and roll.
Claxton won’t stretch the floor but also doesn’t need the ball in his hands to have an impact.
Nic Claxton on two defenders 💪 pic.twitter.com/AsJwFMVZXc
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) December 11, 2021
The other player next to Brooklyn’s Big Three should be Joe Harris.
He may not be a lockdown perimeter defender, but he also isn’t a revolving door on the perimeter.
And Harris’s main skill counterbalances any defensive shortcomings.
Harris is an absolute sniper from three.
He’s knocking down 46.6 percent of his 6.3 triples per game and has two of the top 30 seasons all-time in terms of three-point shooting percentage.
The threat he poses off the ball on offense furthers the strain put on defenses.
If defenses decide to double one of the Nets’ stars, they risk leaving open a 44 percent career shooter from three.
A starting five of Harden, Irving, Harris, Durant, and Claxton should be what the Nets go with.
Durant and Claxton are good enough defensively to hold down the fort on that end.
While the synergy and flow of the offense will decimate opposing defenses.
Ideal Lineup Without Kyrie
Irving will only be back for away games, so Brooklyn will have plenty of games without him playing.
Durant and Harden will still bend defenses but will need help to supplement the loss of scoring without Kyrie.
When thinking of an ideal lineup, it is still best to review what the team has run with throughout the course of the season.
Bruce Brown replacing Claxton was used for 11 games early in the season.
An ideal starting five without Irving should still try to maintain as much chemistry as possible.
That means Harris and Claxton should both remain in the starting five.
Claxton’s versatility on defense and Harris’s shooting prowess are excellent complements next to Harden and Durant.
The final spot should go to Mills.
He has been in the starting lineup since Harris left with an injury on November 14th.
While he may not provide the defensive upside of a Brown or DeAndre’ Bembry, Mills is a closer representation of Irving’s game.
The 33-year-old veteran has championship experience and has the offensive game to relieve some of the offensive burdens from Durant and Harden.
Top 10 in catch and shoot 3PT% so far this season (min. 110 attempts)
Luke Kennard – 45.3%
Patty Mills – 45.3%
Steph Curry – 42.6%
Pat Connaughton – 42.5%
Lonzo Ball – 42.3%
Melo Anthony – 40.8%
Cam Johnson – 40.5%
KAT – 40.5%
Kelly Oubre – 40.4%
Grayson Allen – 40.3%
— Al (@balleracha) December 14, 2021
Mills is shooting 42.5 percent from deep this year on 7.6 attempts per game.
His +1.8 Offensive Expected Plus/Minus ranks in the 89th percentile while his overall EPM of +0.3 ranks in the 71st percentile.
And the two lineups with greater than 100 possessions that feature Mills, Harden, and Durant are +6.6 and +11.3, respectively, in efficiency differential.
A Harden, Mills, Harris, Durant, Claxton starting five with Irving out should provide some continuity and give Brooklyn the best chance to win.