Now in their eighth season in Brooklyn, the Nets still don’t have their identity quite yet.
That’s at least what star point guard Kyrie Irving sees in a rather inexperienced side that is 18-20 through 38 games this season.
But he’s here to shed the reputation of not being an exemplary teammate and fix that.
“We need a lot more teaching to be done, especially for our younger-year players,” Irving said. “We’re continuing to build what the Brooklyn Nets culture is. I still think that’s yet to be defined. We have a chance to define it with the guys in our locker room here.
The 27-year-old All-Star returned to the floor for the first time in 26 games on Sunday night — returning from a shoulder impingement issue — in impressive fashion, dropping 21 points in 20 minutes while shooting 10-of-11 from the field. That’s a 90-percent success rate for all you mathematicians at home.
“I mean, I’m not going to shoot 10-for-11. I hope I can every night, but the reality is I got it going, I felt pretty good attacking the rim,” he said after the game. “I’m very grateful for having the coaches and players that were getting me ready.”
“You never want to miss any games… Goodness… it was a long road back. There were a lot of questions that I had to answer — just the health of my shoulder, longevity, what would have been the best option for my health.”
His efforts fueled the Nets to a 106-86 triumph over the lowly Atlanta Hawks — an easier initial test for the recovered point guard.
Regardless, it was Brooklyn’s second-straight win following a dismal seven-game losing streak and a seamless transition for Irving, as he worked with the ever-emerging Spencer Dinwiddie.
Brooklyn’s more muted star helped keep things afloat during Irving’s absence, averaging 24.8 points per game over those 26 games. But the two didn’t miss a beat on the floor, prompting Irving to dismiss the notion that chemistry comes from just spending time together on the floor.
“Something that doesn’t get mentioned is when you’re a great basketball player and have a great basketball mind, you can play with anyone out there on the floor, you’re able to adjust,” Irving said. “I wasn’t trying to come in and trying to be overly aggressive, just let Spence get us in our offense… Just continue to develop great habits, great cultural habits where I can play off him and he can play off me.”
There’s that word “culture” again.
Irving’s four-year, $136.4 million contract signed over the summer along with Kevin Durant’s monster deal signaled a shift in the basketball landscape, pulling the Nets out of a decade of dark times and into a new era.
But a new era of what?
“Obviously, we play hard, but the culture here is that we want to be a championship-level organization and we want to be that for the next few years,” he said. “And when I’m done playing, I want that culture to be consistent.”
Throughout the city of Boston, Celtics fans are scoffing at Irving’s sentiments after a turbulent two-year relationship that saw the guard shoulder the reputation of being a poor teammate.
It’s something that is still fresh on his mind and a label he’s looking forward to shedding.
“There’s been a lot of things said about what I bring to a locker room — the negative side of it — but I’m just going to continue to be me,” Irving said. “That starts with being here for the guys, being present, being a leader out there, allowing guys to do their own thing but really show them how to play the game and work on their mental aptitude i.e. IQ.”
“At this point in my career, I’m mature enough to go out there and play the right way.”
The Nets will need that to reach new heights in Brooklyn, but they’ll also need him to be on the floor.
With two-straight games coming on Tuesday and Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers, the Nets have their first chance of re-establishing continuity with Irving in the lineup.
“I expect to play,” Irving said.
And the NBA world is expecting big things with him back in the fold.