Kyrie Irving hopeful but unsure NYC will change vaccine mandate

Kyrie Irving has only suited up for the Nets 12 times this season. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) (Rick Bowmer/AP)

While Nets star Kyrie Irving remains hopeful for a change in New York City’s vaccine mandate, he is unsure whether such a change will actually happen.

Irving, who refuses to get vaccinated, is ineligible to play at the Nets’ home arena because of the Key to NYC vaccine mandate and, after his team’s 20-point loss to the Nuggets in Denver, the Nets’ star guard appeared to have waning faith in the possibility the city repeals its ruling.

“Who knows?” he said with a laugh after posting 27 points, 11 assists and three blocks in the loss to the Nuggets, the Nets’ eighth in a row. “I know it’s not a laughing subject to be talking about, but who knows what could happen?”

Irving also suggested he isn’t on the phone with New York City officials trying to dictate public policy.

“Who do you think I am?” he joked. “No, I’m just playing. I’m keeping a positive mindset that anything can happen these next few days and the next week, and just crossing my fingers that something can come up either before All-Star break or even just after. So I’m definitely keeping a positive attitude in that sense.”

The Nets are running out of time to make a decision on Irving, who can become a free agent at the end of this season and will be unable to play at Barclays Center for as long as there’s a vaccine mandate for indoor professional athletes who play for New York City teams.

There is no reversing course after the Feb. 10 NBA Trade Deadline, where the Nets will no longer have options and will be forced to ride with Irving, no matter how many home games are on the docket. Irving can also opt out of his contract and enter free agency this summer, meaning the Nets, regardless of the flexibility they’ve shown their All-Star guard, could watch him leave for nothing in the offseason.

Meanwhile, the Nets are set to return to Brooklyn for a game against the Boston Celtics, a game, of course, Irving will have to watch from afar.

It’s unclear whether James Harden (left hamstring tightness) will be available for Tuesday’s game. Nets head coach Steve Nash said there is tightness and “a strength deficit” in Harden’s hampered hamstring.

“It’s day-to-day, so hopefully (he plays),” Nash said pregame on Sunday. “But it’s a matter of, does that strength get back to where we feel confident and he feels confident that we’re not risking anything. That’s what we’re dealing with right now.”

So in summation, while Kevin Durant nurses a sprained MCL in his left knee until after the Feb. 20 NBA All-Star break, a Nets roster built to support three stars will be with—at most—two stars on the road and just one star at home.

It’s no wonder the team is 2-9 since Durant’s injury and currently riding an eight-game losing streak: The Nets are also missing Joe Harris (ankle surgery) and LaMarcus Aldridge (sprained ankle).

Irving’s status as a Nets centerpiece is lightly in question. While trade rumors have intensified around Harden, the facts remain plain: The Nets are 8-16 since the franchise’s Dec. 17 announcement that Irving is now eligible to play in road games and are 4-8 in games he has played in, including 2-4 in games Irving has played with Harden and 0-3 in games Irving has played as the solo star in Durant’s absence.

“We feel really good about his recovery so far,” Nash said of Durant. “So I think he’s well on his way. There’s been no setbacks. And everything has gone to plan and then some. So we feel good about the progress he’s making and a return will be a full one and hopefully not in too long.”

Yet Irving is ineligible to play at home, where the Nets will play 16 of their final 29 regular season games. On a related note, they have lost eight straight games and have fallen to the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed, where they are no longer a lock to make the playoffs.

If the Nets finish the season in seventh place, they will have to participate in a play-in tournament that could result in their elimination from the playoff picture. Nash is anticipating the losses continue to pile in Durant’s absence and for the Nets to remain in the bottom portion of the East’s playoff picture.

“There’s a good chance we’re in the play-in (tournament range) after the All-Star break,” he said. “We’re not going to panic. There’s still plenty of games after the All-Star break when Kevin gets back where hopefully we’ll have James and Kevin at home and James, Kevin, and Kyrie on the road and hopefully LaMarcus comes back and Nic’s available.”

Yet the Nets understand how strong of a team they project to be once Durant returns. The proof is in the pudding: With all three of their stars on the floor, the Nets handed a 26-point loss to the No. 1-seeded Chicago Bulls in January.

Irving was on the floor that night and knows the Nets just need more bodies to compete at the championship level they seek.

“First thing’s first is getting healthy,” he said. “And then setting our team up for the rest of the season post this trade deadline.”