Here are Nets’ options for replacing Kyrie Irving by committee
Irving can't be replaced by just one player on the Nets' roster.

Kyrie Irving is not walking through those Barclays Center (or practice court) doors.

Until either Irving’s COVID-19 vaccination status or New York City’s vaccine mandate changes, the Nets are operating as if their superstar guard is no longer part of the team. He officially will not be a part-time player; he will either get vaccinated or watch from the sidelines.

Which means someone else has big shoes to fill, and the Nets’ championship hopes may be a size too big for their feet. Three superstars are greater than two, and without Irving — and yes, even with Kevin Durant and James Harden — the Nets are the sum of their non-star parts.

“I think just in general when you lose a talent as great as Kyrie, we have to be tighter, we have to be more connected, we have to have guys play bigger roles and be more responsible with the details,” head coach Steve Nash said after Wednesday’s practice. “No one’s going to come in and imitate Kyrie. So how can we make up for his loss as best as possible? That’s through the details, through all the collective work that we do, and that’s through coming together and really building a team.”

Irving’s shoe is one size fits none. He is one of the most aggressive scoring guards in basketball who doubles as one of the most electrifying ball-handlers in NBA history. You can really only replace him collectively.

But you can’t start five players in place of one, and even if the Nets could, they still wouldn’t make up for Irving’s sheer offensive brilliance.

How Nash and his coaching staff adjust to Irving’s absence will have implications down the road for a team that will certainly want to retain home-court advantage in the playoffs, but can only do so if they value early regular-season games more than they did last season.

Luckily for the Nets, they have several options at their disposal.

“I haven’t made any firm decisions. … I think it’s something that’s kind of fluid for us unless something emerges that makes the most sense,” Nash said. “But right now, we look at our depth and we need to continue to produce from all those different options and find the combinations that work for us and find the combinations that work for different matchups.”

Here are a few possibilities.

The first logical decision is to move reserve guard Bruce Brown into the starting lineup, alongside Durant, Harden, Joe Harris and Blake Griffin.

Brown started 37 games for the Nets last season, many as Irving’s fill-in. He also started the majority of the games he played in as both a rookie and a sophomore for the Detroit Pistons.

Brown’s institutional knowledge of what the Nets want to do on both ends of the floor make him an easy pick for starting in place of the ineligible Irving, and he knows his role will increase.

“Kai does a lot for us. So I mean next man up,” Brown said after Wednesday’s practice. “I try to do a little more if the team needs me to do that, I guess I just play my role.”

The drawback to slotting Brown in for Irving, however, is that it becomes mostly an offense-for-defense substitution. Brown is a 29% three-point shooter.

“We got great vets, great players on this team,” Brown said. “Everybody knows their role, everybody knows what they need to do, so I think we’ll be fine. And if Kai wants to come back, we’ll open him back with open arms.”

Jevon Carter might be a sleeper, but without Irving, the Nets need to wake up. Carter brings the same defensive intensity as Brown, if not more. He guards his man the full length of the floor and has picked up the moniker of “a bulldog” in his two years in the NBA.

Where he thrives that Brown does not, however, is on the offensive end: Carter is a 38% career three-point shooter who has shot 9-of-16 from downtown through three preseason games, turning heads from fans and teammates alike. His ability to generate offense flew under the radar in Phoenix, where he was buried on the bench behind Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Cameron Payne last season.

At 6′1″, however, Carter doesn’t compare to most premier players at his position, and with Harden absorbing even more of the playmaking duties on offense, that would leave Carter to defend the point guard on the other end.

That’s not a responsibility he shies away from, rather, it’s one he embraces, just like Carter is an option Nash could and should embrace with Irving out indefinitely.

“I would just say I’ve got another opportunity,” Carter said. “Whenever I go out there, I feel like I’ve got an opportunity whether (Kyrie’s) playing or not playing. His situation really doesn’t have nothing to do with me. That’s just us as a team. We definitely love him. We need him, want him. We’ve just got to fight. We’ve gotta come to play every night.”

It’s unlikely Patty Mills starts in place of Irving, but their Australian point guard will assuredly see more action with Irving out for the foreseeable future. The Nets brought him to Brooklyn to provide scoring punch off the bench; little did they know they’d need that punch so soon.

“Obviously relatively new news, so I think it’s back to the drawing board to work out how we’re going to move forward with this,” Mills said after Wednesday’s practice. “Next man up, whoever it may be, but I think collectively, as a group, everyone’s here for that reason, to be able to do their part for the betterment of the team.”

If Mills were to start, however, the move would cost Brooklyn’s second unit its floor general. He is also 6′1″ and 20 pounds lighter than Carter, making the mismatch on defense even greater.

If the Nets intended on playing small with Griffin at the five and Durant at the four, Irving’s newly cemented absence gives them an alternative: Why not go big? Instead of adding another guard alongside Harden in the back court, they could add either LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap or Nic Claxton alongside Durant and Griffin in the front court. The Nets could also go big by starting Deandre Bembry alongside Harris and Durant on the wing.

Aldridge, Millsap, Claxton and Bembry would each bring something different, whether that’s Aldridge’s rim protection or Claxton’s athletic switching.

The Nets, however, may only go big in matchups that force them to. Brown said the team rarely practices with two bigs in a five-man unit.

“I think so but not too much,” he said. “But a little bit here and there, yeah.”

Nash has been openly against the idea of thrusting rookie sensation Cam Thomas into the fire. But the Nets can’t be picky now.

Thomas has hit big shots in college, Summer League and preseason, and there’s no reason to believe the trend will stop any time soon.

The biggest roadblock to Thomas’ playing time was a back court crowded by Irving and Harden. Now with just one of the two available for the foreseeable future, there’s no telling when the Nets might turn to their rookie scorer, nor how soon into the season he carves a role for himself.

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