What Will the Nets Rotation Look Like with Kyrie Irving Back?

The Brooklyn Nets rotation this year has been weird. And it’s about to get a whole lot weirder.

Shop for WNBA gear at WNBAStore

The Nets announced this week that Kyrie Irving, though ineligible to play home games due to New York City’s vaccine mandate, will rejoin the team for practices and will play in road games. At the same time, a COVID outbreak has sidelined most of Brooklyn’s players just as some sort of consistent rotation was coming together. However, this gave a chance for some of the Nets rookies to shine and potentially earn themselves a permanent rotational role.

Again, the Nets rotation has been really weird. Every single player on the 17 man roster has averaged over 10 minutes per game except Day’ron Sharpe. They’ve all had opportunities to prove themselves, and with Irving soon to make 36 fewer minutes available every game, Steve Nash will have a lot of decisions to make about who will be representing the black and white every night.

Below, I’ve separated all the Nets players into three groups based on how I view their stability in the rotation, particularly as affected by Irving’s return. Rotation Locks are the players that will be playing every single game when healthy. Rotational Limbo players are players that have flashed at times this year, but don’t have solidified roles on the team with Irving’s return. Lastly, there are the Non-Rotation Players, who either already don’t play or will have all their minutes gobbled up by Irving’s return. At the end, I offer my best guess as to what a road playoff rotation for the Nets would look like with Kyrie Irving back in the lineup.

Rotation Locks

Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills, Nic Claxton

The players I consider rotational locks are the ones leading the team in points per game, plus Kyrie Irving and Nic Claxton. Durant has been MVP-caliber this season, and despite Harden’s struggles, he’s still put together some impressive games. One would hope that Irving’s return will ease some of the playmaking and shot creating duties from Harden, allowing him to look more like his old self. Irving being back in the lineup should also allow Durant and Harden to play fewer minutes (both are averaging over 36 minutes per game), and take more rest days—both of which are necessary to keep them fresh for the playoffs.

Harris, despite missing extended time with an ankle injury, is still second in the NBA in three-point percentage at 46.6%. He will continue to play a key role on the team once he returns.

Aldridge and Mills are both averaging about 14 points per game, and have been great either off the bench or in starting roles. With Harris and Irving back on the team, Mills would likely shift back to his sixth man role. His main asset has been his three-point shooting, which both Harris and Irving excel at. Irving should also take most, if not all, of Mills’ time as the primary ball handler, easing the burden on him.

While Aldridge will still be a key cog in Brooklyn’s rotation, Irving’s return could allow him to come off the bench in favor of Claxton. Aldridge is a deadly midrange shooter, while Claxton really provides no floor spacing at all. With Harris and Irving both missing time, getting another shooter like Aldridge into the lineup was a must for Nash to create spacing and scoring opportunities. However, with four of the NBA’s all time greatest shooters in Harden, Irving, Harris and Durant all presumably starting most games, the Nets will have more than enough floor spacing.

Where they are lacking is on the defensive end, which Claxton would provide. It could make sense for Nash to start Claxton and bring Aldridge off the bench along with some of the Nets’ other non-shooters. This could ease some of the burden on Aldridge, who came out of a sudden retirement to play this season. While he has looked fantastic, the Nets need to be careful to not overburden him, and Irving’s return would allow them to do that by bringing him off the bench in favor of Claxton.

There is some chance that Claxton gets traded this season, as the Nets don’t seem too eager to extend him this offseason, and he will be a free agent. However, he’s on the team at the time of this writing, and has been outstanding since returning from his illness, so he’s a rotational lock in my book.

Out of the Rotation

Jevon Carter, Day’ron Sharpe

There’s only two players that I couldn’t see cracking the Nets rotation this season: Carter and Sharpe.

Carter has really only played this year due to the team’s desperate need for non-Harden ballhandlers. He’s a solid defender, but not a great ballhandler. Plus, he doesn’t seem to understand his role on the team, taking transition threes as a 30.5% three point shooter. Irving will take away any chance Carter had of being a regular contributor to the team.

Day’ron Sharpe barely played when half the team was out. He’s not gonna play when the whole team is back.

Rotational Limbo

Deandre’ Bembry, Bruce Brown, David Duke Jr., Kessler Edwards, Blake Griffin, James Johnson, Paul Millsap, Cam Thomas

Many of the players here fall into one of two categories: they have similar roles to Irving, or similar roles to another player on the team. With less minutes to go around they could fall out of the rotation.

Bembry or Brown

Deandre’ Bembry and Bruce Brown play a very similar role on the team, and there may not be a role in the rotation for both of them. They have been both playing all season, but minutes will need to be sacrificed for Irving, and one of these two could be the victim of that. Both are defensive minded wings that aren’t great shooters but can finish around the rim. Brown has proven chemistry with Irving and the other Nets starters, can play a small ball center, and is the better rebounder. Bembry is slightly better on defense, shooting threes, and finishing.

Bembry seems to be the overall better player, but there’s an argument to be made that Brown’s specific skill set fits this Nets team better with Irving back in the mix. However, his floater and three ball will need to fall more before he can claim a rotation spot. For now, it’s fair to expect that Bembry would stay in the rotation since he was the team’s starting power forward for about a month, but Nash will certainly try both to see who fits best. It’s always possible that they both find their way into the rotation.

Backup Power Forward

Blake Griffin, James Johnson, and Paul Millsap were probably always going to fight for the same power forward off the bench spot, with or without Irving. Similarly to the Bembry and Brown situation, these players don’t play the same position as Irving, but with fewer minutes to go around, not everyone can play. Johnson has shown some great passing and strong defense, but has had little shooting. That becomes less of a problem with Irving, but the passing also becomes less useful there.

Griffin has been inconsistent with shooting, but he’s been on a hot streak with the Protocol Nets. Plus, he always ends up on the ground, be it chasing a loose ball or drawing a charge. However, he was also out of the rotation for a few weeks for simply playing poorly. Millsap has had limited opportunities to show off, but has flashed offensively and defensively on occasion. Johnson had the biggest role in the rotation pre-COVID breakout, so it’s fair to expect him to continue to be a rotational piece, but it’s not impossible that Griffin or even Millsap could find a role.

The Rookies

Kessler Edwards and David Duke Jr. have both balled out with the opportunity they’ve had. Edwards has showcased strong three point shooting (41 percent) and defense (3 steals, 3 blocks). He’s proven that he has the upside to be a true NBA rotation player. But it’s still worth noting that he’s played three really good games. I like what I’ve seen from him a lot, but it’s important to see him both play well and be in the rotation when others are healthy before it makes sense to predict him as a rotational player for the season.

Duke has also looked great defensively and there’s a case he’s the best offensive rebounder on the team. His finishing needs some work, as there’s been easy shots that he’s missed. He’s been a decent playmaker when needed, but again that wouldn’t be needed as much with Irving back. Neither would his shooting as much. His skills fit what the Nets need really well—but again, it would be best to wait and see how he fits with the Nets stars when they’re healthy, and if he can sustain his level of production, before penciling him in as a rotational player. Despite being two way players, both Edwards and Duke face no limits on how many games they can play due to the NBA’s new rules on pandemic flexibility.

That leaves us with Cam Thomas. Thomas is kinda Kyrie Irving-lite—a comparison I’m sure Thomas would love. He has flashed during the season and even cracked the regular season rotational pre-COVID breakout, but there’s been some worries as well. He’s shot 22.8 percent from three, and hasn’t quite had his “big” breakout game yet. During games where Irving plays, I have a hard time finding a role for Thomas. I would love to be wrong—I find Thomas’ game wildly entertaining and want him to have a role. For all my fellow Thomas fans, fear not. He’ll still certainly play in home games without Irving.

My Best Guess for a (Road) Playoff Rotation

Here’s my best attempt to answer the question of this article: what will the Nets rotation look like with Kyrie Irving back? To start, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Joe Harris will all be starting. As talked about above, I like the idea of starting Nic Claxton for his defense, while LaMarcus Aldridge acts as a sixth man to ease his burden and create shooting off the bench. Patty Mills will continue to be a bench shooter and emergency ballhandler.

The Nets will probably run a nine or 10 man rotation. Deandre’ Bembry and James Johnson both fit the mold of defensive bench pieces, whose lack of shooting can be balanced out by the shooting of both the Nets starters and other bench pieces. Each also provides their own useful offensive skill that will make the team even harder to defend.

For fun, let’s say that Nash will do a 10 man rotation. The last rotation spot will be an all out brawl between Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, Kessler Edwards, David Duke Jr., and Cam Thomas. All have been DNPs at various points, and all have been the stars of games at other points. It’ll come down to how everyone plays the next few months (as will all of the rotation).

If I were writing this yesterday, Brown probably gets the nod, but with the news that two-way players face no limits on how many games they can play, I’ll have some fun and give Edwards the last spot. It would have been tough for him to crack the rotation being limited to 50 games, but since he can play in all games he’ll have plenty of time to build chemistry with the starters. He gives the Nets a true three-and-d wing that they’ve been desperate for all season.

So to answer the question on everyone’s mind, the Nets rotation with Kyrie Irving back could look like:

PG: James Harden

SG: Kyrie Irving

SF: Joe Harris

PF: Kevin Durant

C: Nic Claxton

6: Lamarcus Aldridge

7: Patty Mills

8: Deandre’ Bembry

9: James Johnson

10: Kessler Edwards

Of course, there’s tons of ways to tinker with this rotation and play certain guys and not others. Be sure to tweet us @NetsRepublic and me @ngperkins to let us know what you would like to see the Nets rotation be with Kyrie Irving back in the lineup.