Two of the NBA’s elite players and former champions are set to make their returns to the court. On Wednesday, Jan. 5, the Brooklyn Nets welcome back seven-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA, and champion Kyrie Irving.
While Sunday, Jan. 9, marks the long-awaited return of five-time All-Star, three-time champion, and two-time All-NBA player Klay Thompson to the Golden State Warriors. Both clubs are excited and the rest of the league is on notice.
There’s optimism Golden Warriors guard Klay Thompson will make his return vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, sources tell ESPN. A final decision is expected once the Warriors return from a two-game trip on Friday.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 3, 2022
Beginning with the Warriors, it has been 31 months since Thompson last played in an NBA game. He tore his ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals and then tore his Achilles while rehabbing the ACL in 2020. With all that rehab behind him, Thompson is ready to hoop with his teammates again.
Klay Thompson said he feels “very close”
-Target date? “That’s up to Mr. Celebrini.”
-Set on it being a home return? “Yeah. I want it to be in front of our fans. They deserve it.” pic.twitter.com/xx8f4tUKQF
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) December 31, 2021
For the Warriors this means reuniting their big three of Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson. The core that won a championship in 2015 and won 73 games the following season.
At 29-7 the Warriors are the best team in the league. They are No. 1 in adjusted net rating, with the No. 1-ranked defense and No. 4 offense. They are already title contenders without Thompson, but adding him back to a system he already knows, if healthy, makes them title favorites.
When they unleash their small lineup with Curry, Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, Thompson and Green they will be a nightmare to cover. All the off-ball split cuts and spacing on the floor with that much basketball IQ spells trouble for the rest of the league.
For Irving and the Nets, it’s a bit more complicated. Of course returning a 50-40-90 All-NBA dynamo to a team that already has Kevin Durant and James Harden is incredible. But Irving will be limited in his play when he returns, due to his refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
He is ineligible to play in New York City due to the vaccine mandate. That’s all Nets home games and two games at Madison Square Garden, against the Knicks. He is also ineligible to play in Toronto against the Raptors, as unvaccinated players cannot play in the Canadian city.
Of the remaining 47 games, Irving will only be able to play in 22. But some is better than none, right?
The Nets are currently mired in a three-game losing streak, their longest of the season. Irving’s return could be coming at a good time, but it could also add more problems to what has been concerning play during this streak.
The team has lacked cohesiveness and defensive intensity over the last three games. Irving is many things, a defensive stopper is not one of them. He’s also a freelancer who hasn’t played with the team since training camp. How cohesive will he be with any combination of teammates?
Assuming because of his overwhelming talent he fits in seamlessly, at least offensively, and the Nets return to their historic prolific scoring and finish with a top seed in the East. What happens in the playoffs?
At +250 the Nets are still the betting favorites. But the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and surging Philadelphia 76ers pose serious matchup problems for the Nets to come out of the East. And if the Nets are the higher seed in any series, a potential Game 7 at home would be without Irving.
We have three months before the playoffs begin and in this season, with a pandemic still raging, who knows what will be going on come April.
The Warriors and Nets are both happy to have their stars back, and the rest of the league is on notice. But one return has a much clearer outlook than the other.
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