By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
Kyrie Irving is a step closer to making his season debut.
The Eastern Conference-leading Brooklyn Nets announced Tuesday that Irving, along with Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, have cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocols — a major step toward getting them back on the court.
Irving has not played this season, largely because of his decision not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and the Nets initially not being willing to have the perennial All-Star with them on a part-time basis. Irving has not been eligible to play home games because of a local rule in New York requiring vaccinations, and he and the Nets decided earlier this month that having him back — even if only for road games — will allow the team “to more optimally balance the physical demand on the entire roster.”
Durant hasn’t played since Dec. 16, but he has missed only three games so far because the Nets had three others postponed due to their virus issues. Aldridge has not played since Dec. 12, missing five games.
While the Nets were closer to becoming whole again — and it was not clear when any of the protocols-clearing players would actually be able to play again — other teams were still in the throes of serious virus-related depletion. Atlanta added three players to its list of those in the protocols, giving the Hawks 13 currently dealing with a virus-related issue.
And Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault became the latest NBA coach to enter health and safety protocols, joining the Los Angeles Lakers’ Frank Vogel, Chicago’s Billy Donovan, Portland’s Chauncey Billups and Phoenix’s Monty Williams.
Daigneault was ruled out from coaching the Thunder game Tuesday against Sacramento. Mike Wilks will be the acting coach for that game, the team said.
Another notable addition to the protocols Tuesday: Miami’s Udonis Haslem, who has had to play far more than usual lately because the Heat have been without centers Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon because of injury. Haslem was ruled out of the Heat game Tuesday against Washington, a matchup where the Wizards were bracing to miss at least a half-dozen players for virus issues alone.
The league began Tuesday with about 120 players in the protocols. Numbers tend to change frequently as players test in and out over the course of each day, and the league updated its protocols Monday to allow shorter return-to-play procedures for players provided they meet certain criteria related to symptoms and test results.
That should mean some players who are on the current protocols list could be back on the floor quicker than first planned.
With so many players in protocols this season, the NBA has allowed teams in need to sign players to hardship contracts in recent weeks without the burden of adding those unplanned salaries to salary cap and luxury tax totals. That is the biggest reason why the NBA has already seen more players appear in a game this season than in any other year in league history — 546 and counting, entering Tuesday, with the season not even to the midway point yet.
The previous record for players used in a full season was 540.
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