Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant envisions Kyrie Irving being part of the NBA championship contenders this season but admitted if he misses games his quality will be hard to "duplicate".
Irving has not trained with the Nets in New York this week as part of the city's COVID-19 protocols that only allows players with at least one vaccination shot to practice and play.
Nets star Irving faces missing all of Brooklyn's home matches in the 2021-22 season, which gets underway against reigning champions the Milwaukee Bucks on October 19, if his vaccination status does not change.
The drawn-out situation has created a major distraction for title favourites the Nets, who bowed out to eventual champions the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semi-finals last season.
"I'm envisioning Kyrie being a part of our team," Durant told reporters after Wednesday's practice. "Maybe I'm just naive, but that is just how I feel.
"But I think everybody here has that confidence in themselves, in our group, that if we keep building, we can do something special."
Irving averaged 26.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game in the 2020-21 season where he played 54 times.
The Nets struggled to find continuity with their big three, Irving, Durant and James Harden, who joined from the Houston Rockets in January, on the court due to injuries but that seemed set to change after injury-free pre-seasons ahead of the new campaign.
"I mean he's a special player so it is going to be hard to duplicate what he brings," former MVP Durant said.
"But professional sports are about the next man up mentality so we are looking forward to guys stepping up and filling in that role as best as they can."
"It was great to be back in our own building. The guys had great energy today and we carried it over from training camp.”— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) October 5, 2021
Durant and the Nets have tried to insist the Irving situation is not a distraction, although the 33-year-old forward said he would not get involved in his team-mate's decision-making.
The Golden State Warriors faced a similar situation last week with Andrew Wiggins under the San Francisco city laws, although he opted to get his first vaccination ending the discussion.
"He is dealing with something personal right now and while he is dealing with that, we are going to focus on us here in the gym and keep working," Durant said. "When they are ready to figure that out, he'll figure it out."
Durant added: "I want him a part of this group. He's a special player. We want him a part of this group. But a lot of stuff is out of our control and we will let him figure that out for himself.
"It doesn't mean that I will say that I don't want him on the team. He's a huge part of what we do but guys got to step up in his absence and be who they are and move forward.
"I'm not really trying to get too involved in it. It's far bigger than myself and each one of us individually. This is one man's personal decision on his wellbeing."