Superstars are irreplaceable no matter what team you are. Heck, one of the most formidable dynasties in the history of the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, have struggled with the absence of their star point guard, Stephen Curry. No team is immune from injuries, it’s how they respond when they occur that determines how successful they’ll be at handling such setbacks going forward.
Brooklyn Nets head coach, Kenny Atkinson, echoed those sentiments (h/t Nets staff writer Tom Dowd) when commenting on how the injury to their budding star, Caris LeVert, affects their rotation and potentially takes players out of their comfort zone. It’s part of the game, though, unfortunately and the beat must go on.
“And then guys get opportunities, bigger opportunities than they’ve had previously. But ideally no one has to be a hero here. We just all have to come together as a team and if all of us do a little bit more to cover for Caris’ absence, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Brooklyn is always a team that works best as a collective. While LeVert showed great signs before his foot injury, he was still a ways from becoming the franchise star the franchise has been clamoring for for so long. With LeVert reportedly set to be out for at least two to three months (per The New York Post’s Brian Lewis) there are plenty in his place that will need to step up.
Caris’ production before the injury had him in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Improved Player. In his third season he was averaging per game numbers of 18.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals on 47.5 percent shooting from the field. He’s already had clutch moments and elevated himself in so many ways on both sides of the floor.
Caris LeVert has been a MONSTER this season (just as @FrankUrbina_ predicted several times over the summer). He just crossed over Gary Harris and hit a game-winning floater, giving the Denver Nuggets just their third loss of the season: pic.twitter.com/uEvmVIqkhg
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) November 10, 2018
He’s shut out the likes of Devin Booker and Gary Harris while also getting his own on the offensive end. The creativity and composure in his footwork has gone up significantly which has allowed him to dominate on mismatches and leave defenders reeling down low.
LeVert will no doubt come back better than ever with a renewed hunger and motivation. The void he leaves is significant and has required a marked improvement from all guys in the Brooklyn Nets’ rotation, as Atkinson alluded to. You immediately look to his backcourt teammates and see how they’ve stepped up.
Spencer Dinwiddie was already in hot form before LeVert’s forced absence but that consistency has continued. Like Caris, Spencer attacks the basket at will to pressure the defense and opens up space for the shooters. Since his teammate went down, Dinwiddie has picked it up, and on the season, is putting up 16.0 points on what would be a career-high 60.6 percent true shooting rate (per Basketball Reference), and 4.8 assists per game, to go with 0.6 steals in 27.6 minutes per game of playing time. In the eight games since LeVert went down, Dinwiddie has averaged 19.5 points on 61.3 percent true shooting, 5.9 assists and 0.8 steals in 28.4 minutes per game, per NBA.com.
Fellow facilitator, D’Angelo Russell, has had a tougher time adjusting. Russell possesses immense talent and upside but has had trouble putting it all together and producing on a consistent enough basis the Brooklyn Nets require from him. Sans LeVert, Russell is averaging 19.0 points on just 40.5 percent shooting, but is averaging more assists (5.6 on the season to 6.4 in the last eight games) and rebounds (4.0 to 4.9) in 30.2 minutes per game, per NBA.com.
His turnovers are up slightly (2.4 to 2.8 per game), per that’s understandable.
The former Los Angeles Lakers guard has shown flashes of brilliance, including a really balanced showing against the Miami Heat.
Those are the kinds of performances he’ll need to show more regularly to help the Nets achieve their playoff aspirations. Russell and LeVert were showing nice chemistry which was why the timing of this injury couldn’t be worse. Coach Kenny made note of that himself (per Nets Daily’s Anthony Puccio).
“It’s a big void. It’s both ends. He and D’Angelo (Russell) were sharing it so well. The chemistry, they shared the ball handling duties a ton.”
Spencer and D’Angelo will need to continue working on theirs as they’re the likely closers and Brooklyn’s most important players in clutch time. Last season the Nets had to deal with similar issues when Russell returned from his knee injury when it came to integrating the two in specific lineups. Dinwiddie referenced that when speaking to reporters a few days ago (quote transcribed via the aforementioned Brian Lewis).
“Anytime your role changes you have to adjust. It’s not like it’s [Russell’s] fault. Your role changes, you do whatever the role is you’re supposed to do.”
His role has changed dramatically but the pressure on D’Lo has increased for him to step up.
In losing LeVert, the team also lost one of their most capable perimeter and man-to-man defenders. The Brooklyn Nets are the worst team in the league when it comes to deflections per game, per NBA.com. The third-year guard/forward was already their best player in that category and is by far the most capable at disrupting an opposing team’s offense.
Brooklyn’s overall defense isn’t crash hot either. Only seven teams rank worse in defensive rating. Losing one of your team’s most talented players on that end isn’t going to make things much easier. Players with higher defensive acumen like Joe Harris and Allen Crabbe are consequently having to step up. Someone like D’Angelo Russell doesn’t possess the greatest defensive instincts and Shabazz Napier is too small to make an impact on that end.
The Nets are going to find it hard to stay around the playoff race with their best player out for a significant chunk of time. The opportunity it provides for players across the board should be seen as a positive for many guys on the roster. Atkinson will have a tough time finding the best ways to utilize his guys, but like his players, he should use it as an opportunity for growth as a coach.