The Brooklyn Nets have played 4 games since adding Caris LeVert back into their rotation. The results on the court have been a mixed bag, to say the least.
In the span of 50 days, the Brooklyn Nets went from a lottery-bound Zion Williamson contestant to sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Between Dec. 7 and Jan. 25, the Brooklyn Nets went 19-5; their .792 winning percentage tied for the best in the NBA during that stretch of games.
Best of all, the team wasn’t even at full strength.
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Fans and analysts fantasized about this world-beating roster with Caris LeVert — and his 17-points per game of scoring– inserted into the starting lineup.
LeVert made his return on Feb. 8 against the Chicago Bulls. Since then, we’ve seen four games with the third-year swingman in the rotation.
The product on the floor has certainly been underwhelming. Brooklyn is 1-3 since LeVert was reactivated. Their sole victory was against a decrepit Cleveland team that ranks in the bottom five in offensive rating and is dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions.
To make matters worse, it took three overtime periods and a D’Angelo Russell hero-ball performance for the ages to give Brooklyn the edge against the Cavaliers.
To summarize: the Nets have looked somewhat… off with LeVert in the fold. I’m fully aware that this is textbook hindsight bias, but looking at things in the present day, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Let’s backtrack a bit and rewind to the month of December. In a surprise turn of events, Brooklyn went on a seven-game winning streak with their breakout star (LeVert) sidelined with an injury. Out of thin air, the team pieced together a winning culture even with a fragmented roster.
Crisp ball-movement became the defining characteristic for the Nets, as the ball zipped around the floor like a Golden Snitch, eventually settling into the hands of open shooters.
The strong cohesive effort began to pay dividends for individual players on the roster. Russell became the franchise’s first All-Star since the 2013-14 season. Dinwiddie earned his first major contract.
National media couldn’t get enough of this young Brooklyn squad. All of a sudden, the team caught buzz as a possible home for major free agents like Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving. Even the team’s bench unit was lauded for its passionate celebrations.
On paper, adding LeVert back into the rotation was supposed to be seamless. The Michigan product is arguably the team’s best on-ball defender — capable of picking up opposing star guards. In turn, this would give Russell a needed rest on defense.
LeVert could also provide the offense with some necessary versatility through his drive-and-kick game. After Dinwiddie went down with a thumb injury back in late January, Brooklyn’s offense gradually became lethargic.
Theoretically, Caris’ pedal-to-the-metal style of attack could remedy this issue.
Four games in and he’s been as advertised for the team defensively. LeVert has picked off an average of two steals per game. He’s also led the team in deflections with a strong 3.3 per contest.
(For reference, the league leader in this category is, surprisingly, James Harden. The MVP candidate has recorded an average of 3.9 deflections per game this season.)
Offensively speaking, he’s flashed signs of being that necessary Energizer bunny, too.
LeVert’s game is about as herky-jerky as it gets. LeVert has an immense basketball IQ and uses this to find small cracks in the defense. He then slithers his beanstalk-like frame to the hoop for athletic finishes.
Caris has just about every up-and-under finish at his services. Plays like the clip above are glimpses into what a fully rehabilitated Caris LeVert may look like.
Statistically speaking, LeVert is an inside-out player. Per NBA.com’s tracking data, LeVert’s 54.2 shooting percentage off of drives places in the top-13 for players who take a minimum of 2.5 field goal attempts.
Over the course of the full season, LeVert has also shot a solid 60.4 percent around the basket and a steady 45.6 percent from inside the paint (non-restricted area).
Through these last four games, 31 of LeVert’s 47 total shots have been 14 feet or closer. That’s a good thing — he’s playing within himself.
To be clear, though, he’s has shown plenty of signs of rust even while taking the right types of shots from the field. He’s been particularly inefficient from his sweet spot — the paint — landing only five of his 14 total attempts. Some of these misses have been particularly ugly.
Based on the clip above, LeVert might be simply overthinking the game. His focus appears to be centered around pulling off athletic highlight finishes (instead of concentrating on making the correct basketball play).
This dying quail of a shot attempt was swatted away easily by the Trail Blazers’ CJ McCollum. It was a wasted possession in the ultra-rare Brooklyn transition opportunity.
Worst of all, LeVert missed a wide-open Joe Harris spotting from 3 near the corner. Harris is shooting an electric 47.6 percent from deep off the catch-and-shoot. Whoops.
Lumber Joe has also knocked down 15 of his 27 total right-corner 3s; good for 55.6 percent on the season. Double whoops.
To be clear, not all of LeVert’s misses have been this alarming. Plays like this one suggest that the 24-year-old is still struggling to get his legs under him. This can cause him to short-arm his floaters. These shots will even out as he rounds into NBA shape.
Even with an ugly 17-of-47 shooting line through four games, LeVert’s presence has benefited the team (according to NBA.com’s “player compare” tool). Brooklyn’s net rating is minus-10.8 with LeVert off the floor but rises to plus-3.5 with him in the game.
Caris LeVert’s game is unique, such that it’s tough to find an adequate player comparison. He’s shifty to the point of almost playing out of control. For lack of a better term, he’s just kind of a weird player to watch.
Caris’ unpredictability is part of the reason why I think Brooklyn has struggled to integrate him back into their offense. His entire style is predicated on the idea that “you don’t know what’s coming.” Being tough to plan for is how LeVert has made his living near the rim.
This does make things tough for Atkinson. How do you build a system around a player who rides the thin line of being creative to downright volatile?
This is certainly a tough question, and it appears that Atkinson is doing his best to solve this conundrum. LeVert undeniably takes the team’s ceiling up a level, so letting him play through his warts could pay long-term dividends.
For Brooklyn, this means putting the ball in Caris’ hands a whole lot. In 89 minutes, LeVert has recorded a tremendous 27 percent usage rate; a top-30 mark if held consistent over the course of the season.
Atkinson and his coaching staff have taken the opposite approach to Boston’s careful strategy with Gordon Hayward. Instead of slowly removing the training wheels, Brooklyn has ripped them off, thrown LeVert onto an off-road BMX trail and hoped for the best.
In all honesty, this is probably the better technique. LeVert doesn’t have time to over-think the game. (Unlike Hayward, who has clearly internalized the severity of last year’s fall).
By throwing LeVert into the offense, he’s been forced to think on his feet from the get-go and ignore any lingering doubt about the vitality of his lower body.
One thing is clear though: putting the ball in LeVert’s hands has hindered the impact of his backcourt teammate, Russell.
With LeVert out of the picture from November to early February, Russell became an All-Star in the span of two short months. By having the ball in his hands more than ever, D’Angelo showcased his limitless potential.
Prior to LeVert’s return, Russell appeared to be breaking out as one of the league’s best pull-up shooters from deep. He also flashed his top-notch distributing chops with more regularity.
However, with LeVert back in the lineup, Russell’s numbers have dropped precipitously. Part of this pertains to him having the ball less. With LeVert off the court, Russell’s usage rate is 37.2 percent; when the two share the court, that usage rate falls to 30.8.
Continuing with the tandem’s on/off numbers: Russell is averaging a mere 9.0 points on a hideous 30.3 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from deep when sharing the hardwood with LeVert.
That total rises to a more normal 16.3 points (with a clean 44.6 field-goal percentage) without LeVert on the floor.
It’s been puzzling to watch how befuddled Russell has looked while playing alongside his new teammate.
They should be the perfect yin and yang to each other; Russell does a majority of his damage from the midrange and outward, while LeVert is a devastating force while driving to the basket.
Obviously, we’re still not there yet with the picture-perfect pairing. While sharing the court with LeVert, Russell’s shot selection has dropped off a cliff. He’s taken an increased amount of heavily contested 3-pointers early in the shot clock.
These attempts are not winning plays. They bear resemblance to the inefficient style from the Russell of old.
A possible explanation is that Russell is no longer the focal point of the offense. With the exciting return of LeVert, he now has to share the spotlight in the eyes of Atkinson.
Whether this is fair or not, we shall see. Only time will tell.
Sharing the limelight has clearly affected his style of play, though. He’s appeared incredibly uncertain on the floor; a characteristic we haven’t seen from D-Lo in quite some time. There’s been erratic shot attempts, an influx of turnovers and a lack of killer instinct from D-Russ.
At the end of the day, Russell is an All-Star for a reason. He will figure things out. In fact, there’s little doubt in my mind that this whole team will get it together. Brooklyn’s group is too well coached to be burdened with these problems for a considerable amount of time.
The question remains: is there enough time for Brooklyn this season? Dinwiddie will presumably make his return at some point during March. Brooklyn will, again, be forced to integrate a ball-dominant player into their system on the fly.
With only 22 games remaining, it’s going to be tough to build team chemistry with a newer group of guys. Fitting Dinwiddie and LeVert into the puzzle will be Atkinson’s greatest challenge.
Philadelphia’s addition of Tobias Harris from the LA Clippers is comparable to Brooklyn’s ongoing pursuits with LeVert. Except, in Brooklyn’s case, they also have to pencil in Dinwiddie.
This would be akin to Philly also adding the off-the-bench spark plug, Lou Williams, to their rotation. (That, my friends, would be a very difficult task).
Brooklyn is in the tough balance of valuing long-term success versus an inspiring playoff run. Letting LeVert play through his mistakes could greatly bring up the ceiling of this budding dynasty in Brooklyn.
It could also lower the Nets’ floor this season.