Coach Kenny Atkinson will have some key decisions to make in the closing stages of the season as the Brooklyn Nets near a clean bill of health.
No one really expected the Brooklyn Nets to be here. With 20 games to go, Brooklyn (32-30) is currently sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Nets have surpassed their win total (28) from last season and are one win away from beating their Vegas preseason win total over/under of 32.5.
"“When I signed here in July, I didn’t think this was a playoff team, honestly […] But when I got here and started to see players and how good guys were — and see coach, his philosophies and his schemes — my mindset changed.”"
More from Nothin' But Nets
- Nets star Mikal Bridges labeled top ‘trade target’ for serious title contender
- LAST CHANCE: Get $2,500 Bonus for Any NBA Draft Bet Before FanDuel Promo Expires Sunday
- Bet365 New Jersey Bonus: Bet $1, Win $200 GUARANTEED on ANY NBA Finals Bet Tonight!
- BetRivers NJ Promo: Bet $500 on the NBA/NHL Finals, Get a Bonus-Bet Refund if You Miss!
- DraftKings New Jersey Promo: Bet $5, Win $150 INSTANTLY on ANY NBA Playoff Game!
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Nets’ run so far this season has been the fact that they have done it all without ever really being fully healthy.
After emerging as the go-to option and in the middle of a breakout season, Caris LeVert went down with a gruesome foot injury in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves back in November.
His injury cost him 42 games and the Michigan product is only now working his way back into the lineup. More recently, guard Spencer Dinwiddie suffered an injury to his right thumb that required surgery.
Dinwiddie has been out for over a month now and remains without a clear timetable, but should definitely return in time for the playoffs.
But slowly, things are starting to look brighter on the injury front for the Nets. Allen Crabbe is finally shooting well again after returning from a knee injury that kept him out for almost two months and LeVert is back in the starting lineup, showing flashes of his old self.
The Nets have experimented with a whole host of lineups as a result of their injury woes, but as everyone returns to full fitness, what should the Nets rotation look like going forward?
In the backcourt, D’Angelo Russell has established himself as the Nets’ leader. The first-time All-Star has really come into his own this season, especially after LeVert’s injury.
Since Dec. 7, when the Nets held off the Toronto Raptors to kickstart the magical run that has carried them into a playoff spot, Russell has averaged 22.4 points and 7.4 assists per game – leading the Nets to a 24-11 record during that time.
He has singlehandedly taken over games in crunch time this season and DLo is the heart and soul of everything the Nets do.
The Nets really miss Dinwiddie. It is no coincidence that the end of their great midseason run was right at the time Dinwiddie first missed games for his injury.
The former University of Colorado guard gives the Nets a different option to many of his teammates in that he is one of the best downhill players in the league.
Dinwiddie has an extremely quick first step that allows him to blow by defenders and get into the lane with ease and the Nets miss his ability to create in the lane. His 8.5 points per game on drives led the team and was the 10th-highest mark in the league.
He was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate before his injury and Dinwiddie should reclaim his role as the first man off the bench whenever he returns.
Joe Harris burst onto the national scene over All-Star Weekend when he outdueled Stephen Curry for the Three-Point Contest crown, but for Nets fans Joey Buckets has been an offensive weapon for a fair while now. Harris is now averaging 13.9 points per game while slashing .506/.478/.853.
While many compare Harris to sharpshooter Kyle Korver, his game also resembles that of Warriors star Klay Thompson. Both are extremely adept at shooting off screens and rarely need dribbles or extended time on the ball.
Some 43.6 percent of Harris’ shots are of the catch-and-shoot variety and almost 65 percent of his field goal attempts come after he has had the ball for under two seconds. These are very similar to the 45.9 percent and 67.4 percent numbers that Thompson has.
Where Harris and Thompson differ the most though, is what happens when they are run off the three-point line.
Whereas Thompson opts to pull up from midrange, Harris drives it in to the heart of the defense and has quietly become one of the league’s more effective men at doing so, shooting 64.4 percent on shots at the rim, according to Basketball Reference.
Both Russell and Dinwiddie thrive with the ball in their hand and Harris is a perfect complement to that as an elite shooter.
For just a few minutes in the second quarter on Monday night against the San Antonio Spurs, we saw a glimpse of the old Caris LeVert.
He went on a personal 12-2 run to open up the Nets lead just before halftime and the Nets will hope to see more and more of that over the course of the next few games as LeVert gets back into his rhythm.
While LeVert hasn’t been at his best lately, one thing that has improved since his return has been his chemistry with backcourt partner Russell. Prior to LeVert’s injury, the two had a net rating of minus-4.4 in the 335 minutes they had played together.
But in the 107 minutes played together since his return, that number has shot up to plus-1.6. Much of that improvement is due to defense – LeVert and Russell have taken advantage of their length and lead the team with 2.4 and 2.0 deflections per game, respectively.
The Nets will need Russell and LeVert to continue this improved play together if they want to have any shot of making some noise later on in the season.
As John Schuhmann of NBA.com noted above, in Russell, Dinwiddie and Harris, the Nets have three offensive weapons at the guard position who are capable of hitting big shots when it matters most.
Add on LeVert’s late-game heroics from earlier in the season and the Nets have four valuable options to look for late in games.
The power forward spot has been an issue for the Nets all season. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has endured a disappointing and injury-ridden campaign after a promising campaign last time around.
Dudley was serviceable before his hamstring injury, but the veteran should not be playing starter’s minutes at this stage in his career. Graham has done admirably recently, but he is clearly undersized at just 6-foot-5 and is not a long-term fix.
And while he’s spent most of his time at the 3, DeMarre Carroll might just be right option to take over Graham’s spot in the starting lineup at the 4.
He holds the second-highest on/off net rating of anyone on the team except for Ed Davis and holds positive net ratings in his minutes with Russell, LeVert and Dinwiddie as well.
Carroll exemplifies Nets basketball with his tenacious play and 3-point shooting and should be getting some more minutes for the Nets as we get to the business end of the season.
Kudos to Sean Marks for this one. Jarrett Allen is the future of the Nets at the center position. He has caught the headlines with his growing resume of blocks on NBA superstars and Allen is quickly on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s more effective big men.
Long and athletic, Allen fits the modern-day prototype and has even begun to expand his range out to the three-point line. Phil Watson chronicled his improved defensive play here and Allen’s sheer activity on that side of the ball has been impressive.
His 15.7 contested shots per game mark is third-best in the league, behind only Brook Lopez and Rudy Gobert. On the offensive side, Allen has formed a superb partnership with Russell and Dinwiddie in the pick and roll and he is becoming an improved passer as well.
He is also great at one of the most underrated skills in the NBA: screen-setting. Allen creates space for shooters like Harris or Allen Crabbe with his hard picks and is responsible for the fifth-most screen assists in the league so far this season.
His backup, Ed Davis, complements Allen well as one of the best rebounding big men in the league. Davis holds the highest on/off rating of any Net and is the perfect anchor for the second unit.
Alongside Harris and LeVert on the wing (and recently playing some minutes at the 4) should be Nets rookie sensation Rodions Kurucs. The Latvian has surpassed all expectations as a second-round pick, even making the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend.
When LeVert and Crabbe went down earlier in the season, there were minutes available and Kurucs took advantage of the opportunity. He was key to the great midseason run this team had and the Nets are 26-17 in games he has played in.
Kurucs had a DNP-CD recently as Hollis-Jefferson and Dudley have returned from injury, but seems to have reclaimed his spot in the rotation over the last few games. He is long and a capable defender, even at this young age, and thrives on off-ball cuts and layups.
While the Latvian hit a bit of a rookie wall in terms of his 3-point shooting, he is still capable enough that defenders have to respect him. He spaces the floor better than Rondae and is more athletic than Dudley.
Kurucs can provide a nice spark off the bench with his energy and athleticism and should stay in the rotation.
Allen Crabbe is the Nets’ highest-paid player, but the former Trail Blazer hasn’t been performing up to his pay grade so far this season. He ranked 81st out of 108 qualified shooting guards in ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus and the team is 1.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court.
His minutes have almost directly correlated with a decrease in Kurucs’ and the Nets are only 17-20 in the games Crabbe has appeared in.
The former Cal-Berkeley product is paid to be an elite shooter, but his current .371/.394/.750 slash line is not good enough to offset his issues on the defensive side of the ball.
With Russell, Dinwiddie, LeVert, and Harris running the show from the guard spot, the Nets don’t need offense from their wings as much as they could use 3-and-D guy like Graham.
While his shortcomings at the 4 have been apparent, Graham is a lockdown defender who can be of use to the Nets in the playoffs.
He often guards the opposing team’s best wing and while I believe Carroll is a better fit in the starting lineup, Graham should provide value in a reserve capacity.
This leaves Shabazz Napier out of the mix a little bit and while the UConn guard has provided valuable cover in Spencer Dinwiddie’s absence, the Nets are at their best when one of Russell, Dinwiddie or LeVert is out there running the show.
Napier is an offensive spark plug and can get hot in the blink of an eye. While he may not get too much playing time down the stretch, Napier is a great option to have off the bench for coach Kenny Atkinson to use when he’s looking for an offensive boost.
A starting lineup of Russell, LeVert, Harris, Carroll and Allen with Dinwiddie, Davis, Kurucs, Graham, and Crabbe off the bench strikes a nice balance between shooting and defense and allows Atkinson to stagger the minutes of his star guards.
With a young core that is getting healthy right in time for the playoffs, the Brooklyn Nets are becoming the team the East’s elite are trying to avoid in the first round of the playoffs.