Nets fans are riding high right now.
Bar none, their win over the Nuggets, to improve to 6-6 (the latest in a season they have been .500 since 2013-2014), was the Nets best win of the Markinson era.
This season has always been about evaluating the young players Sean Marks put in place. And if those players are no better than they were last year, then the Nets would need to strongly consider tanking; free agents are not attracted to 54 loss franchises.
But over 12 games, the Nets look better than that. They’re 6-6, with the net rating data of a 40-45 win team. And, most importantly, Caris LeVert’s breakout looks more real every game, as the sample size grows.
The LeVert Breakthrough Can Change Everything
LeVert’s breakthrough, if he can sustain it, is the type of event that can change the trajectory of a rebuild. The Jazz, for example, were in a spot, losing Gordon Hayward, were it appeared rebuilding made sense. Enter Donovan Mitchell, and the calculus is different.
On the young season, LeVert has been nothing short of excellent. The numbers, which are eye popping, say what they say. But it goes beyond that. When he faced off against Devin Booker, an elite player at his position, he outplayed him. The same goes for Gary Harris. And in both matchups, he relished that challenge: he wanted to show that he is better than top players at his position. The way he stared Booker down after blocking his shot? The way he went AT Harris, on his game winner? He wanted their heads on a stake. Sure, the NBA is less positional now, but players still evaluate themselves by how good they are compared to other players at their position. It’s human nature.
The beauty of it all? LeVert was not, as many young players do gunning for his numbers and forcing up bad shots to prove that he is better than his counterparts at his position. He did it within the offense.
And he succeeded. LeVert torched Booker all night, the standout play being when he stuffed Booker’s shot in an isolation dribble drive situation — one of the toughest plays to make defensively. And despite Harris defending excellently on LeVert’s game winning drive, it did not matter. LeVert got to his spot, and that was that: it was over for Harris and the Nuggets.
LeVert’s confidence is also seething through the TV screen every night. He expected to make that shot over Harris. He had shooters. He was doubleteamed. But he didn’t care. He believed if he got to his spot, and got a little separation, that he was going to score. That shows that he has tremendous confidence in his game.
If LeVert can sustain his breakout, if the Nets can sustain their winning, and if the Nets’ other young players continue to improve (D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Joe Harris all improved as well – their contributions cannot be overlooked), everything can change for the Nets.
The best free agents, the best disgruntled stars seeking trades, want to play places where they believe they can win. Coming off 54 losses, the Nets had little to pitch star talent. But if LeVert’s breakout is real, and if this team wins 40-45 games, suddenly the pitch is totally different. Suddenly the Nets can sell “we have LeVert. We have a good core. We are becoming a winner. Marks has added talent and Kenny has developed players, without assets. … Imagine what we can do, TOGETHER.”
That is one hell of a pitch. And if the Nets can turn a 12 game sample into an 82 game season, they will be able to make it. Players like LeVert allow you to turn corners like this: they are that good.
The Jimmy Butler Trade: Any Lessons for the Nets?
There are multiple Nets takeaways from the Sixers adding Jimmy Butler (I will not dive into how the trade affects Philly and Minnesota, except to provide Nets context).
For starters, it should be noted that the Nets cannot be faulted for not becoming involved. Covington and Saric are valuable win now role players with nice upside, and given their trade value, the Nets likely could not beat the Philly offer, unless they parted with LeVert.
Secondly, Philly’s use of Covington as a trade chip is instructive on Dinwiddie’s value as a piece the Nets may want to keep this summer. Yes, Dinwiddie is not a star, or a potential one. But quality role players on good contracts do not clog your cap, and can become strong trade assets over the life of a contract — just like Covington. With stars leaving so frequently, teams are beginning to deal stars before they hit the market. In addition, the free agency market is a total crapshoot: the Sixers entered it with the pitch of “play with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, they won 52 games without you,” and came away empty handed. With that, it is necessary for teams to remain flexible for trades, not just with cap space, if they want stars.
Being flexible for trades requires assets. It also requires having valuable pieces on mid size contracts in order to match salaries in deals. Suppose the Sixers did not have Covington: how do they do this deal, other than by parting with Redick (whose shooting they need desperately around this non shooting big three)? If all you have are stars on max deals, and role players around them on tiny deals, that makes it impossible to add big targets in trades — you need players on contracts in that $8-$16 million range, to match incoming and outgoing money. And to get big targets, those players better be worth that money — look how Miami struggled in the Butler talks with Josh Richardson off the table, due to their middling contracts being invested in dead weight, not talent.
Suppose Dinwiddie gets a 4 year, $40 million Nets extension. He will fit well with the roster, whether to help rebuilding by facilitating for young players, or to boost a win now effort with his talent. And because he is productive, he will be extremely movable on such a contract … just like Covington. If Dinwiddie is back on a reasonable deal next to Harris on a fair deal, suddenly, the Nets can start aggregating packages for stars because they can offer teams a mix of picks, young players, and/or veteran players on reasonable contracts. That type of versatility is key — with many teams trading stars, they all, inevitably, differ in the type of return they prefer (be it a collection of kids, win now veterans, or the like). You want to construct a team that can meet all of those potential needs.
A NOTE ON D’ANGELO RUSSELL’S IMPROVEMENT SINCE KENNY BENCHED HIM
I love the way Kenny handled DLO’s benching after the loss to Houston (forget the hot hand commentary: he benched DLO — and that’s ok!). Kenny was asked about if he benched DLO, and was essentially invited to criticize him publicly. Instead, Kenny gave DLO a vote of confidence.
Since then, Russell, over three games (three wins), has averaged 20, 5, and 3 on 46% shooting — quietly his best stretch of the season. Kenny’s choice to pump DLO up, rather than put him down, has worked.
Too often as fans, we expect coaches to get angry at their players. We want them to “light a fire under them,” and we feel that if they criticize them, publicly and privately, that will make them play harder and better. It does not really work like that. Coaching is part schemes, part game management, and part managing personalities. It is necessary for coaches to read their players, and understand what, in a given moment, they need to mentally get over the hump. Sometimes, yes, players need tough love. But sometimes players struggle with their confidence despite the best intentions. Those players need a pick me up, not a coach yelling at them and only making them more down (not to mention: the idea of coaches yelling at players to get them to try is overrated anyway; elite athletes should want it regardless of what a coach says, and a coach can’t make someone who does not care, care).
DLO’s poor play had nothing to do with effort — his confidence was wavering. Kenny spotted that, and rather than hurt his confidence further (he shot 12/39 over 3 games; did he really need to be TOLD he was playing poorly in order to know?), he gave him a pick me up: “you’re my guy, and I believe in you.”
DLO has responded well over three games to the positive reinforcement.
–Kenny Atkinson is coaching a Nets team still in the rebuilding phase. All of his players are developing and improving (except Allen Crabbe). And he has kept morale up despite a lot of losing. He is doing exactly what the Nets hired him to do. Is he not “the guy” in deep playoff runs due to rotations and the like? The Nets are not in a phase where rotations really matter, so we do not know that yet. For now, there is no reason to dismiss him.
–The criticism of Kenny for having Russell out on the LeVert game winner is bizarre. Knowing this was a last shot situation, he chose to go with his go to scorer, his three best shooters on paper with respect to gravity and who teams cover, and one secondary playmaker. So Kenny subbed Allen out for Crabbe (not Napier, as he did not play all game — how could he suddenly come in there), and chose Dinwiddie over Russell. Hard to blame him; Dinwiddie has been a steadier hand for a longer time period than Russell. Plus, IT WORKED!
–Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s role going forward is in serious doubt. Since he cannot shoot (hitting 10 footers is a largely meaningless skill), teams literally do not guard him on the floor, and his defender simply stands in the paint, clogging the ability of LeVert, DLO, and Spencer to drive. That hurts the team. And his defense, where he struggles guarding bigger players, does not come close to making up for it.
–the Jared Dudley hate is bizarre. Unlike RHJ, since he can shoot 3’s and teams guard him like he can shoot 3’s (that gravity, the defense focusing on you, matters more than the 3’s themselves), his mere presence on the floor opens it up for the Nets guards to drive into the lane. And he is a heady presence defensively, who gets beat by bigger 4’s without being overwhelmed. Combine that with the competition at his position (a second round pick, a player who just recovered from surgery, and RHJ), and he’s clearly earned his starting role. It just seems like fans are still worked up over his comments about the Nets six years ago so they project that onto him. Let it go. It was six years ago, nobody relevant to the comments is here anymore, and he has publicly stated that his feelings have changed.
–Allen Crabbe has got to get it together. While he tries in non shooting areas to make an impact, he is limited outside of his shot — without hitting 3’s consistently he is not a rotation player. He needs to start knocking 3’s down with regularity.