For the Nets’ playoff push to be successful, it will require a collective effort that relies on one of the NBA’s deepest and most experienced bench crews. With the exception of All-Star D’Angelo Russell, the Nets lack star power, but they make up for it with a bench that not only can wear down opposing teams but sometimes can take over games down the stretch.
The Nets’ bench outscored their opponents’ bench an NBA-leading 54 times in 64 games before facing the Heat Saturday night in Miami. Going into that game, they were averaging 47.5 points, which ranks second in the NBA behind the 52.9 mark of the Los Angeles Clippers’ bench.
Now that Spencer Dinwiddie has returned following his thumb injury, the bench has four players who have been regular starters at some point for the Nets, including DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Dinwiddie. Rookie Rodions Kurucs and veteran Jared Dudley also have had extended starting stints this season. For good measure, the Nets’ bench also includes Ed Davis, who is the third-leading rebounder off the bench in NBA history, and sparkplug veteran point guard Shabazz Napier.
“What we pride ourselves on with the bench is coming in the game and doing the little things to maintain the lead or, if we’re down, to help us get the lead back,” Carroll said recently. “It’s definitely a different role for me. I’m trying to understand it and get familiar with it. I’m being coached by Ed [Davis] on how to do it and how to get ready for the bench.
“I think we’re going to be very important. We’ve got a lot of guys who have played at a high level off the bench. It’s valuable to have guys who are unselfish come off the bench. We’re trying to play unselfish basketball. I think it will be key for us.”
The bench role is new this season for Carroll, who was a regular starter the previous five seasons with the Nets, Raptors and Hawks. He missed the first 11 games this season while recovering from foot surgery and has come off the bench in every game since then after agreeing to that role in a discussion with coach Kenny Atkinson.
Despite that change, Carroll has scored in double figures 43 times. He scored 20 in Friday’s home loss to the Hornets, his fifth 20-point performance of the season.
“When I first came back, it was more about me finding my rhythm,” Carroll said. “Kenny did call me one night and asked me if I wanted to be in the starting lineup. But he said he preferred me to still come off the bench because I was in a good groove. He said, ‘I don’t want to mess your groove up. You’re helping our bench tremendously. But you’re a starter in this league, and if you want to start, I’ll put you back in the starting lineup.’ I was like ‘Whatever you think, coach.’
“To me, it’s not about ego. At this point in my career, it’s just about winning and helping these guys and trying to be a leader.”
One of the toughest jobs for Atkinson now that he finally has a healthy roster is figuring out who goes in the rotation from game to game. He prefers to use no more than a 10-man rotation in the interest of continuity, but that means three capable players must sit.
In Carroll’s view, the way Atkinson utilizes his bench shows the confidence he has in that group. “When you look at how we sub, this is how much trust Kenny has in us,” Carroll said. “He doesn’t sub one or two guys. Usually, three guys go in one minute and two guys go in the next minute. It’s not like he subs one guy in. He subs a whole other five. He looks at us like we should be starters.”
Carroll is making $15.4 million in the final season of a four-year deal worth $58 million. Some thought that number might make him attractive as a salary dump at the trade deadline, but he was happy to remain in a Nets uniform and would like to return in his current role next season.
“Hopefully, it shows my value and what they think of me here,” Carroll said of the fact he wasn’t traded. “That’s how I look at it and how my agent looks at it. This is where we want to be, and hopefully, this season isn’t my last season in Brooklyn … My next contract is going to be about me trying to help and bridge the gap for these young guys.”