Maybe some NBA teams can afford to lose key players and stay on the winning track, but the Nets haven’t reached that point yet. They were approaching respectability after a 6-6 start to the season, but they have gone 2-10 since then, suffering a long-term injury to emerging star Caris LeVert and the recent loss of top three-point shooter Joe Harris during that stretch.
As a result, the best-laid offseason plans have been skewed as coach Kenny Atkinson and the Nets scramble to adjust to new roles and strategies. LeVert was lost for up to three months with a dislocated right ankle one game into the current 2-10 stretch, an injury that caused the most significant upheaval, but Harris went into a shooting slump that coincided exactly with LeVert’s injury and then missed the past two games with an adductor strain.
Harris again is listed as questionable for the Nets’ game against the Cavaliers Monday night at Barclays Center, but Atkinson expressed optimism that he might return. The Nets’ struggling offense certainly could use Harris after bottoming out in a 102-88 loss Saturday night in Washington.
Asked how the offense has changed since the loss of LeVert, Atkinson said, “Caris gives us a different dimension, especially against the switching teams. Teams were much more hesitant to switch against us because he would just blow by the big man that was guarding him. It’s a dimension we don’t have.
“I’m pleased we haven’t dipped as much as you’d think we’ve dipped offensively. We’re still finding our way, but listen, we had Joe out [in Washington], too, and things start getting in different roles and we’re not there yet to take that hit and still produce offensively.”
Against the Wizards, the three Nets with point guard skills — D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Shabazz Napier — all failed to find the chemistry necessary to ignite the offense. They each scored eight points and shot a combined 8 of 30 from the field.
“I just think guys are shifting into new roles,” Atkinson said. “Shabazz is obviously playing more minutes. He’s alone at the point sometimes. Spencer and D’Angelo are playing together. It’s just figuring this out on the fly.”
The Nets have blown an NBA-high seven double-digit leads this season, including four times during the current 2-10 stretch. Part of the problem is the hot-shooting Harris tailed off dramatically. In the nine games before his injury he made only 14 of 52 three-pointers (26.9 percent). That’s a steep decline for a career 40.6 percent three-point shooter who still is hitting 44.0 percent from deep this season, but even when he’s missing, the Nets are more dangerous with Harris on the floor.
Following the loss to the Wizards, Dinwiddie said, “We’re getting our whole team to where it’s going to be for the next several months [without LeVert], right? And then, we lose one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA. So, now, it’s another adjustment period. But that’s no excuse. It’s next man up.”
Veteran forward Ed Davis said the Nets’ problems are related to how the roster was constructed in terms of grooming LeVert to play a major role and adding several veterans during the offseason.
“There’s a lot of new faces on this team, and obviously, Caris is a big part of this team,” Davis said. “He was our go-to guy. Then, Joe was definitely playing well . . . [with] the pressure that Joe puts on the defense with his outside shooting, his movement and all the things he does, making big plays on the defensive end and timely buckets. They’re both definitely missed for sure.”
Even without LeVert, the Nets have given themselves plenty of chances to hold the fort if only they could hold double-digit leads. As poorly as they played against the Wizards, Dinwiddie and Davis both admitted the Nets still were stinging from kicking away a seven-point lead in the final 33 seconds of regulation in a double-overtime home loss to Memphis on Friday night.
“We gave it to them,” Davis said of the Grizzlies. “We were up [13 in the fourth quarter] against Philly, and we were up eight going into the fourth quarter against Utah. Those games, you have to finish those things out. When you’ve got a team down, you’ve got to stomp on them.”