There is mounting evidence that Spencer Dinwiddie is emerging as the third star who eventually might complement Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the max-salary superstars the Nets signed in free agency, once both are healthy. In the past nine games Irving has missed with a right shoulder injury, Dinwiddie has averaged 25.0 points and 7.3 assists, ranks third in Eastern Conference scoring in that span and is one of seven NBA players averaging at least 24 points and seven assists.
The other six names? Bradley Beal, Luka Doncic, James Harden, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Trae Young, whom Dinwiddie will face Wednesday in Atlanta. It’s heady company, and lately it has become obvious he’s getting superstar treatment from opposing defenses.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson acknowledged that’s what the Heat thought late in their 109-106 victory Sunday at Barclays Center, when Dinwiddie scored 29 but missed a go-ahead layup attempt with 12 seconds left. “They blitzed him,” Atkinson said. “They got it out of his hands a ton. I think he has made incredible strides there. I can’t tell you how many open threes we got because they blitzed him, and he threw it out. We’ve got to keep trusting that, but teams are definitely throwing double-teams at him more and more.”
Dinwiddie acknowledged the amped-up defensive schemes he is seeing and explained he’s just trying to be a playmaker. “As a point guard, if you get that, you’ve done your job,” he said. “So, I’ve got to pass or swing it and then make plays on the backside . . . As long as guys make plays, we should shred their defense. It’s a good test.”
It’s not as if Dinwiddie is new to being called upon to step up in place of injured prolific scorers. He compared the current situation to two seasons ago when he took over in place of D’Angelo Russell, who was sidelined 10 weeks to recover from knee surgery. But it’s different now that so much more is expected of the Nets.
“We’re obviously a much more talented group,” Dinwiddie said of the current team, which is 10-10 and 6-3 without Irving. “During that stretch [replacing Russell], we still were developing. Right now, we’re a really good team, we’re talented, we expect to win. So, we’re coaching like that, I’m playing more and the responsibility is higher because of the minutes.”
The question now is whether Atkinson will start Dinwiddie in the backcourt when Irving returns or put him back with the second unit, which can use his scoring. Atkinson was non-commital, saying he also could pair Garrett Temple with Irving for defensive purposes while Caris LeVert also remains out recovering from thumb surgery.
Joe Harris, who is averaging 14.6 points and among the top three-point shooters at 44.2%, was asked how a Dinwiddie pairing with Irving might look. “He’s put himself in this position where he shows what he can do on a nightly basis,” Harris said. “He’s our No. 1 option, and that’s the way the defense has to treat him right now. Once Ky gets healthy, it makes it look like you basically have a three-headed monster in terms of firepower.”
Dinwiddie understands his role might change dramatically when Irving returns, but he also knows the level he’s reached now only will help the Nets in the future.
“Obviously, the floor is definitely higher because of how we’re playing,” Dinwiddie said. “But we have no idea what our ceiling is because we’re not even close to healthy. It’s going to be fun to explore that and to continue building every day. It’s just encouraging to know that our floor is continuing to rise.”