Kyrie Irving is scheduled to miss his 12th straight game with a shoulder injury when the Nets faced the Nuggets Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center, and there is no timetable for his return. Caris LeVert still is wearing a splint following right thumb surgery, and he likely will miss another three weeks.
Yet, the Nets have gone 8-3 without Irving after going 4-7 with him, and it begs the question of whether there is a lesson to be learned by Irving, who was averaging 28.5 points but dominating the ball to such an extent that it wasn’t moving nearly as well as it is now. The Nets recorded a season-high 35 assists in their win Friday in Charlotte and now have played six straight games with at least 24 assists.
Asked recently what impression the Nets’ successful turnaround might have made on Irving, who has not spoken to the media since being injured, coach Kenny Atkinson said, “I think he’s a student of the game. I watched film with him the other day. We talked about not only what the guys on the court are doing but what it looks like when he comes back. So, we have those conversations.”
Ticking off the names of veterans Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen, all of whom have played at least three seasons with the Nets under Atkinson, the coach added, “They have more corporate knowledge of the system and what we’re running. I think Kyrie did a heck of a job in the time he was playing. I think he’ll get better with these new players, so, I’m not worried about that at all.”
Irving is one of eight veterans who are new to the Nets if you include Kevin Durant, who is not expected to play this season while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, and Wilson Chandler, who must miss three more games to complete his 25-game suspension for using a banned substance. The other five veteran newcomers now have a good grasp of the Nets’ system, including Garrett Temple, who has been starting in place of LeVert in the backcourt next to point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who is averaging 23.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists while starting in place of Irving.
“I guess the questions that are looming in the back of my mind are: What does that look like in terms of Spencer and Garrett?” Atkinson said of a healthy Nets lineup. “There’s a lot of pieces that we’ll have to move around. So, I think it will be a good problem to have when Kyrie comes back. But there are a lot of answers we have to come up with when that happens.”
When Irving and LeVert finally return, they will be joining a group that has developed tremendous chemistry in terms of ball movement on offense and learning the principles of the defensive system. Given the results without two of the Nets’ top three scorers, there should be no question about the buy-in to maintaining the same style of play.
“Winning games like this helps because they just trust more, they trust the coaches more, they trust each other more,” Atkinson said. “That’s the chemistry that builds, and it just doesn’t happen in training camp. It builds over the year, it builds through adversity, but we’re putting money in the bank right now in terms of our chemistry.”
Jordan-Allen strong center duo
When the Nets signed veteran center DeAndre Jordan in tandem with free agents Irving and Durant, there were questions about how that might impact third-year starting center Jarrett Allen. The answer is the Nets’ center position is the strongest its ever been under general manager Sean Marks and Atkinson. During Friday’s win at Charlotte, Allen and Jordan recorded double-doubles together for the first time this season, combining for 30 points and 23 rebounds.
“We have depth there that we never had,” Atkinson said. “We have two starting centers, basically, playing. DeAndre was a difference-maker tonight. Even at the end when they started switching everything and we were missing shots, he was cleaning up the offensive rebounds, had a big block down at the end. He was great.”
Atkinson had to laugh when asked if Jordan is a coach on the floor, given how he communicates on defense and often pulls players aside during timeouts. “Yeah, he coaches me, too,” Atkinson said. “He coaches the players, he coaches me, and he’s got a great voice.”
Allen is having his best season alongside Jordan, leading the NBA in field goal percentage (. 673), ranking second in dunks (68), seventh in offensive rebounds per game (3.6) and 10th in rebounding (10.5). Jordan is fifth in rebounding percentage (. 195), sixth in defensive rebound percentage (. 286), fifth in effective field goal percentage (. 696) and first in the NBA in rebounds off the bench (8.7 in 16 games).
Asked for his thoughts when Jordan signed, Allen said, “There could have been a lot of negative thinking in my head, a lot of people saying a lot of negative things. But I took it as a positive. He’s a great person to learn from, he’s first team all-defense, and he has a great background. So, I just tried to learn from him as much as I could.”
Now, they are complementing each other so well that Allen said, “We both like dunking the ball. I already saw on Twitter, like, ‘New Lob City.’ I don’t know if I’m at the Blake Griffin level, but we both want to be out there and play our hardest.”
Harris rediscovers his shot
After leading the NBA in three-point field goal percentage (. 474) last season, Joe Harris went through a mini-shooting slump early this season. But over his past five games, he is averaging 18.6 points, including 19-for-36 three-point shooting (. 528) and recording three games of at least 20 points and three with at least five three-pointers while being a team-high plus-20 in plus-minus rating in that span.
Explaining his recent success, Harris said, “This is one of those situations where we’re down a couple of guys and we need some more offensive production in a couple of areas. They talked about Taurean [Prince] and I trying to get our volume up from three and being more aggressive, hunting shots, and taking some contested ones once in a while, just keeping the defense honest.”