CHICAGO — For the second straight season, the Nets have lost Caris LeVert for an extended chunk of the season before they ever really got into gear.
Last season, a gruesome dislocated right ankle caused him to miss 42 games and struggle to regain his form when he returned. Now he is expected to miss four to six weeks while recovering from right thumb surgery on Thursday to repair ligament damage.
It means the Nets will be more reliant than ever on the backcourt combination of Kyrie Irving and sixth man Spencer Dinwiddie. Losing LeVert is an emotional blow, but Dinwiddie says it’s not nearly as traumatic as the injury they witnessed last November.
“This time, it’s not shell-shocked,” Dinwiddie said. “It’s not like a horrific injury that you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I wonder how he’s doing?’ Obviously, he’s going to miss games. Four to six weeks is what they’re saying, 15 to 20 games. So you’ll be without him for a quarter of the season.
“But at the same time, you’re not thinking, ‘Is he coming back? If he comes back, is he going to be all right?’ Once they clear him and they say he’s all right, odds are that he’s going to be perfectly fine.”
Dinwiddie had a similar thumb injury last season that caused him to miss six weeks, and he discussed it with LeVert and told him what to expect.
In the absence of the Nets’ third-leading scorer, who was averaging 16.8 points, coach Kenny Atkinson said Irving and Dinwiddie likely will be paired more often in the backcourt than they have been so far, though Irving sat out Saturday in Chicago with a right shoulder injury.
“Of course we have a lot of responsibility without Caris,” Dinwiddie said of himself and Irving. “He was pegged to be our second guy, our ‘other All-Star,’ if you will. Obviously, other people have to step up.”
Irving suggested that he and Dinwiddie still are working on their on-court chemistry. “Just developing the chemistry where I can be off the ball and he can be on the ball,” he said. “Just being mature about it when our execution is much more needed down the stretch. We’ve just got to find that balance.”
Asked about the emotional impact of losing LeVert, Irving said, “That’s a big loss for us. Caris is a big part of our team emotionally. Obviously, just his personality and his scoring.”
After LeVert was injured last season, the Nets lost 10 of their next 12 games to fall to 8-18 before turning their season around. Ultimately, they went 23-19 in the 42 games he missed.
“Just look at how we were doing last year,” Jarrett Allen said of losing LeVert. “We were in a worse position than we are now, 8-18, and then we won seven games in a row. There’s always an opportunity to turn it around and bring a positive.”
Atkinson noted that many other NBA teams have lost high-profile players for an extended period this season. “We have plenty of talent in there,” he said of his locker room. “Plenty of players in there to hold the fort until he gets back.”
Musa not afraid of the moment
One Net who will get extended playing time with LeVert out is second-year guard Dzanan Musa, who was the Nets’ first-round pick in 2018 but spent most of last season in the G League. In the first two games without LeVert, Musa shot 6-for-10 and averaged 9.5 points in 17 minutes per game.
“We need his scoring on that second unit now with no Caris,” Atkinson said. “We’re going to need Musa to play well . . . Players are born out of situations like this. You can say a lot of things about Musa, but he’s not afraid of the moment. He kind of relishes it, quite honestly. I love his spirit. I love how he gets after it.”
When Atkinson’s words were repeated to Musa, he said, “I’m not afraid of the moment. I’m built for this. I’m only afraid of God. This is my time.”
In his past couple of games, Musa’s shot selection has improved considerably, and he has begun to find the range with his three-pointer. “I’m talking to my position coach, Tiago Splitter. We were watching film a lot, and I think I grew up in that I’m playing in the system . . . As you see, I feel more comfortable catching and shooting. I didn’t show my best yet of the pick-and-roll playing. But I’m good with this spot on the team right now.”
Musa is a native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which he said is a 17-hour flight from Brooklyn, but his passion for earning a larger role is so great that he spent only two weeks at home after last season before returning to train with the Nets. “I came to the U.S. and I put in the weight training, I was in Los Angeles with the team,” he said of his offseason regimen. “So a lot of work in the offseason helped me a lot.”
Davis an old friend
The Nets crossed paths with Utah’s Ed Davis, the veteran forward who became such a valuable locker-room leader in his one season with them last season. Davis is recovering from a fractured leg and expects to return in a month, but he has fond memories of the Nets.
“I met a lot of different people, friendships, relationships, teammates,” he said. “We’ll be brothers for life. We had a lot of fun last year. I enjoyed my time in Brooklyn for sure. We beat expectations. Making the playoffs was a big accomplishment.”