Injury, rehab, rotation change, repeat. That has been the never-ending spin cycle for the Nets over the past three seasons even while the player development program under general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson has produced improved depth and talent to deal with constant injury-related change.
The return before the All-Star break of Caris LeVert and Allen Crabbe from long-term injuries should provide a huge boost for the Nets as they prepare to make a serious playoff push for the first time under Marks and Atkinson, and it shouldn’t be long after the break when Spencer Dinwiddie and Jared Dudley come back. But as well as the Nets responded to the catastrophic loss of LeVert for three months with a dislocated ankle, there figures to be a ripple effect that could make for a bumpy ride as everyone adjusts to revised roles and playing time.
LeVert’s return against the Bulls on Friday was promising as he produced 11 points, five steals and four assists in just 15 minutes, and Crabbe scored 19 points and hit five of nine three-pointers in only his second game back. But the Nets suffered a 19-point loss on their home floor to a 13-win team.
LeVert was the clear leader of the Nets before going down, but point guard D’Angelo Russell stepped up to take charge in his absence and earned an All-Star selection. How those two adjust to playing together again is just one of many question marks facing the Nets.
“I don’t think it will be too tough,” LeVert said after the Bulls loss. “We’ve been around the team every day, we know how we play. I feel like today we just didn’t play hard enough [against the Bulls]. We didn’t play great defense. But moving forward, it won’t be too bad of a transition.”
Crabbe started the season slowly but was just finding his shooting rhythm and starting to fill up the box score when he suffered right knee soreness that cost him 26 games. Second-round rookie Rodions Kurucs seized the opportunity to work his way into the starting lineup but lately has hit a shooting slump. How might things change at small forward if Crabbe finds some consistency with his shooting?
“Whatever five the coaching staff throws out on the floor, we’re just going to have to work with,” Crabbe said. “I know we’ve been going through injuries anyway, so we’ve been having to adjust to that. We’ll just get back to the regular rotation, however the rotation goes. We’re just going to have to figure it out.”
Naturally, the Nets are happy to see their teammates get healthy and return to action, but to some degree, it’s almost as if they are starting over or at least hitting the reset button.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s like starting over, but it’s definitely going to take some adjusting to get used to playing together again,” center Jarrett Allen said. “But I think we’re going to mesh well together again.”
Ultimately, it’s Atkinson’s job to put the puzzle back together. Interestingly, he saved LeVert’s limited minutes against the Bulls for fourth-quarter crunch time when he scored nine points in just over eight minutes. But it wasn’t enough.
Looking toward the Nets’ two-game road trip to Toronto and Cleveland before the break, Atkinson said, “With Allen coming back, too, it’s obvious we have a lot more perimeter players now. The first goal is to win these games, and the second goal is to start figuring out what the minutes look like going forward. There’s some newness to this. I think you’ll probably see lineups that we haven’t seen. So, it’ll be interesting.”
Power forward still by committee
When the NBA trade deadline passed on Thursday, three of the top stretch power forwards in the league had new addresses, including Tobias Harris in Philadelphia, Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas and Nikola Mirotic in Milwaukee, and All-Star Anthony Davis laid the groundwork for a future trade by announcing he has no intention of resigning with New Orleans in 2020. Any of those four players could help the Nets at their position of greatest need, but Marks stuck to his long-term strategy to improve in the free-agent market in the hope of not sacrificing any core assets or at least minimizing the damage.
That means Atkinson must continue handling power forward by a committee that includes current starter Treveon Graham, backup Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and former starter Jared Dudley when he recovers from a hamstring injury. Kurucs and DeMarre Carroll also can play the four in some lineups, but only Carroll (33.8) and Dudley (32.2) are above 30.0 percent from three-point range.
“As you can see, we’ll throw DeMarre in at the four at the end of games just because I think shooting is king,” Atkinson said after the Nets scored a big win over the Nuggets last week. “At the end of games, you need guys who can make shots. Now, you’ve got four shooters out there. That’s much harder to guard.”
Atkinson continues to express faith that Graham, who is shooting 27.3 from deep, can play back to his career percentage of 37.6, and he believes Kurucs has the shooting mechanics to improve on his current 29.4 percent from three-point range.
In other words, the solution at power forward lies within the current roster. “I think adding T.G. is huge and having Rodi come out of nowhere, he can fill that position,” Atkinson said. “Having DeMarre, I always say he’s really a small-ball four. We have multiple solutions at that position.”