The No. 1 question facing the Nets before every game they play for the rest of the season is how well Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie will play off each other in the backcourt with the starting unit and whether backup point guard Caris LeVert will remain with the second unit.
Given the fact that superstar power forward Kevin Durant is out for the season while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, those are the three players who must lead the Nets out of their recent tailspin and back to the playoffs. The return by Irving and LeVert from long-term injuries has not gone smoothly, and as well as Dinwiddie played in their absence, he has struggled at times to figure out his role in the starting backcourt with Irving.
“I think they need more time,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said following a practice on Friday before a back-to-back set at Detroit Saturday and at the Knicks on Sunday. “I thought they were going to have more problems quite honestly. I was really fearful of that.
“There’s no selfishness involved at all. They’re really trying to please each other. We’re having those discussions and talking about it . . . We have to think about that, too, from the rotation standpoint. What that looks like.”
Atkinson’s discussions with his coaching staff produced a surprising change to the starting lineup Saturday night in Detroit. Rather than flip-flop the starting and backup roles for Dinwiddie and LeVert, he chose to put Dinwiddie on the second unit with LeVert and return veteran Garrett Temple to the starting unit alongside Irving.
Previously Irving and Dinwiddie were taking turns moving off the ball. Both are at their best with the ball in their hands, getting downhill to the rim to either score or pass to open perimeter shooters. Atkinson said there was no tension between their games, but his actions suggest otherwise.
Atkinson’s decision to bring two of his top three players off the bench in Detroit raises a new question. Is this a transition move leading to LeVert ultimately returning to the starting lineup with Irving, which is how the Nets began the season? Dinwiddie calls LeVert the Nets’ “third star,” meaning in tandem with superstars Irving and Durant.
Dinwiddie has excelled in the sixth-man role in the past, but that’s LeVert’s job now, and the second unit has improved just in terms of depth since he returned. But LeVert shot only 34.5 percent from the field during his first nine games back because he has been struggling around the rim.
“Still trying to find his rhythm,” Atkinson said of LeVert. “We need to get him up to his elite level. He’s still working on it. It was evident [Thursday night in a loss to the Lakers]. I just think it’s a matter of time.
“We’re obviously better with him and his experience and his ability to handle the ball and make plays. But we want him back to where he was the first 10 games of last season [before a dislocated ankle] and in the playoffs. I know it’s in Caris. When he’s locked in 100 percent, feeling good in his body, I think he’ll get to that level. He’ll get there.”
Keeping an eye on Kyrie
Since playing 20 minutes in his first game back from a right shoulder impingement that cost him 26 games, Irving averaged 33 minutes in the next four games he played but had to skip one more game because of hamstring tightness. Clearly, Irving is bound and determined to prove his leadership, but Atkinson expressed concern about overusing him.
“Listen, it’s going to be constant discussion between me and him,” Atkinson said. “I really have to think about our schedule and his long-term health, what that looks like down the road. Kyrie wants to play 48 minutes a game. We’ll get to an understanding. He’s such a competitor.”
Irving smiled when Atkinson’s comments were relayed and he was asked how that dialogue might go. “Open,” Irving said. “He’s my head coach. I’m not going to come at him or anything like that. I think we just have to do what the medical staff says and just go from there and make a sound decision collectively.
“Obviously, in a [losing] situation like this, you do want to play 48 minutes. It’s just that competitive fire inside of you. But it starts with me continuing to be patient, just continuing to push the guys in the right direction.”
Durant elevating on his jumper
When a small group of media members were admitted to the Nets’ practice court for interviews Friday afternoon, it was deserted except for the towering presence of Durant working on his shot with a team of trainers and assistant coaches. At first, he posted up at the top of the key, back to the defender before spinning and elevating to hit fadeaway jumpers.
It was the first time during his rehabilitation from right Achilles tendon surgery that Durant was elevating rather than standing still while shooting. Then he moved to a corner, where he caught passes and elevated to hit five three-pointers in a row. “It’s difficult when you have a guy that averages 30 points on the sideline, but it’s the reality,” forward Wilson Chandler said. “We don’t have him this year, we’re not going to have him this year, so, we’ve got to play through that.”
But the Nets can dream of a future with Durant.