The balance between Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert may be the most salient information the Nets can take from the 2020 season and will answer some pressing long-term questions.
The Nets stood at the epicenter of perhaps the most seismic offseason in NBA history before fading quickly from public consciousness. Such is the effect of doing your work early in a landscape of constant change. By acquiring Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in the first few hours of free agency, Brooklyn assembled a championship nucleus and pivoted on a dime from asset-accumulation mode to title-chasing mode. But until Durant returns to action – presumed to be the start of the 2020-21 season – those plans will be put on hold. In the meantime, the franchise will be largely subject to Irving’s control as it figures out just how to proceed from here.
In many ways, the 2020 season will be a bridge between the scrappy but ultimately non-threatening Nets and the team that could perennially challenge for titles. The balance between its guards may be the single most salient piece of information Brooklyn can take from its final pre-Durant season and will provide clarity on several of the team’s most pressing long-term questions. How much of the offense will Irving cede to his teammates? How much is Caris LeVert ready to handle? How will the two work in concert with one another?
At the very least, Irving will likely provide a more reliable and efficient version of what D’Angelo Russell did last season. Brooklyn ran a middling offense with Russell on the floor, while the Celtics operated at an elite rate with Irving in command. The guards finished with similar usage and assist figures, and share some stylistic traits – particularly as pick-and-roll operators – but Irving outpaces Russell in every measure of efficiency and value. He ranked third in true shooting percentage among high-usage guards last season; Russell didn’t crack the league average. Irving finishes more capably at all three levels of the floor, is one of the league’s preeminent pull-up shooters and, despite trailing Russell as a pure passer, possesses far more gravity on and off the ball. Opponents must account for Russell, but he doesn’t bend defenses or warp gameplans in quite the same way Irving does. Russell’s slithering forays in the pick-and-roll often led to ill-advised jumpers or idling in the paint:
While Irving presses those advantages and manipulates the defense:
Given his natural proclivity for running the show and Durant’s absence, expect Irving to run significantly more pick-and-roll in Brooklyn than he did in Boston. Brad Stevens preferred a style that incorporated constant motion and used Al Horford as a fulcrum. Absent that sort of big man, the Nets take a more straightforward approach. Russell ran over 11 pick-and-rolls per game last season – second in the NBA behind Kemba Walker, Irving’s replacement in Boston – while Irving averaged under seven despite finishing them more adeptly. That difference alone could stabilize a middling offense that often lacked for consistency, but with few other proven creators next to Irving, it remains unclear how high Brooklyn’s ceiling will be.
Much will depend on what kind of leap LeVert makes entering an extension-eligible season. At his best, LeVert represents an ideal third banana to Durant and Irving. He’ll likely never serve as a primary ball-handler on a playoff team, but given Brooklyn’s recent roster additions, he has enough playmaking savvy to serviceably attack closeouts or initiate second-side pick-and-rolls. Both he and Spencer Dinwiddie finished pick-and-rolls more efficiently than Russell last season (albeit on far lower volume) and LeVert was Brooklyn’s best player before a foot injury cut his season in half. He’s a crafty slasher that can puncture defenses and spur the offense when opponents tilt too far toward the Nets’ stars:
Those moments simply haven’t occurred frequently enough for LeVert – entering his age-25 season – to play that sort of role on a team with title aspirations. He’ll shake defenders on his way to the basket or into a pull-up, but his shooting and finishing at the rim leave one wanting. That, a relatively inefficient shot selection and the weight of the Nets’ increasing reliance on him have dragged down his scoring efficiency every season of his career. Alongside Irving and Durant, those issues won’t be quite so pronounced. The avenues for LeVert to attack will be wider than ever, while his new teammates will happily shoulder any burden he can’t. Dinwiddie’s cunning drives and unabashed willingness to seize the moment serves as insurance against the possibility that LeVert progresses more gradually than anticipated. But Dinwiddie doesn’t project as a foundational piece or potential All-Star. LeVert might, and given Brooklyn’s financial commitments to Irving and Durant over the next four years, the Nets will rightfully cling to the possibility of developing a third star on a team-friendly contract (depending on the size of LeVert’s next deal).
Brooklyn almost certainly won’t compete for a championship next year, nor will the coming season be any sort of referendum on Irving or the rest of the team’s core. More intriguing than the wins, losses or playoff results will be the dynamics at play and how the front office interprets them. The promise of these Nets lies in 2021 and beyond. What happens in the interim will help shape that future.