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Dissecting Brooklyn’s Ballhandler ‘Dilemma’

Charles Maniego, our own “Sir Charles,” offers his analysis of the distinctive styles that the Nets three ballhandlers bring to the team ... and what the Fit might look like.

Miami Heat v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Heading into the 2017-18 season, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Brooklyn Nets involved the point guard debate. Many wondered, “Can Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell coexist?” The two playmakers – both with passionate fanbases – each had arguments in their favor. Jeremy Lin’s Game 1 injury left that question unanswered. D’Angelo Russell stepped up to lead the Nets – briefly – before he went down.

Now, the Nets face a similar situation.

In Russell’s absence, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert found their grooves as primary ballhandlers. Dinwiddie became the Nets’ go-to scorer in crunch time, his aura growing (literally) every fourth quarter. Without another point guard (and Isaiah Whitehead on, not in, Long Island), wing Caris LeVert became the lead ballhandler off the bench. His speed, vision, and shiftiness shined on-ball. After Russell’s injury on November 11th, Dinwiddie averaged 14.6 points and 7.0 assists in 30 minutes, limiting his turnovers to 1.7 per game. Also, LeVert averaged 13.8 points and 4.8 assists, shooting 39.1% from three, per NBA.com. Dinwiddie and LeVert stepped up in the 32 games missed by Russell.

Now, with the return of Russell – and the loosening of his minutes restriction – head coach Kenny Atkinson will need to make adjustments. Much like Nelly and Kelly Rowland, the Nets could have a dilemma on their hands. What do you do when three of your best players all thrive as primary ballhandlers? Let’s dissect.

D’Angelo Russell

In his return to action last Friday against the Miami Heat, Russell’s dribbling was enough to put Nets fans in a frenzy. Through the legs, behind the back, past defenders, Russell mesmerized. While his scoring has yet to come (he’s shot 18.8% from the field), the ballhandling and vision are there. A healthy D’Angelo Russell’s game is rhythmic, hypnotizing defenders before he creates. His knack for scoring – stopping on a dime for a midrange jumper, hesitating to shake defenders, or probing for a floater – propelled him to score 20 points per game pre-injury.

Pair Russell’s scoring with his playmaking ability, and it’s easy to understand the excitement. His passes look nonchalant, but come with a high degree of difficulty. Watch below as Russell runs pick and roll with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, delivering a one-handed bounce pass beautifully for an easy layup.

When Russell gets back to full speed, he’ll be a key to the Nets’ production, scoring and distributing. His nonchalant-ness on the court may be detrimental to his game occasionally, causing turnovers or forced shots. But Russell’s talent level is unquestionable.

Spencer Dinwiddie

The rise of Spencer Dinwiddie has caught the attention of not only fans in Brooklyn – but respect from the entire NBA blogosphere (don’t tell the refs that.) Dinwiddie’s success as a playmaker stems from his patience. The key word is control. His game is calculated and deliberate. Often, Dinwiddie waits, surveys and makes his attack, almost like a counter boxer. Dinwiddie’s acceleration and length assist in his scoring once he formulates a plan of attack. His success in the fourth quarter is rooted in that patience, most often scoring when defenses switch on-ball, as seen below against Timberwolves big man Taj Gibson.

Similar situation. A switch is created with a screen, with Carmelo Anthony defending on-ball. Dinwiddie gets by Anthony easily, leading to a layup with Steven Adams sucked out of the paint.

Dinwiddie thrives with spacing – and Kenny Atkinson has constructed his crunch time lineups to his point guard’s strength. He may not have the ball on a string like Russell, but his ability to assess and attack (almost like The Terminator) propels him. As a distributor, Dinwiddie makes the right pass, never gambling too much, but finding his teammates in the right spot. Compare this PNR delivery to RHJ to Russell’s. A simple pass leads to a (relatively) easy basket.

The most successful way opponents have tried to stop Dinwiddie is by applying pressure. Because of the control he plays with, adding a trap or letting a help defender trail him has rushed him to make quick decisions at points. Despite this, Spencer Dinwiddie’s value is at an all-time high – and he continues to impress.

Caris LeVert

Much like me in most relationships, Caris LeVert doesn’t believe in labels (I think). He’s not a wing or a point guard. He’s a professional basketball player. Like Dinwiddie and Russell, LeVert thrives with the ball in his hands. The sophomore’s game is velocious (that’s a real word). LeVert may be the fastest player on the Nets, combining long strides with strong coordination. He can step quickly for a pull-up jump shot, or he can attack rim protectors. When LeVert rounds the corner off of a screen, there are very few ways to stop him from getting to the rim at will.

On the season, LeVert is shooting 55.8% from inside 5 feet. His ability to get to the basket also propels his playmaking ability. LeVert’s penchant for the “dump off” pass or the lob – usually with Jarrett Allen - stems from his drives. In addition, LeVert has found success kicking the ball out from paint to perimeter on his drives as well. Watch below as LeVert sets up Allen in two ways – one via dump off, the other via lob.

The speed at which LeVert plays, not only with his feet, but also with his decisions, could lead him to playing out of control at times. Despite only playing 26.6 minutes per game, LeVert leads all (qualified) Nets with 2.4 turnovers per game. As he continues to grow, LeVert will need to learn how to keep the speed, but also play under control.

The Fit

Three playmakers. Three distinct styles. Russell plays with rhythm. Dinwiddie with control. LeVert with velocity. They and Kenny Atkinson will find ways to make the combinations work. The trio will likely be paired on court – in combinations of two or the three together. So far, the Dinwiddie-LeVert-Russell combo has only played 11 total minutes together. The Dinwiddie-LeVert duo has played 460 minutes, but their net rating is -3.3. There were 27 other Nets duos that produced a better net rating. But the combos could be useful crunch time lineups worth a look.

Any combination of the three could decrease the monotony of the Nets’ motion offense. At times, the Nets’ offensive sets have been reduced to three-point shooting displays – often to mixed results. A Russell pick-and-roll, a LeVert knife, or a Dinwiddie calculated possession could generate offense aside from an arrhythmic three-point barrage.

One area of concern for the intermingling of the three guards is usage. Prior to his injury, Russell’s usage percentage was 34.9%. That’s high. Really high. The NBA’s leaders in usage this season are James Harden at 35.6% and Russell Westbrook at 34.9%. At times, Russell would force up midrange jumpshots despite capable offensive teammates at the wings. Below, Russell sinks the midrange jumper, but he had both LeVert and Dinwiddie standing at the three-point line.

Last game against the Oklahoma City Thunder gave a brief glimpse of what a future Nets lineup could be. The Nets’ second unit featured LeVert and Russell. The two played off each other well, with the Nets’ motion starting with Russell initiating the offense and LeVert speeding along the perimter to start pick and roll. Here’s one example where Russell keys the offense, starting LeVert-Jarrett Allen give and go action.

The Dinwiddie-LeVert combo helped the Nets get passed the Miami Heat last Friday. The presence of LeVert aided in alleviating the pressure on Dinwiddie, adding a different dimension to the “all space” lineup usually deployed by Kenny Atkinson. LeVert was decisive, using his speed with Heat defenders locked on Dinwiddie.

Of course, the solution for “who handles the ball” isn’t black and white. The Nets’ offense is predicated on EVERYONE trying to attack. We’ve seen Quincy Acy and Joe Harris, among others, attack from the perimeter this season. Multiple confident attackers on the perimeter could be more of a benefit than a detriment (that was lowkey a slant rhyme.)

On the defensive end, the three of them can interchangeably guard wings. LeVert may be the best defender, but Dinwiddie has shown the versatility to defend multiple positions as well. Russell’s defensive effort has improved as of late, especially off-ball. Especially in fourth quarters where switching schemes become the norm, having multiple players capable of defending on-ball at an adequate level could be optimal.

The Nets continue to surprise with every game they play. The emergence of Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert may be the biggest signs of progress this season. The return of D’Angelo Russell – another player with something to prove – brings another dimension to Brooklyn’s attack. And we haven’t even talked about the return of Jeremy Lin!

While the ballhandler dilemma may need some time to adjust, its success could pay dividends in the form of wins.