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Reality setting in as Nets face consequences of Caris LeVert’s injury

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NBA: Houston Rockets at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Relief has turned into reality for the Brooklyn Nets.

There was relief after Caris LeVert’s medical report was released. Relief that he didn’t have a long-term injury. Relief that the franchise’s cornerstone and emerging star wouldn’t even be out for the season!

But now it’s 10 games without Brooklyn’s leading scorer and reality is starting to kick in.

Odds were against them even with LeVert healthy, but the Nets were off to their best start since the 2014-2015 season with a 6-7 record. They were tied for the eighth seed entering that night, but now the ship be sinking… the same way it’s been these past three seasons.

There are close losses down the stretch. There are head scratching Last 2 Minute Reports. There is no longer that buzz that Caris brought to Brooklyn – something the Nets have lacked the past five years. He captained the ship and mostly everybody filled in nicely and gave something Nets fans haven’t felt in a while: hope.

Now they’re 8-16 with a six-game losing streak – 2-9 since LeVert’s injury. They’ve lost 10 out of the last 12 and stand four games back in the loss column for the eighth seed.

So, while there were (and still are) initial sighs of relief, we’re beginning to see the consequences in losing a player like LeVert.

“The significance of how the injury happened [with] him being our heart and soul of the team up until this point, our go-to scorer and facilitator. Then obviously just sort of the energy and enthusiasm and leadership that he brings,” Joe Harris said back on November 14, Brooklyn’s first game after the injury.

Harris then offered some optimism, lines that sound awfully familiar from the past.

“At the same time everybody is presented with an opportunity to step up. We have to take advantage of having some ownership individually across the board and taking on just the opportunity that’s presented to each guy across the board.”

That hasn’t really happened. Sure, some might be taking their own steps individually, but the importance is minimal when the team is losing. Maybe in year one or even year two, but not year three. This was supposed to be the year they made their jump.

“I just think Caris gives us a different dimension, especially against the switching teams,” Kenny Atkinson said. “Teams were much more hesitant to switch against us because he’d just blow by the big that was guarding him. It’s a dimension we don’t have.”

LeVert made players better on both ends of the floor. You heard the “heart and soul” line several times, not to mention he was their closer who hit two game-winning shots. Or you could make it simple and say they lost their best player, as Jared Dudley answered to a fan on Twitter.

It goes back to that thing called “hope.” The season is far from lost, but by time LeVert comes back (which remains an unknown), the Nets are going to look at their record, evaluate the situation and likely assess how they’d like to finish it out.

If it’s late February and the playoffs are out of reach, expect them to tank or “play the kids.” Of course, if they’re still hanging around, then maybe he will return and give them a jolt. That doesn’t look like the case right now.

Some say tank, but will that turn off free agents? Will it be bad for the culture? The Nets refuse to tank, or at least won’t admit it, but does that mean they’ll fall in limbo and risk the chance at a lottery pick? They’ll need to pick a direction by time he gets back.

“Probably at the upper, upper management, I’m sure it’s been discussed,” Atkinson said when he was asked about tanking a ways back. “But from coaching, we don’t talk about that. And Sean and I don’t talk about it.”

If they’re in a weird middle point, they might bring him back just to see how they might want to approach the future of some of their current players like D’Angelo Russell. Russell is a restricted free agent at the end of the season. His numbers are up since LeVert went down, but the two looked like an enticing tandem for potential free agents to join.

There’s a reason why Atkinson brought up Russell when asked about LeVert after Brooklyn’s first loss without him.

“He and D’Angelo (Russell) were sharing it so well. The chemistry, they shared the ball handling duties a ton,” he said.

This brings up another re-occurring theme since Sean Marks and Atkinson took over. For a third straight year, Atkinson has lost his lead guard to injury. The first year it was Jeremy Lin. The second year it was both Lin and Russell. He’s been called “the point guard whisperer” as assistant coach. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had a healthy backcourt since becoming head coach.

It makes it even harder to put any blame whatsoever on Atkinson. Without LeVert, he simply doesn’t have the talent on his roster to be considered a playoff team.

We’ve seen what life without Caris LeVert looks like and it isn’t pretty. We know the implications it might have on this team in the short and long term. It’s hard to complain when you see the replay and then check the medical report, because it still feels like a miracle.

But man, reality is settling in and it’s very hard to stay positive.