While watching the Phoenix Suns beat the living creampuffs out of the Brooklyn Nets, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Not so much at the actual outcome (duh), but because of how we exactly got here (insert creative *record scratch* meme joke here. I’m not creative enough to come up with it, sorry). This cruel league that we love and admire is, more or less, one heaping serving of happenstance.
Three weeks ago, Suns’ center DeAndre Ayton — a former first-overall draft pick and (arguably) Phoenix’s second-best player — was busted for those gosh darn PEDs that continue to “accidentally” plague NBA hoopers this season. With Ayton sidelined for 25 games, many assumed that his Phoenix Suns were left for dead after a promising start to the year. The buzzards were practically circling overhead, drooling, salivating hungrily. The stench of a suddenly lost season slowly clouded the Sonoran Desert’s breathing space. The fizzy fun found at the Talking Stick Arena suddenly dissolved into sad, barren nothingness.
But then, from furthest corner of left field, Phoenix’s bearded hero arrived. Aron Baynes, a career backup center, completely altered the fates of the Suns’ once-doomed season. Always a sturdy defender, the 32-year-old has incredulously given Phoenix’s offense some needed oxygen with his dead-eye marksmanship. Baynes’ 47.4 percent on 4.2 attempted threes ranks third among all centers who have averaged at least 1.5 attempts from deep per game. (In comparison, Ayton had yet to take a three-pointer this season). In a very odd turn of events, losing Ayton for an extended period of time could become the catalyst that breaks the Suns’ listless 9-season playoff drought.
A mere 2,400 miles away, a similar situation could be peaking its head out in New York’s gritty borough. Caris LeVert, one-half of Brooklyn’s prestigious backcourt, is reportedly missing time due to a thumb injury. As of now, the results of his MRI are TBD. But in what could be a hidden gift for Kenny Aktinson, this is the opportune time to shake up rotations.
Funny enough, we’ve all lived out this seemingly forlorn simulation before. Exactly a year ago to the day, LeVert fell victim to a horrific right foot dislocation during a November 12th game versus the Minnesota Timberwolves. With LeVert (Brooklyn’s best player at the time) on the shelf, Brooklyn shockingly sped off to three-month surge with D’Angelo Russell at the helm, winning 52.7 percent of their total games.
There is a chance that history repeats itself.
Before we get into it, a disclaimer: Please don’t take this as “NetsDaily’s Matt Brooks thinks Caris LeVert is a bonafide scrub who is better suited to pushing paper in Washington than starting as Brooklyn’s shooting guard.” That’s not the purpose of this column. What I am trying to say is that NBA rotations are fragile. Even the simplest of nudges to a lineup can greatly accentuate (or damage) a grouping’s effectiveness. LeVert is a marvelous player with top-end potential. We know this. What we aren’t sure of is if Kenny Atkinson has nourished the perfect lineups.
Speaking on that, as it stands, Brooklyn’s starting lineup (LeVert, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince and Jarrett Allen) has manufactured a negative net-rating (-0.6) on the season in 97 total minutes. Per NBA stats, that five-some is scoring the ball just fine – 110.9 points per 100 possessions – at a rate that fits congruently with their season-long fourth-ranked offense. It’s on the other side of the floor where things get a little wonky. Sound the small sample alarm, but Brooklyn’s existing starters are allowing 111.5 points per 100 possessions; once again, “v compatible” (as the kids say) with their sixth-worst defensive rating.
There is a good chance that Garrett Temple, Brooklyn’s backup 2 guard and an established veteran swingman, is named as LeVert’s replacement. While a Temple-inclusive starting lineup hasn’t scored the ball as well as the lineup named previously (at 107.4 points per 100 possessions), defensively speaking, it’s like night and day. In 21 total minutes (go ahead and turn up that blaring small sample alarm a couple of notches for me, will ya?), the combination of Irving, Temple, Harris, Prince and Allen has been staunch, to say the least, allowing just 96.3 points per 100 possessions.
For all of his greatness on offense, LeVert’s defense has held the appeal of a rushed movie sequel; it just hasn’t lived up to its billing. After showcasing promise in his previous two seasons, Caris has been yanked (twice) from games due to meager defensive effort and focus. More often than not, he’s appeared a couple of steps behind his opponent while tracking off-ball movement and, especially, back cuts.
Whether Temple proves to be the magical equalizer on the hardwood for Brooklyn remains to be seen. The Nets face a fantastic test-case bundle of opponents this week: The still-gelling Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets, who, similar to the Nets, started this season a tad sluggish. Should the 33-year-old Temple be named the starter, he’ll be tasted with guarding one hell of an offensive player from the Great Salt Lake (Donovan Mitchell) and a fellow 3-and-D archetype from the Rocky Mountains (Gary Harris). In my best reverberate Lana Del Rey voice, off to the races, am I right?
Should the winning recipe still need additional tinkering, Atkinson still has a couple of additional options. He could promote the electric entity of endless energy that is David Nwaba and have him join the big-league starters. After all, Nwaba is one of three Brooklyn players to yield above-average defensive rating data (with an exceptional 96.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). Offensively, Nwaba’s impact has been, um, iffy, turning the ball over on a whopping 30% of his total possessions – second-worst on the team behind the endlessly free-falling Rodions Kurucs. Still, between Harris, Prince and Irving, there may be enough scoring to to offset Nwaba’s inefficiencies.
As suggested by some on Twitter (gosh, nothing is better than sourcing Twitter, am I right?), Coach Kenny could take things a step further and “up size” his starting rotation. Atkinson has expressed optimism in rookie Nicolas Claxton, campaigning for the 6’11” big man’s ability to hit jumpers and guard smaller players, and has suggested that Clax could play some 4.
Moving Harris and Prince up a position could be a net-positive for Brooklyn: A jumbo sized Kyrie Irving-Joe Harris-Taurean Prince-Nicolas Claxton-Jarrett Allen (or DeAndre Jordan) lineup is a refreshing change of pace after years of small-ball fascination here in Brooklyn. Hawking opponents with a bloodcurdling display of wingspan has worked wonders for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers this season – two top-seven defenses in their own right.
Although LeVert’s injury is discouraging at first-glance, it could birth some much needed ingenuity Brooklyn. Plus, imagine having to defend a group of reserves that boasts the bucket-conjuring hysteria of both LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie? Here’s me channeling some serious Lakers social media team-energy, but best of luck to the rest of the league’s backups in that case.