The start to the Brooklyn Nets season served as an oxymoron.
They were riding momentum from last year’s product, but the team was totally revamped with the superstar story line. Their culture put them in the position they’re in, but it’s the choice of players that make the culture work.
They lost nine guys from the team last year, keeping just enough of the core intact (all Marks’ draft picks or pick-ups) in Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs, Dzanan Musa and Theo Pinson.
Kurucs has been on trial since the summer, while newcomer Wilson Chandler was suspended 25 games for PED use. And so, to a certain extent, the culture was in question before the season even started.
After Brooklyn dropped three games in the first four, one player told NetsDaily, “We have to learn to play together, and we will. But I mean, we have, what nine – 10 new players? There’s still some of us left, but given the new rotations we aren’t always on the floor together.
Not to mention their biggest bonding opportunity — a preseason trip to China— turned into a stressed-out mess.
Now, we’re 19 games into the season. The Nets started off 4-7 with four of the losses either in overtime or in games decided by five or points or less. Way too many times, they fell out of Kenny Ball and depended on isolation. It wasn’t their biggest issue, but it was telling. They weren’t playing team ball.
It was a disappointing start — and a weird vibe. Like, what happened to the fun they were having months ago? The winning? The momentum?
Then, Kyrie Irving went out with a shoulder impingement. Caris LeVert was already out after ligament surgery on his thumb, and well, we all know what’s going on with Kevin Durant (but do we really?). Kurucs has spent time with Long Island, Chandler working on his own at HSS.
Without Irving and Kurucs, Kenny turned to Dinwiddie, Allen and Harris. And so far, the three carried that momentum from last season. The three represent the culture, the identity the Nets take pride in and thrive on ... glue guys with benefits.
Irving went down, and Dinwiddie stepped up into a starter’s role and dropped 20 or more points in six straight games. The Nets are 6-2 behind his lead and he’s averaging 20.2 points and 5.9 assists per game. He also hit a game-winning shot against the Cavaliers and reminded the Celtics of what he can do in the clutch.
Dinwiddie is the poster boy for Brooklyn’s “next-man up” mentality since Atkinson and Marks took over. Three years ago next week, the Nets plucked Dinwiddie out of the G League and signed him to a very team-friendly deal. He never made a fuss about his role ... or his contract. He just came to ball. We saw glimpses in Year One, nothing more.
Then, came Year Two. Jeremy Lin got hurt in the first game of the season and D’Angelo Russell was out for an extended period of time. It was Dinwiddie’s time.
So, we asked him about his role before his first start against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers that year...
“It’s just... next man up,” Dinwiddie told NetsDaily. “Go out there and be aggressive. Do whatever it takes. We’re the type of team that’s very fluid. As you see, we plug guys in and out depending on how guys are playing. That’s just the product of ball we play… the system.”
And here’s what he said after Friday’s win...
“The role is completely different so obviously, there is a change there. My approach to the game is very similar either way,” Dinwiddie said about starting. “It’s whatever the team needs to win and then the role kind of dictates what that is. Sometimes it will be defense, sometimes it will be offense.”
Sounds awfully familiar. That’s the Kenny mentality – and this was said in 2017 when the Nets won 28 games!
“He’s playing as well as anybody in the NBA right now, in my opinion,” said Atkinson following a 112-107 victory over the tough Boston Celtics.
Allen echoed his coach: “He’s super-talented, he’s super-skilled, he’s super-athletic. I think this could be a normal night for him.”
Make no mistake: This is Dinwiddie’s team right now.
Dinwiddie’s success has only elevated Jarrett Allen’s game. Allen is averaging 11.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game with a league-best 67.4 percent from the field. In the eight games Kyrie has been absent, Allen is averaging 15.6 points and 12.6 rebounds on 72.5 percent shooting. He’s second in the NBA in dunks at 58, between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis.
He’s become a quiet leader of the depleted Nets squad – another product of the continuing development that’s going on under Atkinson and his coaching staff. People tend to forget that Allen is still only 21-years-old. He’s been at the forefront of keeping this Nets team afloat while their star players recover.
Allen’s development is also a hat tip to Brooklyn’s two veteran bigs – Ed Davis and Jared Dudley. Allen’s locker was wedged right in between Davis and Dudley, fitting given their constant voice in his ear all last year.
Knowing his days in Brooklyn might be over, Dudley told reporters at season exit interviews that Allen is the most important player for Brooklyn’s future.
“You can’t bump Giannis anymore. How hard does Jarrett Allen want to work? Because people talk about the D-Los and all that, Jarrett Allen is the key. He’s the key ‘cause he’s the foundation. He blocks the shots, he’s (catching) the drop-offs and so he’s the one that’s going to give you 18 points without even calling a play in his level.”
He isn’t wrong. Allen’s production has come mostly inside, off the pick-and-roll with Dinwiddie, whom he’s comfortable with. The two are friends behind the scenes, and the chemistry of playing together is showing off.
They even kept last year’s post-game tradition alive...
Allen also likens his development to that of another of the glue guys.
“You see it with everybody,” Allen said Friday, talking about stepping up. “Hopefully, I’m going to have a year like Caris had last year. He came out, in his third year, and played a lot better.”
His coach agreed.
“He’s all over the place,” Atkinson told reporters Friday. “He’s on every board. He’s at the rim protecting. He’s our quarterback on defense. Anytime we miss a shot, it seems like he’s cleaning up. I’m going to be honest: That’s not something we emphasize. He’s just kind of doing it.”
Harris has not put up the monster shooting numbers he did last season. Overall, he’s at 41.1 percent and in their last eight without Kyrie, it’s 37.7. That’s down from his extraordinary, league leading 47.4 last season. But he too is stepping up in different ways. He understands he has to shoot more, be more aggressive. Going into Sunday’s game, he has taken 11 or more shots in each of the last six games, something he’s done only once before in his career. And in the last five, he’s taken seven or more three’s, something he has never done before.
It’s all about doing what’s necessary and relying on continuity. And when the injured players return, he expects they’ll fit right in.
“If Caris and Ky were healthy right now, they’d be seamlessly meshing into it,” Harris said Friday. “It’s just a matter of time when that continuity, that chemistry comes together ... everybody knows their role.”
Late in Friday’s game, two Celtics seeing Harris just a bit open —and respecting his shot, closed on him. Harris faked a three, which allowed him to hit the open Allen with a neat bounce pass that led to a Big Jay dunk. Dagger.
All of it carries over into team success. The Nets struggled to close out games early this season… and last season… and the season before.
That’s why these eight games have been such a testament to the guys who helped create this culture in the first place, one that despite turnover is about continuity. Dinwiddie, Allen and Harris have been Brooklyn’s key players during this run. They aren’t better without Kyrie, but perhaps the three are battle tested in late-game situations.
- In 2017-2018, the Nets played 50 games (19-31) in which they were within five points with five minutes left.
- In 2018-2019, the Nets played 44 games (24-20) in which they were within five points with five minutes left.
- Through 19 games this year, the Nets have played 13 games (8-5) in which they were within five points with five minutes left.
That’s 107 games over the past three years. Now, it’s different. Dinwiddie, Allen and Harris have been around since near the beginning of the Markinson Era. It’s a credit to them and Atkinson for improvements in late-game management. The only piece missing to this puzzle is LeVert.
If there’s been any silver lining to all these injuries – other than a 6-2 record – it’s that the Nets are riding the guys that got them here in the first place. They’ve re-established their offensive and defensive principles, playing as a team rather than possessions turning into sloppy one-on-one streetball play.
They’ve prided themselves on their blue-collar, next-man-up, team-oriented identity they’ve possessed since Atkinson took over. It should come as no surprise that the Nets’ season didn’t take a dip really quick. It’s in the culture’s hands.