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Solving the Nets rotational ‘crisis’

Matt Brooks looks at the possibilities of who fits where when Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert return ... and who might be headed out when Wilson Chandler’s suspension ends.

Houston Rockets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

To most civilians, December 15 is a fairly meaningless date. Technically, it’s about a week before the start of Hanukkah (which begins on December 22) and 10 days before Christmas. According to NationalToday’s Holiday list, December 15 houses two revered festivities (I’m kidding, by the way): National Cupcake Day and of course, a long-time staple of American culture, National Cat… Herders Day... Whatever the heck that means. (Do people herd cats? Is that a thing?)

For fans of the NBA, however, December 15 holds real-deal sentimental value. After all, it marks the first time that organizations can effectively deal players signed that previous summer. That’s right, it’s almost time to dust off those rickety old trade machines.

For those associated with the Brooklyn Nets, that date looms even larger. Not only is the team finally eligible to explore the trade market, December 15 is also the first time that we may finally see summer signee Wilson Chandler. As a reminder, Chandler is in the midst of a 25-game suspension after violating the league’s anti-doping policy on August 29. How does his entrance shake things up in Brooklyn? Well, given that the team signed a 16th player (Iman Shumpert) during his absence, Chandler’s return suggests that difficult cuts/trades may be on the horizon to make sure Brooklyn is in adherence with the league’s 15-man roster policy.

Before we go any further, let me just get one thing out of the way.

I am not in favor of making any drastic trades before seeing a) what Kevin Durant looks like and b) how he shakes up the general makeup of the Brooklyn Nets.

NBA rotations are intricate -- like a delicate flower. Even the slightest sway in the breeze can strip groups bare of petals, pollen and on-court efficiency. With Durant, one of the most magnificent players ever in the fold (eventually), it’s tough to fully digest what the Nets will look like with him playing actual basketball. At 6’10” with an absolute cannon and a gorgeously crafted all-around game, Durant is every bit the focal point of the Nets’ future. There’s no telling who he’s going to play well with, how the Nets are going to use him and, really, his overall effect on Brooklyn’s offense (and defense). So why shake things up now?

…So yeah, no major moves are needed just yet outside of maybe picking up a third-string point guard (more on that later).

Eventually, the currently-injured high-scoring backcourt of Caris LeVert (out with ligament damage to his right thumb) and Kyrie Irving (right shoulder impingement) will return to action. Brookyn’s current starting lineup of Spencer Dinwiddie, Garrett Temple, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince and Jarrett Allen – a +8.2 net-rating dynamo – will be forced apart by those starry returns.

Kenny Atkinson’s spotlight will once again be turned up a couple of notches with his rotations shifting like tectonic plates in the not-so-distant future. Using NBA’s net-rating data, let’s go through some possible rotations for the Nets.

Starting Lineup:

  • Kyrie Irving
  • Garrett Temple
  • Joe Harris
  • Taurean Prince
  • Jarrett Allen

I can already hear the jeers and complaints being hurled my way: “OMFG, where is CARIS?!? He’s the future of this team!!!”

This demotion of sorts isn’t so much an indication of where Caris LeVert is in his progression. It’s more a pledge to Garrett Temple’s jack-of-all-trades paramountcy. To get an idea for his all-around nastiness, here’s a video of Temple side-stepping his way into an open three-pointer, trickling his way around a solid Bam Adebayo screen (feast your eyes on the best pick navigation I’ve seen from any Brooklyn guard this season), and finding a suddenly-open DeAndre Jordan with a perfect high-low pass… all in the same game.

Two-man data suggests some prominent Kyrie Irving-related findings. Caris LeVert and Kyrie Irving hasn’t been a particularly profitable pairing for the Nets, yielding a -5.9 net rating in 188 total minutes. The old faithful eye-test agrees. Synergy between the two has simply appeared… off.

Substitute Garrett Temple for Caris LeVert and the results are much more favorable: +0.8 points per 100 possessions in 145 total minutes. Irving and Temple’s relationship is strong, to the degree that Irving actually recruited the 10-year-pro to the Nets. On media day, Temple described that friendship to me in great detail, “Kyrie told me that he put together a list of guys he wanted that were free agents, and he mentioned to me that I was one of the guys because he knew (about) the competitive nature we had against each other.”

More often than not, friendship can lead well into prolific teamwork on the floor. Just take a look at Irving and Joe Harris, two former teammates back in the Cleveland Cavaliers days. Yet again, Harris displayed a great deal of respect for Irving on media day, telling me (as well as other reporters)…

“Kyrie and I, we’re roughly the same age. When we were in Cleveland together, we spend a lot of time (together). We were with a veteran team, a lot of older guys. We spent a lot of time together just kind of hanging. Obviously we were in a different stage of our careers then than we are now. But we’ve always enjoyed being around each other. I obviously have a ton of respect for him as a player… but as a person too.

“Kyrie is one of those types of players where -- you see the best players in the league, they’re the guys that can make everybody else around them that much better. Kyrie is that type of player.”

Joe Harris has averaged 11 points while shooting a cool 51.1% from the field and 49% from deep (!) in 25.9 minutes per contest with Kyrie Irving hanging around. Those efficiencies fall dramatically when the six-time All-Star is off the floor: 9 points on 46.4/41.3 splits in 18.5 minutes per game doesn’t exactly scream zenith Joe Harris. Irving and Harris’ unity has been more than apparent since the opening tip of the season.

The only pause I, personally, have with this revised starting lineup is splitting up the knockout duo of Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen. Looking at Jarrett Allen’s two-man lineup chart (thanks to NBA.com), he’s a net-positive with… well, just about every player on the roster. (How’s that for subtle evolution?)

Jarrett and Spencer’s kinship jumps off the page right away: +5.5 points per 100 possessions over a healthy 362-minute sample is nothing to sneeze at -- especially if it’s juxtaposed to Allen and Irving’s mere +0.1 net-rating. Synergy statistics may point to one specific and essential difference between Brooklyn’s floor generals. As a passer to the roll-man within pick-and-roll play-sets, Dinwiddie is accountable for 1.43 points per possession as a facilitator – a jaw-dropping 90th percentile ranking. Irving, on the other hand, is averaging just 0.98 points per possession when passing to his pick-and-roll bigs– a 28th percentile ranking. Whether the offense calls for lofting alley-oop passes to the skies or bouncing crafty entry-passes to cutters, Dinwiddie – thus far – has done the better job as Brooklyn’s lead pick-and-roll guard. (It’s worth mentioning: this can change in no time. A year ago, Irving found his Celtic bigs within the pick-and-roll at a “very good” 78th percentile-rate. More reps are needed to make such an indicative claim over the long-term.)

Bench Lineup:

  • Spencer Dinwiddie/Theo Pinson
  • Caris LeVert
  • Iman Shumpert/David Nwaba
  • Wilson Chandler/Rodions Kurucs
  • DeAndre Jordan/Nic Claxton

Let’s get this out of the way… Releasing Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert’s isolation greatness against frickin’ backups on a night-to-night basis is cruel and unusual punishment. We saw how disparaging this duo can be for an opponent during last season’s first-round playoff series versus the Philadelphia 76ers. With both Nets coming off the bench for the majority of round-one, Caris and Spencer gladly took turns wrecking downhill havoc against poor JJ Redick and TJ McConnell. This season, that spooky duo is back at it, winning by a grotesque +16.3 points per 100 possessions when tethered together.

Finding formidable support for the plodding DeAndre Jordan is a bit more… difficult in comparison to Brooklyn’s other Afro-ed center (see for yourself). Glancing through Jordan’s three-man lineup data, one thing stands out. Small sample theatre -- I know, I know -- but in 56 total minutes, the trio of Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jordan has been a net-positive thus far (+6 points per 100).

Should a matchup call for a more versatile big man defender, Kenny Atkinson can always break the Nicolas Claxton glass. Expect to see this strategy utilized against teams with five-out offenses (i.e the Minnesota Timberwolves) that typically rip Brooklyn’s drop coverage to pieces.

At small forward, the Nets are given a plethora of matchup-dependent options. Versus smaller teams that run a great deal of offense through their guards, Iman Shumpert should receive serious burn. His sound-barrier-breaking hand-speed has, so far, struck widespread hysteria into Brooklyn’s foes, and he’s averaging 1.7 steals per 36 minutes. David Nwaba provides the Nets with the perfect foil against bigger teams that prefer to pound the ball down low. He is, almost quite literally, a 6’5” piece of a granite that happens to play basketball, and he uses this frame to stop downhill offense in its tracks.

Wilson Chandler is a bit more of an unknown, but he’s the only player on this roster who can capably hold down the fort at the four.

Closing Lineup:

  • Kyrie Irving
  • Caris LeVert/Iman Shumpert
  • Spencer Dinwiddie
  • Joe Harris/David Nwaba
  • Jarrett Allen

Not exactly the most nuanced take, but if you’re Kenny Aktinson, play your best four. Don’t get cute. Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving have certainly earned their stripes in the clutch no matter what. Should the Nets marginally need to substitute offense for defense, Iman Shumpert and David Nwaba are more than ready to step in for Joe Harris and/or Caris LeVert.

How should the Nets cut down their suddenly stacked roster?

Alright, here it is, the juicy portion of this column. By no coincidence -- at all -- is this also the section I’m dreading to write. I can’t lie, I toyed with the idea of theoretically cutting Wilson Chandler. But because of his formidable size and “mystery box” allure alone, I just can’t get there.

My colleague Billy Reinhardt said it best: David Nwaba is safe, as is Iman Shumpert. Brooklyn’s defense, once a bottom-six unit in the league, has risen to becoming one of the eight- staunchest NBA groupings over their last seven contests. Both of these defensive stalwarts are a big reason why.

That leaves us with a handful of unseasoned youngsters: Rodions Kurucs, Theo Pinson and Dzanan Musa.

Oddly enough, Rodions Kurucs might be “safe” due to his ongoing legal proceedings. Until his situation is resolved, it’s unlikely that another franchise would take a chance on him, especially given his sluggish start to the 2020 season. Down the line, should his legal circumstances clear up, Marks could dangle Kurucs’ remaining 2-year deal (and maybe a protected second-round pick) should the Nets need additional assistance at the point guard position (in that case, a big hello to Frank Jackson, Yogi Ferrell, Elie Okobo or Brandon Knight!)

At least on paper, given the shorter duration of his contract (a 1+1), Theo Pinson would appear to be on the chopping block in Brooklyn. I would hesitate if I were Sean Marks. He’s been outstanding as a team-defender (advanced metrics love him), and he’s had moments on offense. It goes without saying, but Theo’s also an essential culture guy. Say what you want about his sideline dancing, but those moments of bubbly joy that Pinson brings to the table regularly are essential to a team facing such grave championship expectations going forward.

So alas, here we are. Left with Dzanan Musa. There’s a challenging paradox afoot with the Nets’ 20-year-old. Based on what we’ve seen so far, the kid is… a project. It’s going to take years and years of development to help the 6’9” slashing guard find his footing, both in terms of shot selection and, well, adjusting to the speed of the NBA game. Musa’s not going to receive those long-leashed essential reps as a member of the Nets, a team that’s fighting for a championships in the next 2-to-3 years. That just isn’t happening.

For his sake, an alternative destination may actually be best for the longevity of his career. Selling low on the former first-round pick for something like a mid-to-late second-rounder may sting in its essence, but it could greatly benefit both parties involved. For Musa, he could play through his mistakes and grow as a promising prospect in a low-pressure destination. For the Nets, addition through subtraction could finally solve the long-standing uncertainties with rotations.

This stuff isn’t fun, but these questions are worth asking. Important times ahead for Sean Marks and his brain trust.