You know that cliché quote that “Rome wasn’t built in a day?”
Well, for the Brooklyn Nets, it was built in three years under Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson. The pundits will laud the Nets front office for the changes in culture and development of cast offs and and smart draft picks. But the big payoff came Sunday afternoon when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant officially committed to sign four-year deals with the franchise, a seismic event not just for Brooklyn fans but the NBA itself.
The Nets are in an interesting situation. Durant won’t be available for most if not all of next season so this will be Irving’s club to run in the meantime. This is not an article to debate what happened in Boston or to lament his locker room antics there or in Cleveland. This is about his game, a preview of Irving as Brooklyn’s floor general.
Understand this, though: wherever Irving has been, he has produced. When he has had superstar teammates, he has been a champion in the NBA, in the Olympics, in the FIBA World Cup. Last season, even with all that strife, the Celtics were more than six points better with Irving on the floor than him off.
In eight NBA seasons, Kyrie Irving has averaged 22.2 points per game, 3.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists on 46/39/87 shooting splits. With six All-Star appearances and an NBA championship ring under his belt, Irving is without a doubt the most decorated player to ever join the Nets organization, and he did so willingly.
The Nets are bringing back a similar roster, but with a few different faces: Taurean Prince provides a young replacement for DeMarre Carroll, who is off to San Antonio; DeAndre Jordan replaces Ed Davis and will give the Nets some size in the frontcourt. Wilson Chandler is the new Jared Dudley. There’s more, but where the Nets roster changes dramatically with Irving sliding in for D’Angelo Russell.
Irving comes in as the more proven commodity. He has shone on the brightest of stages and provides legitimacy to the Nets rise as an Eastern Conference contender. In short, he wins.
On the surface last season, Boston seemed to be focused on being an isolation-based team, one that got away from Brad Stevens ideals.
However, if you dig into the numbers, the Nets actually executed more isolation plays that the Celtics according to NBA.com’s Player Tracking technology ... and did so with significantly more efficiency.
There will be room for Irving to create on his own and that may better off the Nets role players, who all have a knack for shooting three’s off the catch. There will be fair share of Irving’s iso’s, and with him having one of the best (if not the best) handles in the league, he’s able to get past his defender with more ease than Russell did. There will be plenty of this:
Irving’s ability to blow by defenders at an exceptional rate, and be a clear threat at the rim will open up spots for Nets shooters, who are used to moving off the ball in Atkinson’s motion heavy system. Russell had the keys to the offense for most of the season. So the Nets are used to a guard running the show. Irving did not have a shooter like Joe Harris in Boston to run this type of set.
Irving is a willing participant in the offense, but his gifted shot making both on the perimeter and at the rim has him pegged as a score-first player. That being said, he isn’t just that. He is a smart offensive player who is adept at cutting back door, seeing the play before it happens and even a willing screen setter despite being a point guard:
Irving’s ability to thread the needle in the pick-and-roll may be fans will see the most improvement. We’ve already seen flashes of Jarrett Allen as a rim runner, but Irving is as advanced as it gets when working in the pick-and-roll. Throw in DeAndre Jordan who found his niche in the league catching lobs from Chris Paul and you can see that Irving has a bunch of toys to play with. Boston placed 24th in the league in pick-and-roll’s last season, whereas Brooklyn ran the 7th most. That’s a big difference
DLo played the ball handler in pick-and-roll’s 920 times, the second most in the entire NBA last season. Russell was not the isolation player Irving is, so the screen gave Russell a bit of a head-start and an extra weapon. Irving played in 14 fewer games than the soon-to-be former Net, but there was a glaring difference in the number of pick-and-roll opportunities Irving had compared to Russell. Still, Irving scored at a higher clip per possession than Russell (.99 vs. .89) and more efficiently (53 percent EFG vs. 49 percent). It may not seem to be a huge jump, but Irving’s more mature game will hopefully brush off on the rest of the club.
Irving is a true pick-and-roll maestro who had capable big men setting him up in Boston starting with Al Horford. But none are as explosive as Allen and none as gigantic as Jordan since his Cleveland days. Tristan Thompson is a fair example of a rim-running big Irving who has been paired with. The numbers may be a bit skewed, but Thompson was a strong screen setter that always found his spot and Irving always found him, whether in the air or off the bounce. Allen has to work on his feel catching some tighter passes, but this season should be a great way for the two to develop some chemistry. Allen can have similar success to what his Texas compatriot Thompson found with Irving.
Irving doesn’t even get the cleanest screen, if any at all, from Thompson, but his ability to get by his defender and attract attention from Thompson’s man leaves the big man open for a vicious dunk. Allen and Jordan can see a real uptick in post opportunities with a downhill force like Irving.
Russell is a fantastic passer, but he wasn’t able to penetrate in this deep with regularity. The Nets have done a fine job of putting four shooters around a big in most lineups. Also, Allen has learned the nuances of a screener and how to make the correct reads. Watch below Irving quickly get the ball to Daniel Theis, who finds an open shooter in Marcus Morris spotting up. With a nurtured pick-and-roll partnership, the Nets can get this type of play early, often and better.
Atkinson’s free wheeling offense which allows a lot of improvisation and cutting off the ball can help Irving get acclimated quickly and develop a rapport with his new teammates. Still, Atkinson is going to have to make some changes to his philosophy because Irving commands such respect. Irving is going to have his stretches when he takes control of the ball and will have to be allowed to go get a bucket or create something out of nothing because that is who Kyrie Irving is. He has his bursts of iso greatness and Brooklyn’s supporting cast will need to allow that to happen. The Nets are going to need to get used to having a star teammate. And in the same way they treated Russell’s rise, Kyrie’s uniqueness shouldn’t cause too much hubbub with anyone. Irving is going to try and elevate the Nets to the next level and they have to let him do his part.
What does this mean for the Nets two other primary ball handlers, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert? Dinwiddie is a ball-dominant guard who had some issues playing alongside Russell, but none crippling for Brooklyn’s chemistry. The two didn’t play all that much together, only about 11 minutes per night, and there was a slight decrease in efficiency on both ends when they did.
Dinwiddie did not see all that many spot-up opportunities this past season. Only 14% of his offensive possessions featured that type of action, but could Irving, who shot a 62% effective field goal percentage on spot-up opportunities, defer to Dinwiddie at times to free up his own shot? Dinwiddie is more an off-the-bounce threat than any player that Irving was paired with in Boston. If the two quickly develop chemistry, Irving should be able to work off the ball and get free to hoist up his three’s.
It’s one thing to say that and then another for that to happen, but Dinwiddie is a proven ball handler who has his own ability to get cooking in a hurry. If Irving can buy into Atkinson’s offensive philosophy, Dinwiddie can get Irving going as an off-ball threat and Irving can be utilized in more ways than he was in Boston.
The fit with LeVert has a lot to do with whether LeVert can become more of a weapon from beyond the arc. For now, LeVert’s best offensive game is as a slasher, someone who likes to have the ball in his hands. As alluded to earlier, the Nets ran more isolation’s than it seemed because of the off-ball action that surrounded it.
For the Nets to be at their best, everyone on the floor has to be a weapon from all over the floor. LeVert and Russell were about a net neutral on the floor together during about half the season, but as a catch-and-shoot player, LeVert isn’t there yet. He shot 26% from inside the three-point line and 27% beyond it in 40 games last season in catch-and-shoot situations.
LeVert’s three-point shot is a work in progress but has shown real signs of progress. Problem is that he likes to do a lot of dribbling before getting to that shot. If he can prove to be a threat off the catch to stroke it, that will only further the Nets offensive game. He has a great first step with great touch inside. On the other hand, LeVert may see his isolation opportunities drop with Irving alongside him. There is a high upside for LeVert. He can be the third piece to the Nets eventual Big Three in an ideal setting.
On offense, expect Atkinson to let Kyrie be Kyrie, with isolation’s often, but there are a lot of options for Irving to run the team. Players like Jordan and Allen (and maybe even Nic Claxton) will give Irving a different type of pick-and-roll threat than he had in Boston. Not to mention those kick-outs to Harris and
It’s going to be give-and-take with Irving, who has chosen to join this Nets roster which in turn is excited to have him. The Nets are going to go as far as he goes on offense ... at least until Durant returns. But with the upside of Dinwiddie and especially LeVert, there will be a learning curve. They will need to grow with him and he with them.
This past season could have thrown people off the scent of Irving. He had his issues in Cleveland and more issues developed in Boston. But he knows what he is signing up for in Brooklyn. Marks has built this team from the ground up and this team is very cohesive. Boston seemed like it was destined for greatness with Irving at the helm, but he did not request a trade there specifically. Now that he chose his destination, maybe the moody reports will go away. It’s on him how it goes in Brooklyn.
The Nets under Atkinson have been a run of the mill defensive club, and Irving won’t change much of that. Irving, wiser in years than Russell, should be able to cut down on some of the miscues Russell committed on that end, at least mentally, but Irving takes a lion’s share of the offensive load and that usually —if not always— yields an average defender. When locked in, Irving has length to cause disruption, but he is not reshaping the Nets defense.
Expect the Nets to try and run a lot of LeVert and Prince together, hope that the two can be complimentary pieces around Irving and help cover his inadequacies on defense. The same goes for Rodions Kurucs, who has been a bit jumpy on that end, but is physical and unafraid to guard anyone.
The expectation in Brooklyn shouldn’t be next year. This is an evolving ball club with the team not set until KD returns. Instead, this season can be about rehabbing his image, a chance to right the wrongs that happened in Boston.
It can’t be emphasized enough: He chose this club. This is where he says he wants to be, but at this point, the team isn’t built to contend with just him. The Nets will likely be in the second tier of Eastern Conference teams below Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Toronto (pending Kawhi Leonard’s situation), and bunched in with the likes of Boston, Indiana once again.
If the Nets don’t hit elite heights right away, meh. It’s simply not complete yet. That’s not to say there won’t be improvement beyond at the 1. LeVert showed signs of becoming an All-Star before his injury and was arguably the best Net in their five-game series against Philadelphia. Beyond the Michigan product, Kurucs, Allen, Prince, and even Dinwiddie, are all still young and eager to get better and we haven’t even seen the beginning of Dzanan Musa yet, the Nets first round pick from 2019.
The Nets are still growing, and Irving has a head start on Durant (who I have tried hard not to talk too much about) to integrate himself into the organization and help Marks and Atkinson figure out what is needed to help complete this roster. When looking at the history of “super teams,” they are too often built top-heavy and lack the ability to battle injuries. The Nets are not. This isn’t the normal version. This is a team that has immense upside and flexibility moving forward to welcome Durant back whenever he is physically capable to go win a championship.
All in all, the Nets hit this off-season out of the park and can bank on their infrastructure that attracted Durant and Irving to their organization to bring them the glory they seek at this stage of their careers.