It’s easy to overthink situations when hypothesizing about your favorite team. Every possible avenue or scenario that you explore seems to have several different outcomes attached to them, some good, some bad, some confusing.
When it comes to the Brooklyn Nets, “fit” edges out all other concerns that cloud fans’ minds. Who will and who won’t “fit” alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? Who can we add to maximize their effectiveness? Who should we subtract?
But what if we are overthinking the situation? What if we’re underestimating the complementary aspects of KD and Kyrie’s games? What if an additional ball-handler, someone who has shown to be a willing playmaker, might be the fit of fits? He might not be the “3-and-D” prototype some think is the best fit alongside those high-usage profiles or another big man with a shooting touch. But suppose that secondary playmaker is ... wait for it... Caris LeVert?
Take a look. The comfort and confidence he played with, seemingly never out of control, every dribble-drive, pull-up jumper, or pocket pass in the pick-and-roll had conviction, resulting in his first career triple-double.
Caris LeVert (27 PTS, 11 REB & 10 AST) recorded his first career triple-double in Brooklyn’s win tonight pic.twitter.com/Q0WuaQIXYD— NBA TV (@NBATV) March 7, 2020
First, lets go back to 2016, when LeVert was drafted at No. 20. There was the buzz about him being a Swiss Army Knife, a player who could play the 1, 2 or 3, if not in that order.
Back then, Kenny Atkinson recounted his conversation with Sean Marks at the time.
“Sean told me when we drafted him, he kept emphasizing ‘This kid can play point guard ... eventually. That was the thought process and I was ‘Eh ... you know. We’ll see.’”
Then, early in the season, in Mexico City of all places, LeVert showed for the first time he could do the job, garnering 10 assists (with no turnovers) to go with 21 points in an upset of the Thunder.
Off and on throughout his three seasons LeVert has shown he can play the playmaker role. In 207 career games, LeVert has handed out seven or more assists 29 times, not bad for a player who’s mostly played the 2 and 3 and has missed big portions of each of his four seasons. In the last five games before the stoppage, he averaged six assists, including the 10 assists in the triple-double.
Let’s take a deeper dive into what we’ve seen this season ... and what we could see either next season, or maybe even next month.
From February 3 to March 10, a span of 16 games in which the Nets went 9-7, LeVert didn’t just average 24.1 points on 41.3 percent shooting from distance (on an increased volume of 6.5 attempts per game, far bypassing his career average of 3.7 attempts) but he also contributed 5.3 assists per game in that timeframe.
It’s a small-ish sample size, sure, but it’s the only time this season he was truly able to find a rhythm—due to missed time (sadly, again) from injuries and a lack of familiarity with a fellow high-usage profile. As always, there is some needed context when handpicking stats best suited for a specific narrative.
In those 16 games, there was no Kyrie Irving and LeVert sported a usage rate of 30.0 percent—highest on the team. If last year’s playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers taught us anything it’s that Caris can dominate with the ball in his hands. It’s once you take it out of his hands and ask him to flow organically within an offense is where problems have arisen, thus far.
So now with that out of the way, let’s get back to why LeVert could be a blessing in next year’s starting line-up and not a detriment. Because not only have we seen him as a willing passer, it’s Durant and Irving’s excellence without the ball that could only amplify his ever growing abilities as a playmaker.
In the past two seasons, Irving is shooting a combined 45.6 percent off of catch-and-shoot triples, and KD shot 40.8 percent his final year in Golden State. Durant also finished in the 90th percentile on cuts in the 2018/19 season; he’s a player that can be inserted into any offense and thrive, be it a motion-spread offense or one that predicates more on isolation; he can get it any which way he wants and that obviously works to LeVert’s benefit.
Take for instance LeVert’s acuity when driving towards the rack. Though he lacks a consistent, elite finishing ability on his drives, his passing numbers in such instances are rather impressive. On his 14.1 drives per contest this past season, he passed out an average of 4.5 times (compared to Irving’s 4.2 times on 14.2 drives per game) and generated 1.3 assists off of such looks (again, Irving had 1.1 assists).
We don’t know what Durant, at 32-years-old in September and coming off an Achilles’ injury, is going to be like but before the injury, he drove an average of 7.5 times per game in the 2018-19 season. Bottom line, having someone who is always in attack mode, like CLV, applies uncomfortable pressure to any halfcourt defense—not just as a scoring threat, but as a facilitator as well. It opens up avenues for Durant and Irving to thrive off the ball
Though LeVert’s usage will inevitably plummet from the 90th percentile like it was this year, it’s still not like he’s going to act exclusively as a stand-still shooter off the catch or mimic a player like Joe Harris, who does the vast majority of his damage on the offensive end of the floor without the rock. No, his abilities to create not just for himself but for others will be paramount to the Nets’ success. He’s not a one-dimensional player, and that has value to any roster.
Of course, outside of 18 regular-season games — 284 minutes — when we did get to witness the tantalizing on-court theatrics of Kyrie Irving and LeVert on the court together and of course zero minutes with KD, we are more-or-less in the same place we were in on the afternoon of June 30, 2019.
That was a wonderful day. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped what’s become his signature, a Woj bomb, on the NBA Twittersphere and suddenly the Nets went from a team heading in the right direction to knocking on Larry O’Brien’s door with a speed Nets fans were unaccustomed to.
Now, on the cusp of a resumed season where maybe, just maybe, the promise of that night will be fulfilled with LeVert not so much a third star but a willing facilitator.
As Richard Jefferson mentioned in commentary the night of Spurs game, “he (Caris) has a great feel for his team.”