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The Dinwiddie Dilemma — Do Nets offseason plans hinge on his fate?

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NBA: Chicago Bulls at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Spencer Dinwiddie has been a revelation since coming to Brooklyn. While the former second round pick out of Colorado dealt with injuries and bounced around for the first couple years of his career, Dinwiddie’s been on the climb with the Nets. In many respects, Dinwiddie has become a homegrown Net and fan favorite because of that climb, a poster boy for the Sean Marks era ... his trajectory mirroring and fueling the team’s own rise.

The 2019-2020 season was a continuation of that upward trend. With injuries up and down the Nets roster, Dinwiddie assumed a larger role, proving pivotal in keeping the depleted Nets afloat. Tasked with added responsibility and a higher usage rate, Dinwiddie averaged a career high 20.6 points per game, putting him in an exclusive club as a top-25 scorer in the league.

With Kyrie Irving missing most of the season and Caris LeVert out a large portion as well, Dinwiddie assumed the majority of ball-handling duties, cementing his status as a starting caliber guard on one of the best value contracts in the NBA. In fact, during a 22-game stretch without Irving and LeVert, Dinwiddie took over as the Nets go-to guy. In those games, he averaged 25.7 points, 7.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds. He dropped 41 points on the Spurs and 39 on the Hawks in back-to-back games.

Dinwiddie has been a steadying hand for the Nets and a key piece in the team’s attack over the last few seasons, but does that guarantee he’ll be in Brooklyn moving forward?

Since the dawn of the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving era, the Nets organization has been transitioning from a fun, upstart group on the rise to a team with legitimate championship aspirations. In that process, Brooklyn has needed to make some difficult decisions — both in regards to the team’s culture and the fanbase’s attachment to certain personalities.

Over the past 15 months, Brooklyn has moved on from the two most visible leaders of their rebuild. First, in the process of the ‘Clean Sweep’ last June, Brooklyn decided to move on from 23-year old All-Star, D’Angelo Russell — a necessary and obvious move to bring on two All-NBA caliber players in KD and Kyrie— but nonetheless DLo was a tough player and person to give up considering what he meant to the organization’s rise and the fanbase.

Roughly nine months later, the Nets continuity took another blow, parting ways with the on-court conductor of their rebuild — Kenny Atkinson. Atkinson was credited around the league as a player development guru who by all accounts did a solid job leading arguably the toughest rebuild in NBA history.

While Sean Marks has had an impressive tenure in the front office, pushing mostly all the right buttons, it was Atkinson in the trenches dealing with the media after every loss and trying to keep his group together through the tough times. Atkinson, along with Marks, cultivated the culture during the lean years, pushing incremental development and the daily grind to distract from the grueling, losing seasons ... and all those missing draft picks.

Still, Atkinson was out as Nets coach after nearly four seasons as head man, a shocking move to say the least.

It’s a new era for the Nets — one which requires cold, hard, calculated analysis of every member of the organization, from players to coaches to staff, and not one where emotions or personal attachment will likely get in the way of what’s in the best interest of the franchise, long term.

Atkinson’s replacement, Steve Nash, echoed these sentiments on J.J. Redick’s “The Old Man & The Three” podcast just recently. Nash said he plans to be “cold and analytical” with information and analysis, but warm and welcoming to the person. It’s fair to assume that outlook is shared amongst all the Nets decision makers.

In the case of Spencer Dinwiddie, the Nets have a decision on their hands that requires urgent attention — with a number of options on . Dinwiddie is scheduled to earn roughly $11.5 million next season — the final guaranteed season of his bargain basement three-year, $34.4 million hometown discount extension signed in 2018. Dinwiddie has a $12.3 million player option for the 2021-2022 season — an option he is highly like to decline. The time to decide how to handle this situation moving forward is now; it’s the key hinge point for how the Nets go about their offseason.

While the financial effects of the pandemic — the league’s stoppage and no fans in the stands — on top of the Daryl Morey/China fallout have yet to be determined, Dinwiddie’s fair market value could be upwards of $18 million per year or more than $50 million over the three years of Dinwiddie’s prime.

Here’s a cap exercise to visualize what the Nets cap situation might look like in 2021-2022 if they choose to extend Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen (RFA in 2021), and Joe Harris (UFA this offseason). Early projections for the 2021-2022 cap sit at $125 million with a $150 million luxury tax line.

In this “keep the status quo” scenario, Brooklyn would be way over the salary cap and a whopping $17 million over the luxury tax with just nine players on the roster. Joe Tsai has been vocal about his financial commitment to the team and his wealth has actually risen significantly during the pandemic, but a bill that large is a tough nut for any owner.

Aside from the financial ramifications of keeping Dinwiddie and the rest of the group together, perhaps most importantly, the Nets will have to analyze whether it would be the best on-court decision to keep all the depth rather than consolidating some of it for a star. While they’re currently under mostly team-friendly deals, a quartet of LeVert, Dinwiddie, Allen, and Taurean Prince could be earning somewhere in the ballpark of $65 million come the 2021-2022 season. In comparison, a double max cap slot would be just slightly above that number.

The on-court fit of Dinwiddie alongside Irving and LeVert has been analyzed, scrutinized, and projected on at length: Can all three guards thrive together? In 15 games, the trio played just 67 minutes together this season, a trio of Dinwiddie, Irving, and LeVert had a negative 1.6 net rating. While that sample size is too small to take a whole lot from, it does provide a glimpse into how that three-headed guard attack might be able to mesh. Add the biggest mouth to feed in Kevin Durant and the question becomes, do Dinwiddie and LeVert do enough without the ball to maximize the assets the Nets would have allocated to them?

James Herbert of CBS Sports referred to Dinwiddie as a “shape shifter” earlier this season — an appropriate title for a player that has played a different role virtually every season since coming to the Nets. Initially, Dinwiddie was asked to be a floor general and he thrived to the tune of a 4.1 assist-to-turnover ratio — good for second in the entire NBA. The year after, Dinwiddie took the role of instant offense off the bench for Brooklyn. Had he not injured his thumb, forcing him to miss a large chunk of the season, Dinwiddie was productive enough to contend for Sixth Man of the Year.

The uber-confident Dinwiddie unsurprisingly has no questions about his fit with KD, Kyrie, and LeVert for next season, telling CBS Sports in June:

“With Kyrie and KD, if you’re telling me I get to come out here and pass to two phenomenal scorers and get 10 assists a game and maybe be in second gear a lot of times with my scoring, I’m fine,” he added. “If I average 14 and 10 and we win a title, but KD averages 35 and Ky averages 25 or whatever it would be, like, I’m good with that. I’m more than fine with that. That’s more in line with how I played the game growing up than it is a lot of the other spurts and seasons that I’ve put together since I’ve been older.”

Many of questions about Dinwiddie’s fit next to the superstars has to do with his long-range shooting ability. While Dinwiddie only shot 30.8 percent from three this season — a below average mark — the Nets guard believes, in context, he’s a much better shooter than those numbers show.

“You can either make it seem like I’m a horrible shooter or you can put it in context and tell people how good of a shooter I actually am.” Dinwiddie told CBS Sports.

Upon deeper analysis, statistics show Dinwiddie shot an above average mark off the ball as a catch-and-shoot player. Dinwiddie shot an impressive 37.3 percent from behind the arc off of the catch — a role he’d find himself in much more often playing alongside KD and Kyrie going forward.

Over the years, the Nets have also relied heavily on Dinwiddie’s defensive versatility. While head coach, Atkinson often trusted Dinwiddie with guarding the other team’s best perimeter scorer — sometimes out of necessity. At 6’6’’ combined with elite athleticism and speed, Dinwiddie has the physical profile to handle guards and even most wings in the NBA. As a complementary piece, along with his shooting, Dinwiddie’s defense will become even more important going forward.

With his ability to attack downhill as a scorer, make the right pass off the pick and roll, excel in catch and shoot opportunities, and provide defensive versatility, Dinwiddie has the skillset to fit as a key piece with the Nets next season and beyond. However, there’s the issue of asset allocation for the Nets and if it’s wise to invest so much in the backcourt with a need for wings/versatile bigs seeming so pressing.

This next part of the breakdown isn’t so much a determination on Dinwiddie and his fit going forward as much as some cold, hard analysis regarding the Nets roster needs. When looking around the NBA, versatile 3/4s with size seemingly rule the sport. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis; the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; the Celtics Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward; the Heat Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala; the Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton; the Nuggets have Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. — the best teams are deeeeep in that spot.

When looking at how the Nets stack up in this area, noting that they’ll have to go through many of teams mentioned above during a title run, there are potential concerns. Brooklyn has Kevin Durant and then... Taurean Prince? Nicolas Claxton? Do you want to count Jordan and Allen? Aren’t they pure 5’s? Nets fans and pundits have offered Aaron Gordon of the Magic as a possible trade target. But with Jonathan Isaac blowing out his ACL in the “bubble,” Gordon’s price just got higher.

The Nets can slide LeVert and Harris to the wing some, but both are better suited defending guards, not these physical specimens around the league on the wing. Acknowledging this potential weak point of the Nets current roster forces the organization to contemplate how they could improve their depth at the 3/4.

Brooklyn is without much flexibility in free agency, only having the mini mid-level exception at a max of roughly $18 million over three years and minimum contracts at their disposal.

Considering this lack of free agency flexibility, Brooklyn might have to scour the trade market for 3/4 upgrades. In that case, the Nets will need to give up someone/something of value to get a needle mover in return. Even if the Nets choose to not pursue a “third star” because of their confidence in Caris LeVert to fill that role, they might need to offer up Dinwiddie to a guard-needy team in effort to acquire a wing upgrade. As analyzed earlier, the future financial ramifications of a Dinwiddie extension could make that decision a prudent one for Brooklyn.

The Dinwiddie Dilemma is less about Dinwiddie himself than it’s about the current state of the Nets roster — whether it’s prudent to allocate the majority of their assets in three ball-dominant backcourt players, if it’s wise to pay such a massive luxury tax bill in a year’s time, and if forcing Dinwiddie (and LeVert) to be quasi-role players is marginalizing them too much, highlighting the weaker points of each of their skillsets.

Deciding how to handle to Dinwiddie situation is a multi-faceted, nuanced decision for the Nets. And not everyone thinks that Dinwiddie’s trade value is as high as some believe. As Bobby Marks has noted, computing Dinwiddie’s trade value is difficult. Bobby Marks argues that with that player option at the end of next season, why would a team send the Nets big assets when Dinwiddie could walk after a year? Keep him, the former Nets assistant GM advises. No rush.

Finally, there’s the issue of what Jerry Seinfeld said about “rooting for laundry.” Can you maintain loyalty to a team that’s constantly moving fan favorites, leaving only the clothing to root for? In this era, fan loyalty is critical.

The Nets value Dinwiddie highly and their decision will likely ultimately come down to the trades available to them. This decision is not cut and dry; decide to trade Dinwiddie or keep him. Dinwiddie’s a good player who can fit with this roster, but the Nets will surely do their due diligence to see if there’s a better fit for this team next year and beyond, a fit that would improve their chances of bringing that elusive first championship to the franchise.