As reinforcements trickled in for Brooklyn during their first week of practice in the Orlando bubble, all eyes were still focused on one incumbent player: Caris LeVert.
The fourth-year guard is by far the best of a handful of remaining core pieces on a team that has seen eight players test positive for the coronavirus and required four substitute roster spots. The decimation hit a new low on Tuesday when the Nets needed to sign a replacement (Lance Thomas) for a positive-tested replacement (Michael Beasley).
When the eight-game conclusion to the regular season gets under way in two weeks, LeVert might be interim coach Jacque Vaughn’s only legitimate offensive facilitator – remember, recently-signed Jamal Crawford hasn’t taken an NBA court all season, and he’s 40 years old to boot.
The prevailing wisdom, then, is that this will be LeVert’s opportunity to shine, to prove that he is capable of being the Nets’ third star next to KD and Kyrie so they won’t have to break the bank to trade for one in the offseason. LeVert might even need to be part of the consideration to get one, and if LeVert-led Brooklyn can give Milwaukee or Toronto a scare in the first round of the playoffs, the theory goes that said performance would answer all the questions.
I have multiple issues with that take. First, the Nets would need LeVert to be superhuman just to win a game in a first-round series. Have you seen their front line? TNT studio analyst Shaquille O’Neal declined to name anyone when challenged after absurdly predicting that Brooklyn would advance.
The Nets have young center Jarrett Allen, who is at best unproven on this stage, and…? Maybe if forward Rodions Kurucs has his head on straight after a rough year on and off the court, he can provide some quality minutes. But wing Joe Harris indicated that he might have to play some power forward and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was also given reps there at a recent practice, and it could be real fun watching those guys guard Serge Ibaka or Pascal Siakam or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yikes.
As for LeVert, he has NOTHING to prove in Orlando. He’s already shown that if you run your offense through him, he can deliver results, and his issues are all health-related – he’s been riddled with varying injuries since his college days at Michigan, and has missed a third of Brooklyn’s games since he was selected 20th overall in the 2016 NBA Draft.
However, there’s no denying that LeVert, 25, seemed to be putting it all together at the beginning of last season. In the Nets’ first 13 games, he averaged 19 points per game while shooting 48/33/72 percent from the field, three-point range, and the foul line, respectively. He was clutch, too, hitting game-winners against the Knicks and Nuggets. He was surely All-Star bound.
Then came Game 14 in Minnesota. A horrific fall resulted in an ankle injury that cost him the next 42 games. Upon his return, LeVert struggled to find his rhythm. His averages over his first 14 games back plummeted to 8.6 points on 34/25.5/68 percent shooting.
But LeVert eventually rebounded, and by playoff time, he seemed to be the only Net who wasn’t cowed by the moment. In the Nets’ five-game loss to the Sixers, he notched 21 points per game on 49/46/72 percent shooting.
In that series, it became clear that LeVert and the Nets were at their best when the offense flowed through him, even if it meant that D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie had to play more off the ball. That’s because unlike the other two fine players, LeVert, when his long-range shot is dialed in, is a three-level scorer, with the ability to finish from the paint, mid-range areas, and three-point land.
It was a similar story this season, with a very good start, a 25-game recovery from a broken thumb, an additional 15-game struggle to return to form, and, finally, a torrid home stretch before the league shut down on March 11.
Over his last 16 games, LeVert went off for per-game averages of 24 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds with a 45/41/79.5 percent shooting split. The Nets went 9-7 in those contests, all without Irving, who was limited to just 20 games this season. The highlight was an epic 51-point performance (26 in the fourth quarter) to lead a bench mob to a miraculous comeback victory in Boston on March 3.
No, LeVert doesn’t need to prove he can be trusted with the ball in his hands. If there is an on-court question, it is whether he can play as well without it, since Durant and Irving are both ball-dominant players. Can LeVert adjust to being a third wheel, someone who gets fewer isolation/pick-and-roll opportunities and becomes a spot-up option in crunch time? It’s a question of fit, not talent.
Alas, we won’t get a sneak preview in the Orlando bubble, because neither Durant (Achilles) nor Irving (shoulder) were deemed healthy enough to participate. And, with Dinwiddie also unavailable after contracting COVID-19 while practicing in Brooklyn, it’s all now on LeVert’s slightly bulked-up shoulders.
Given the state of the Nets, you could argue that the wiser course would be to hold him out, too, so he’s not subjected to further injury risk before a crucial offseason. And maybe that’s true, because anything LeVert does or doesn’t do in this makeshift tournament won’t determine his future in Brooklyn. We’re not going to learn anything we didn’t already know.