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The Nets Are Falling Apart Before the NBA’s Restart

Spencer Dinwiddie’s potential absence would leave Brooklyn almost unrecognizable when the season resumes. How will the team cope without so many core players?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Nets might not have much of a team by the time they get to Orlando. Spencer Dinwiddie announced on Monday that he may sit out after testing positive for COVID-19. Then DeAndre Jordan announced he had tested positive, too, and will skip the restart. We already knew Wilson Chandler (spending time with family), and rookie Nic Claxton (shoulder surgery) won’t be there, while Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving won’t play until next season. Brooklyn also has an interim head coach in Jacque Vaughn after Kenny Atkinson was fired right before the shutdown on March 11.

Dinwiddie would be the biggest loss, outside of KD and Kyrie. The 27-year-old was averaging career highs in points (20.6 per game), assists (6.8), and rebounds (3.5) as the primary option on offense. A 6-foot-5 guard who can get to the rim at will, he was perfect for Atkinson’s spread pick-and-roll offense. The Nets (30-34), currently the no. 7 seed in the East, were unlikely to make noise in the playoffs even with a healthy Dinwiddie. Their focus without him will likely shift to developing young players.

Brooklyn will almost certainly make the playoffs regardless. The team is up six games on Washington with eight seeding games to play, and the Wizards will have to make up the difference without Davis Bertans. The big winners in a Dinwiddie-less scenario would be the Magic, who are currently a half game behind the Nets and could move to the no. 7 seed and avoid the Bucks in the first round. The race between the Raptors and Celtics for the no. 2 seed would also become more important, as the gap between the Magic and the Heat, 76ers, or Pacers at no. 6 is massive.

If Dinwiddie is out, Caris LeVert would get another chance to run the offense like he did earlier this season. The fourth-year guard has had an injury-plagued start to his pro career, but has flashed signs of stardom when healthy. At the start of the 2018-19 season,it looked like he could be a franchise player in Brooklyn. Then he suffered a gruesome foot injury that kept him out for months and D’Angelo Russell made the All-Star Game in his absence. LeVert moved to sixth man when he returned, and remained there when Irving and Dinwiddie were healthy this season.

Talent has never been LeVert’s issue. At 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, LeVert has great size for a lead ball handler and a multidimensional offensive game. The 25-year-old is averaging 17.7 points on 41.4 percent shooting, 4.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game this season. And he scored a career-high 51 points in an OT win over Boston on March 3:

LeVert is the kind of player who could benefit from a bigger role. He’s shooting a career-high percentage from 3 (38.1 on 4.8 attempts per game) and a career-low from 2 (41.4 on 10.8 attempts per game) this season. His problem has been that he’s more comfortable with the ball in his hands, and more effective shooting off the dribble (62nd percentile among players leaguewide) than off the catch (32nd). This could be his chance to show what he can do when not deferring to more established players.

He’s not the only Nets youngster who will be given more responsibility in Orlando. Jarrett Allen will be the full-time center again in Jordan’s absence, while Rodions Kurucs can reestablish himself on the wing without Chandler in front of him. Vaughn could have to make so many changes to their rotation that it’s worth looking at their new depth chart:

PG: Caris LeVert, Chris Chiozza, Jaylen Hands
SG: Joe Harris, Tyler Johnson
SF: Garrett Temple, Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, Dzanan Musa
PF: Taurean Prince, Rodions Kurucs
C: Jarrett Allen

Brooklyn signed Johnson earlier this week after he was released by the Suns in February. The Nets have long been fans of his game, signing him to a massive contract in restricted free agency in 2016 only for Miami to match it. Johnson was terrible in limited minutes for the Suns this season but is still young enough (28) to turn his career around. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, he’s a versatile combo guard who can defend both backcourt positions, spot up off the ball, and run the offense in a pinch. He could be the primary option when LeVert is off the floor. The Nets will likely sign a big man to back up Allen, but could also go small and play Kurucs at the 5.

The biggest long-term question for all the Nets players is how they will fit alongside Durant and Irving next season. The Nets will instantly move from an up-and-coming young team to a title contender, a transition that can be hard for younger players used to lower stakes and more freedom. Everyone will have to fit into more rigidly defined roles and cover for their star teammates on defense.

LeVert has long been rumored to be on the trade block precisely because he doesn’t make as much sense in a complementary role in Brooklyn. A strong performance in Orlando could end up accelerating his departure. The Nets, like seemingly every other team in the NBA, have been linked to Bradley Beal, and LeVert would be the centerpiece of any package they send to the Wizards. Even if Beal never becomes available, LeVert is one of the most intriguing young trade chips in the league.

No team has endured more makeovers in the last 18 months than the Nets. They will need another one in Orlando if Dinwiddie doesn’t play, although this one would only be temporary. LeVert could make the same type of leap over the next month that Dinwiddie made earlier this season. But that might be more important for his next team than his current one.