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The Nets Are Still Looking for the Right Balance Between Their Past and Present

The by-the-bootstraps Brooklyn team and its two stars haven’t meshed all that well in the early goings of the franchise’s reboot. Can Steve Nash find a championship mix amid the many options?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving committed to Brooklyn in the summer of 2019, they split the Nets in two. The franchise as we came to know it—rebuilt by players scrounged up from the margins of the league—remained ostensibly intact. Adjacent to that monument to overachievement, however, was the plot the two stars had signed up to develop for themselves. The Nets couldn’t ignore their newfound star power, even after previously basing their entire on-court approach on learning to live without it. The gutsy outsiders had become consummate insiders. The work of the franchise, both then and now, was to reconcile those two identities as much in spirit as in strategy.

To think there is any sort of actual competition between those identities would be a misunderstanding of the political environment. Brooklyn had an admirable run before its new franchise players showed up, but Durant and Irving are now the most important members of the organization. Steve Nash was installed as head coach based on their preference, and former head coach Kenny Atkinson was presumably dismissed by it, as well. However the Nets eventually chose to play, their style would come through deserved collaboration with the team’s stars. Irving may have walked back his riff on Durant’s interview show about how he didn’t “really see [the Nets] having a head coach” this season (who among us hasn’t gotten a little carried away throwing around takes on a podcast?), but the dynamic he alluded to wasn’t so different from the kind of freedom most superstars enjoy.

What’s surprising is how naturally Irving and Durant fell into the patterns of each other’s games. Without dedicating much space to the sort of pick-and-roll actions that help guards and forwards get along, Brooklyn’s costars have managed to clear room for one another. Two of the sport’s most dangerous one-on-one scorers are thriving in a way that feels genuinely connected, with one simple, unstoppable attack flowing into the next. With the right disposition, a team can run like hell and move the ball and flex its mismatches in isolation. Lineups featuring Durant and Irving have lived up to that promise, as have those led by just one of the two stars. Everything else, however, has been a bit of a disaster—even for a team that should have a world of continuity to fall back on when Durant and Irving rest.

Rather than slip comfortably into what worked for Nets teams past, those KD- and Kyrie-less groups (headlined by Caris LeVert, a budding star and standard bearer for Brooklyn’s developmental program) often have turned the ball over at alarming rates and given up staggering runs. Or at least they had until Tuesday night, when a Nets team without Durant reworked its entire rotation on the fly and crushed the Jazz for one of its most impressive wins of the season. The makeshift starting five (with Jeff Green stepping in for Durant, while Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, and Bruce Brown replaced DeAndre Jordan, Joe Harris, and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot) was punishingly effective, but it was LeVert who climbed out of a weeks-long haze to keep the pressure on Utah throughout.

Given the circumstances, it’s hard to know how much to read into that particular development. This is the kind of season where otherwise good teams will, without any explanation, wander into a gym and lose by 40. While any win the Nets can scrounge together with Durant in quarantine is an inarguable positive, his absence also might explain why the Jazz started the game so carelessly, and effectively lost it in the first quarter. How much stock can be put into LeVert playing great basketball in that context after he flailed through most of his other games? What should we take away from Allen, in his overdue addition to the starting lineup, absolutely wrecking an All-NBA opponent in Rudy Gobert? The answers to those questions are complicated and noisy, and ultimately less important than the curiosity that made those performances possible in the first place.

“We don’t have much practice time,” Nash said after the win. “We are a new group. We have Kevin out with COVID protocols. We were struggling. I think we’re gonna continue to experiment. We have to find out who we are, what we are, and where we need to improve, and sometimes just giving guys different opportunities at different times can mix things up.”

This is the sort of healthy, Nick Nursian perspective that should help the Nets resolve any quirks in their play to the fullest extent their roster will allow. (And perhaps even further, should Brooklyn shake things up with a trade or make a roster change down the line through a potential disabled player exception.) Team defense will be an ongoing project for the Nets this season as well, worthy of the same level of experimentation. What starts with finding the right mix of perimeter defense and rim protection around Durant and Irving in the starting five extends throughout.

Brooklyn is a deep team that, up to this point, hasn’t really played like one. Losing Spencer Dinwiddie for the season clearly has taken a toll. But Nash has exacerbated (or rather, elongated) those issues by pairing Durant and Irving in the rotation as opposed to staggering them. Starless minutes account for almost a third of Brooklyn’s total thus far. Some have been the product of selective rest, like when the Nets sat both Durant and Irving for a game against the Grizzlies last week. Most, however, simply come in the flow of a typical game.

The actual work of coaching is trying to determine why LeVert has spent so much of this season off balance, or at the very least to put him in new situations so that he might figure it out for himself. That doesn’t have to involve promoting him to the starting lineup, and frankly shouldn’t; Nash has LeVert in the right role, if not always the right combinations. Before this recent shake-up, LeVert would often spend time as the creator in floundering lineups with Allen, Green, Prince, and Landry Shamet—role players ranging from theoretically useful to quite solid. He fell into a habit of forcing up jumpers the defense would dare him to take, and settling for floaters that, at the moment, he can’t seem to convert:

Beyond the misses, all of LeVert’s looping crossovers and fitful drives to this point have resulted in just 12 total free throws—what Trae Young or James Harden might pull from a single night’s work.

LeVert never has been terribly subtle with the ball in his hands (his signature move is essentially hurling himself into traffic), but so many of his attempts to carry those lesser lineups this season have felt forced. Dinwiddie could have helped, and on the right night, maybe the Nets would get enough secondary playmaking out of Shamet or Prince to make do. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that LeVert is struggling to get all the way to the rim, though, when his most important minutes are played apart from Brooklyn’s best floor spacers. Before Harris’s move to the bench on Tuesday, his minutes largely mirrored those of Irving and Durant—effectively separating Harris from LeVert at the times when he might benefit his drive-and-kick teammate most. That’s an option. Another: When Durant has replaced Green in those problem bench lineups, the offense has absolutely exploded. It can be just that simple. Even if LeVert is still doing the bulk of the ballhandling, the very act of having Durant on the floor reduces the friction against everything the Nets are trying to run.

To create more of those specific opportunities, Nash would have to adjust Durant’s substitution pattern upon his return, and decouple him slightly from Irving. Those decisions aren’t as simple as they might seem from a spreadsheet—especially when Durant and Irving made the move to Brooklyn specifically for the chance to play together. They’re great at it. Yet adjusting the rotation by even a few minutes could create enough traction to get the bench out of the mud, and to remind LeVert of the player the Nets need him to be.