By Steve Lichtenstein
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In the run-up to this Nets season, I warned you several times in these posts that the first eight games would be indicative as to how this campaign will play out.
Well, as Brooklyn sits with a disappointing 3-5-mark heading into a five-game road trip out west, all signs are pointing south.
If the year-ending injury to point guard Jeremy Lin in Game 1 hadn’t already, three consecutive desultory defeats to beatable opponents should’ve turned anyone who thought the Nets might be a bit frisky this season toward more somber expectations.
Though some pundits were hopeful that Brooklyn’s offseason turnover could somehow allow it to contend for a bottom seed in a weak Eastern Conference, I stand by my prediction that this team will only be marginally better than last season’s 20-62 debacle.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for this incarnation, from the top of the organizational chart down. General manager Sean Marks’ strategy of “talent acquisition” without regard to position has put the club at a huge deficit up front. Coach Kenny Atkinson’s ineffective schemes have contributed to Brooklyn’s historically inept defense. The Nets run a “motion offense” — in name only, since the ball tends to stick all those times when the players without it aren’t screening and/or cutting.
As for the players, many have underperformed. For this purpose, however, I want to focus on a pair of wings who have so far been more hype than hope: Allen Crabbe and Caris LeVert.
What about D’Angelo Russell, you say, especially after the Nets wilted in his presence on the court in the last three games, including during crunch time of Tuesday’s 122-114 home loss to Phoenix? Only Timofey Mozgov, the overpaid center who was sent with Russell to Brooklyn in June’s blockbuster trade with the Lakers, has a net rating worse than Russell’s minus-29.4 in that period.
To be fair, I believe Russell has been as advertised. The 21-year-old guard has scored in bunches (21.7 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting in just 26.5 minutes per contests) and made some wonderful passes, but he’s been as turnover-prone and defensively indifferent as he was during his two years in L.A. Maybe if Atkinson played him more alongside Dinwiddie, similar to the original plan with Lin, the team would run more efficiently.
Crabbe and LeVert, however, simply haven’t done their jobs. Both were slowed by injuries at the beginning of training camp, but seem to be playing in good health since the regular season tip-off.
Crabbe, the Nets’ highest-paid player ($19.3 million this season), is new to the program after getting dumped by Portland in an offseason trade. A 41.2 percent career 3-point Marks-man (pun intended, since it was Marks who originally signed Crabbe to the overgenerous restricted-free-agent offer sheet in the summer of 2016), Crabbe has struggled in Brooklyn. He is shooting 35.8 percent from the floor, including 34.9 percent from behind the 3-point line.
“I’m making progress,” Crabbe said following the Nets’ 124-111 loss to Denver on Sunday. “I don’t want to make any excuses — I’m a basketball player. I just feel like I’ve got to be more aggressive — offensively (and) correct things defensively as well. I don’t think there’s excuses for me to make about still trying to get acclimated with the system. At the end of the day, the basketball is going to be the same.”
Marks and Atkinson want Crabbe to become a more complete offensive player, and the 25-year-old acknowledged he still has work to do to improve other aspects of his game, such as ballhandling.
“Our offense is open to anybody in pick-and-roll situations,” Crabbe said. “Guys pretty much have freedom to play their game. For me, it is just getting more comfortable with having the ball in my hands instead of just always coming off the down screens or flares or (dribble handoffs).”
LeVert, on the other hand, has all the tools in his arsenal. He can create off the dribble, both for himself and his teammates. He has the athleticism to finish at the rim. He has good defensive instincts for a 23-year-old.
Unfortunately, this is a shot-maker’s league, and LeVert just doesn’t make enough of them.
Some have asked if I thought LeVert has regressed in his sophomore season. My reply was that he has plateaued. Last season, his natural abilities were a breath of fresh air on a team bereft of skill. So what if he missed more than two-thirds of his 3-point attempts? He shot it well in college, so surely he’d put in the work to make the appropriate adjustments, I thought.
Not only has LeVert’s 3-point percentage plunged to a dismal 22.2 percent this season, opponents are no longer respecting him on the perimeter. They’ve learned to slough off to make his drives to the hoop more difficult, resulting in a nine-point drop in total field goal percentage and a higher turnover rate.
I know, we’re only eight games into a long season. No one should be throwing Crabbe and LeVert, two young players with upside, under the bus. There’s plenty of time to reverse these disturbing trends.
But when you look at the bigger picture, you realize that the Nets haven’t exactly faced the cream of the NBA’s crop yet. Even Brooklyn’s upset over Cleveland last week is looking less impressive after the Cavs’ subsequent ho-hum performances.
Brooklyn’s November slate is a killer, with nine of 13 games on the road. The four opponents coming to the Barclays Center are Boston, Utah, Golden State and Portland.
Unless players such as Crabbe and LeVert start to pull their weight, this Nets season could get just as ugly as last year.
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