By Steve Lichtenstein
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Some Nets fans are having fun on social media by attempting to drum up votes to get guard Spencer Dinwiddie into the NBA All-Star Game.
Fans do things like that, tongue-in-cheek. I have to assume most know Dinwiddie isn’t an All-Star. However, it’s okay that they identify with the 24-year-old point guard’s story. Dinwiddie worked his way up from the D-League at the beginning of last season to become an indispensable contributor in Brooklyn.
Since taking over the starting role following a knee injury to D’Angelo Russell on Nov. 11 in Utah, Dinwiddie has played admirably. He sports the league’s best assist-to-turnover ratio (4.9).
But he shouldn’t be the Nets’ starting point guard any more. That job should now be handed over to Caris LeVert.
After a relatively slow start to the season, sophomore LeVert, 23, has figured it out. Over his last 15 games, LeVert has averaged nearly 15 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds in about 28 minutes per game. His perimeter shooting, which appeared to be a mess at the Las Vegas Summer League through the end of November, has rebounded as well. In the same span, LeVert is shooting 49.4 percent from the floor and has converted on 23 of 49 3-point attempts (46.9 percent).
“Just slowing down, and shooting with confidence,” LeVert said of his shot-making turnaround following Brooklyn’s 98-95 victory over injury-depleted Orlando at Barclays Center on Monday. “I never lost confidence in my shot. But I felt like I was rushing them early and I just wanted to slow down.”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson has been careful with LeVert throughout the development process, limiting his minutes due to his multiple foot surgeries while in college at Michigan. While the Nets’ brass had visions of LeVert’s ability to move from the wing to the point after they drafted him 20th overall with the pick they obtained from Indiana in the summer 2016 Thaddeus Young trade, it’s not an easy transition. In this pinch, with Russell and Jeremy Lin both out, LeVert has whipped the learning curve.
“I wouldn’t say I’m more comfortable this year on the ball,” LeVert said. “I would just say my reads are a lot better. I think last year, it’s a new situation, new players, faster players –my reads were a little off. I think the game is slowing down for me this year and I’m making the right reads.”
One of those reads came down the stretch against the Magic. LeVert made a key old-fashioned three-point play, besting shot-blocker extraordinaire Bismack Biyombo at the rim with 1:03 remaining. In similar situations of late, Dinwiddie has resorted to contested step-back jump shots, with little success.
I get that Atkinson is wary of throwing LeVert into the fire against the game’s best right off the tip. Atkinson also doesn’t want to disrupt the chemistry of his second unit, which LeVert has been leading. LeVert has developed a particular bond with Jarrett Allen, often finding the high-flying 19-year-old rookie underneath for bodacious dunks. In all, 26 of Allen’s 50 assisted field goals this season, including four of five during his career-high 16-point performance on Monday, have been from LeVert, according to NBA.com.
“I don’t know where (the chemistry) came from, but it’s been there since we started playing together,” Allen said. “It works, so if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
Of course, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting.
If the Nets were playing consistently well, I would be way off base. But they’re not. They barely escaped against the lowly Magic at home to win for just the third time in their last 11 games. Who cares about bench-point advantages in losses?
One of the biggest issues during this stretch has been lackadaisical starts. Dinwiddie typically plays the first eight minutes or so, and is almost always subbed out for LeVert. In those last 11 games, Brooklyn has been ahead only twice (and tied once) at the time of the switch. The average deficit was about 6.4 points.
Now, this isn’t all on Dinwiddie. Wings Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll have been in dreadful shooting slumps and center Tyler Zeller can be a bit, um, underwhelming.
Still, if Atkinson wants to know why his Nets usually find themselves in a first-quarter hole, he should Google “Einstein insanity.”
A change is needed. Ideally, the prime candidates to come out would be Zeller (if the Nets had a halfway decent center on their roster — they’ve been way worse with either Timofey Mozgov or Allen on the court versus off) or Crabbe (if the Nets weren’t so heavily invested in him as a future core piece). Carroll and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have been the heart and soul of this scrappy team.
That leaves the point guard. I think LeVert will do a better job than Dinwiddie in attacking the paint, which is a fundamental principal of Atkinson’s offense. Brooklyn attempted only four 3-pointers and two free throws in the first quarter on Monday, an indication that the train wasn’t on track. LeVert’s driving game is more suited to Atkinson’s preferred style. Sure, turnovers will increase, but the offense should generally be boosted because those drives typically bring help defenders. With LeVert’s plus passing ability, he’ll find the enough open shooters to warrant the higher risk. LeVert is also a more aggressive defender, though Atkinson said that, too, can be problematic when LeVert overruns plays.
Mind you that this might only be temporary, as Russell will (hopefully) be back soon. Atkinson reiterated on Monday that no timetable has been set, but general manager Sean Marks recently told WFAN’s Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts that it could be sometime this month.
Plucking Dinwiddie about 13 months ago has been one of Marks’ savviest maneuvers. LeVert, though, is Brooklyn’s better futures bet. Give him the reins for the next few weeks.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1