By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
D’Angelo Russell can’t return to the lineup soon enough. The Nets guard hasn’t played since injuring his knee in Utah on Nov. 11.
He’s expected back soon. But how soon is soon?
Well, for those who follow this team (or watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), “soon” can be open to varying interpretations.
Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson wouldn’t define it during his news conference prior to the Nets’ 100-95 home loss to San Antonio on Wednesday night.
“To be determined — I think we’re getting close,” Atkinson said of Russell’s progress.
LISTEN: ‘City Game’ Podcast
This after Nets general manager Sean Marks told WFAN’s “The Afternoon Drive” on Monday that he “would like to think it’s sooner rather than later” and hopes to see Russell in the “short-term future.”
Russell underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in his left knee a week after his awkward landing in Utah that was originally diagnosed as a sprain. The Nets never provided a timetable for his return, but the consensus among the media was that it would be at most about a two-month recovery.
In these latter stages, Russell has spent time practicing with the Nets’ G-League affiliate on Long Island and has participated in a couple of three-on-three runs during Brooklyn’s gameday morning shootarounds. If the Nets are waiting for him to get in multiple full practices, that could be a while given the density of the team’s slate. For instance, the Nets are off Thursday before hosting Miami on Friday and then jet to Detroit for Sunday’s afternoon contest.
While it’s understandable that the Nets and their Performance Team have been cautious with their most promising asset, who missed 11 games last season because of soreness in the same knee (which required a platelet-rich plasma injection), some sense of urgency would be nice.
Brooklyn is rapidly approaching the lost-cause portion of their season. Though not as horrific as the 1-15 debacle of a year ago, the Nets are in the midst of another January freefall. Wednesday’s defeat in front of a split Barclays Center crowd was their sixth in their last seven games, and it dropped their overall record to 16-29.
It will likely get worse, since the Nets’ upcoming schedule is brutal. I dare you to find a game among the remaining seven this month in which you’d think, “We’re definitely winning this one.”
Many of Brooklyn’s recent losses have been close affairs down the stretch. Russell happens to be Brooklyn’s leading points-per-game scorer in what NBA.com defines as “clutch situations” — a five-or-fewer-point differential in the last five minutes of a game. Among current Nets, only DeMarre Carroll (50 percent) has a higher shooting percentage than Russell’s 46.7 percent in these moments.
Spencer Dinwiddie was elevated to the starting role following the injuries to both Russell and Jeremy Lin, who was lost for the season due to a ruptured patella tendon he incurred during the season opener in Indiana. Dinwiddie has not been nearly as good when it comes to closing games, hitting on 20 of 53 field goal attempts, including just 6 of 27 3-pointers. Dinwiddie’s “hero-ball” mentality can be irritating to watch when those shots aren’t falling.
Dinwiddie also hasn’t been that stellar in the other 43 minutes of recent games. After Wednesday’s 3-for-13 brickfest, he is shooting 36.1 percent from the floor (and 25.9 percent from 3-point land) in January. He has misfired on 47 of his last 63 field goal attempts.
“The past three games I’ve been broke,” Dinwiddie said. “I’ve left too many points on the board for us to get those wins. For us to beat a good team, I can’t play in that fashion. Quite frankly, it’s not like I really feel that people could stop me — I’ve just got to make shots. It hurts, so I have to apologize to my teammates for that.”
Dinwiddie seems like he’s gassed. On defense, he has become a magnet for ball screens and is often caught not in a proper stance. Though Atkinson, in his second season at the helm, has yet to allow any player to average more than 30 minutes per game, Dinwiddie has recently seen his playing time extended due to the competitive nature of many of these games.
The Nets have still been far better this month with Dinwiddie on the court versus off, per NBA.com, and he regained the league lead in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.4, following his 13-assist, zero-turnover outing Wednesday). However, all the nice folks who have been campaigning for Dinwiddie in the #NBAVote for the All-Star Game have been, to say the least, premature.
Dinwiddie, 24, is only 13 months removed from playing for the Bulls’ G-League affiliate. His story, like that of teammate Joe Harris, shows that the Nets know how to develop unheralded talent into serviceable role players.
What this new Marks/Atkinson regime has yet to do, though, is take a good player and turn him into a star. Among this group, I view Russell as their only opportunity to do that.
I guess we’ll just have to wait a little longer.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1