Part 11 of a series analyzing the Brooklyn Nets.
If the Nets are going to be a legitimate title contender a year from now, they will want to go into next season with a third star.
Some feel Caris LeVert can be that man. Or think he can help Brooklyn acquire him. Either way, he figures to be very much in demand this offseason, with teams weighing his worrisome injury history against his white-hot finish and star potential.
“Obviously he’s our third star. Major piece of the team,” Spencer Dinwiddie said of LeVert.
Once the Nets landed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, it was clear they had gone all-in chasing a title. And with both stars injured in this first season of their contracts and having opt-outs before the fourth, the Nets have a two-year window they can ill afford to waste.
Irving implied as much himself, when he bluntly stated the franchise will have to add more in the summer if it hopes to contend. The Nets have more trade assets than most teams, including Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen, but LeVert might be the most prized chip of them all.
“He’s got three years guaranteed at $17 million; that’s a high-value contract for him, locking into that contract when you’ve had that many injuries at Michigan,” said ESPN cap guru Bobby Marks, who is a former Nets assistant GM. “Yeah, that’s a good number as far as if you’re looking at a team. That’s not a dead-weight contract.”
Now Nets GM Sean Marks must decide if it’s too high-value to trade, if the young wing’s torrid form before the season got shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic is sustainable.
LeVert’s injury history is well-documented, from missing 42 straight games a year ago with a dislocated foot to 24 this season after thumb surgery.
But once he was reinserted into the starting lineup on Feb. 3 against Phoenix, he averaged 24.1 points, 5.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds on 41.3 percent shooting from deep — the only player in the Eastern Conference to average 24-5-4 in that stretch (minimum 10 games played).
Few will pick nits over middling efficiency with that kind of defense and volume scoring. The key to LeVert’s rise?
“Confidence. It’s amazing even at this level how confidence plays into his ability to shoot and make the 3-ball, which really changes how you have to defend him. But overall, he’s more healthy. … He’s healthy and he’s playing very confident,” said interim coach Jacque Vaughn, admitting that LeVert’s confidence has been buoyed by starting.
“Yeah, it’s a different level of responsibility, both ends of the floor. I definitely think at that time it was the right thing for him. … It ended up being the right thing for him at that time for sure.”
As a starter, LeVert leads Brooklyn in net rating and is second in defensive rating. He had a career-high six steals in a Feb. 22 win at Charlotte, and his plus-43 in a Feb. 5 rout of the Warriors is the highest for a Net in the last 20 seasons and fourth-best in the NBA this season behind only James Harden, Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Now Brooklyn must judge whether LeVert can get his name among such luminaries more often.
“I try to play with the same confidence whether I’m starting or coming off the bench,” LeVert said. “Obviously I’ve played better starting for whatever reason.”