Brooklyn Nets: The challenge ahead of Spencer Dinwiddie

NBA Brooklyn Nets Spencer Dinwiddie (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
NBA Brooklyn Nets Spencer Dinwiddie (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images) /

The pressure is on Spencer Dinwiddie to lead the Brooklyn Nets now that Kyrie Irving is done for the season

The Brooklyn Nets are teetering on the edge.

They handled the Charlotte Hornets last weekend, posting a 115-86 victory that pushed their record to 26-29, which, in this spectacularly mediocre collection of teams, padded their lead over the Orlando Magic for the vaunted 7-seed in the Eastern Conference.

Neither of these teams has much hope of advancing past the first round in April, nor even winning a single playoff game, for that matter. But no one wants to play the record-breaking Milwaukee Bucks. Because, for these lesser teams, it would likely end in embarrassment, whereas they could conceivably convince themselves that a series against the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors would be at least a little competitive.

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Last year, of course, the Nets rode a fun-loving, upstart group to an unexpected playoff berth, where they actually won their first game before being quickly dispatched by the Philadelphia 76ers. This year was supposed to be the stepping stone to a long run of dominance over their Eastern Conference counterparts, a year that would introduce everyone to a new, improved, reflective version of Kyrie Irving, one of their new franchise pillars.

Everything was in place for this to be a turning-point year for Irving, a chance to lead his own team of relatively inexperienced, yet talented players. We all know now that it didn’t quite go according to plan.

Irving’s on-again, off-again routine this season came to an abrupt end thanks to a nagging shoulder injury that ultimately required surgery. Since the team, and the rest of the sports world, learned of Irving’s decision, the Nets have dropped three games, all of which were hanging in the balance in the final minute of regulation.

The team broke the news of Irving’s season-ending surgery last Thursday, the first day of game action after the All-Star break, and the same day that the Nets were slated to travel to Philadelphia to play the Sixers. They put forth a valiant effort, pushing the game to overtime before ultimately falling apart in the extra period.

Losing to the Sixers, a supremely talented group, on the road is hardly cause for concern, especially considering they learned of Irving’s season-long absence that same day.

But the two losses this week? Those were bad. Very, very bad.

Now, for a little perspective. Lots of teams would love to trade places with the Nets right now. They employ two All-NBA talents, and even though both are currently sidelined, that’s more than you can say for most NBA teams. They’re not even really in danger of missing the playoffs this season, due to the aforementioned mediocrity that’s run rampant for almost a decade at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and which has continued apace this year.

Even so, with all the injuries and drama that has swirled around this team, you shouldn’t be dropping games to the Magic and the Washington Wizards.

It had to sting a little extra that they played both of these down-to-the-wire games without Irving, who was supposed to serve as their go-to guy in clutch, crunch-time situations at the end of games. Before he went on the shelf permanently, Irving logged the most crunch-time minutes per game in the entire league, defined as games in which the score is within five points in the last five minutes. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that the Nets participated in three tense, close games right out of the break.

Irving wasn’t his usual self in those minutes, shooting just 35.3 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from 3. Even with those paltry shooting numbers, he still led the league in scoring per game in these situations, contributing 5.4 points per game in the clutch. Could this be an indication that he resorted to ball-hoggery in these instances? It certainly could be, as he also paced the league in field goal attempts per game during those crucial, end-of-game minutes.

Irving, of course, relishes playing the hero role, eager to prove his worth when the game matters most. His most essential skills – a feathery shooting touch, slippery ball-handling and the ability to get wherever he wants on the floor, at any time – naturally lend themselves to end-of-game situations. Despite his season-long inefficiency in these spots, Irving would’ve likely taken on the challenge of sticking the dagger in the Magic and Wizards this past week.

In his absence, both final sequences in those games left a lot to be desired, as no one really seemed interested in taking the all-important final shot, which led to scattered possessions featuring too many passes, with a notable lack of decisiveness.

With Irving out for the rest of the year, someone has to step up in those moments, as there will be plenty more down the stretch. Spencer Dinwiddie seems prepared to step into that role; he’s certainly shown a willingness to play the closer role and take those critical last-second shots, however, he’s nowhere near Irving as a shooter, which limits his options in those late-game situations.

Much like Irving, Dinwiddie has logged an insane amount of crunch time minutes – 4.1 per game – which is made even more astonishing considering he hasn’t missed any games this season. He’s shooting 38.2 percent in those situations on a relatively tame 2.4 attempts per game. Not bad, right?

The crux of the problem is his inability to threaten defenses from long-range; he’s making just 8.3 percent of his 3-point attempts in such scenarios. (Yes, you read that right).

Late in games, weaknesses are often exacerbated. All the closers and finishers around the league are often required to get creative as the clock ticks down in a close game, with the defense shifting all their attention toward them. Ideally, you would have limitless options: beat the defender driving to the hole, take them down to the mid-post, step back and splash a jumper in the opposition’s face.

Dinwiddie often ambles into the paint, with his herky-jerky style, hoping to coax his defender into an errant foul. When he’s unable to draw a whistle, he’s quite adept at using angles to his advantage, either to squeak by his defender or to kiss a creative layup high off the glass, just beyond the nearest shot blocker’s reach.

Whoever lands on Dinwiddie in those late-game situations should feel comfortable stationing themselves inside the 3-point line, readying for him to attack head-on. Of course, this strategy doesn’t come without a healthy dose of risk. Granting him space to start his conquest toward the rim affords him a head start, a chance to rev up before deciding how to evade the waiting defender. (We’ve most commonly seen this strategy employed over the years on non-shooting ball-handlers, like Ben Simmons or Rajon Rondo).

Teams were widely praised for altering their existing strategy to fit the unique skill sets of Rondo and Simmons, that is until both of these transcendent passers figured out the loophole: the extra space allowed them to attack downhill with more conviction and speed, with the goal of drawing anxious defenders in before using their vision to find open shooters stationed around the perimeter.

Dinwiddie isn’t on the level of either of those players as a passer; frankly, it’s not even close. (This is not meant to insult Dinwiddie, as Rondo and Simmons are two of the best passers this game has seen in the past decade). His eyes are on the rim, first and foremost.

The Nets are likely hoping they can wring a little more out of Caris LeVert as we come down the stretch, considering his relatively sub-par season up to this point. He appeared to be making a star turn at the beginning of last season before suffering that gruesome foot injury that put him on the shelf for a few months and likely affected him for the rest of the year.

Coming back from that injury late into last year’s campaign, LeVert often looked a little hesitant and tentative. I would guess that he’s still not completely healthy, as those types of injuries often have a lengthy recovery timeframe, even after you return to the court. Just look at Gordon Hayward.

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And so, the responsibility falls on Dinwiddie’s shoulders for now. He’s shown time and time again this year that he’s more than capable of stepping into Irving’s shoes. But, to avoid more catastrophes like the ones we witnessed against the Magic and Wizards this past week, he’ll have to morph into something resembling Irving’s late-game form when the game hangs in the balance.