Brooklyn Nets After 41 Games: What We've Learned

It’s the halfway mark of the Nets’ 2017-18 season and there’s been plenty of developments since our last review of the team after the first 20 games.

Brooklyn has seen the emergence of Spencer Dinwiddie and a new identity on defense. There’s been big wins over teams expected to contend like Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Washington. Still, despite a seven-game improvement in wins from this point last season, there’s a sense that the Nets could be further along than their 8-13 record over the last 21 games.

From New Year’s Eve to Jan. 8, the Nets played in a franchise-record setting five-straight games that were decided by three or less points. Injuries and controversial calls have taken a toll as the team went 2-3 in the stretch. Dinwiddie got emotional when discussing the team’s recent struggles.

“I think it’s going to take a lot of maturity [to get over the recent run of defeats].” Dinwiddie said after the overtime loss to the Raptors on Monday. “If these close losses turn to wins, we’re close to .500 ball, we’re close to playoffs – everyone in here, there’s a different morale and a different vibe…It’s hard because everyone in here is trying to put food on the table for their families and provide

“A couple of wins here and there really affect the tenor of a season, especially for a young ball club that’s out there fighting. So these close losses in a row, that really hurt – they really hurt.”

Most Valuable Player: Spencer Dinwiddie

Spencer Dinwiddie has emerged as the biggest positive over the last 21 games as he’s making a serious case for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.

He’s averaging 15 points, 7.0 assists and 3.2 rebounds as a starter and he’s the league’s fourth-best point guard in Real Plus-Minus stats. More importantly, he’s grown into one of the leaders on the Nets, which is impressive considering his age (24) and the fact he entered the season expecting to be the backup point guard.

Prior to off night against the Pistons, one of the teams that might have prematurely given up on him before his arrival on the Nets, Dinwiddie was playing some of his best basketball. Against the Timberwolves, Celtics and Raptors, all strong defensive teams, he averaged 25.7 points and 6.7 assists on 49 percent shooting. Here’s a look at arguably his best performance during that span, a 26-point night against Minnesota that sparked a 98-97 win.

Honorable Mention: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

Hollis-Jefferson has dramatically improved on offense in his third year, almost doubling his scoring production – going from 8.7 to 14.7 points per game.

The 23-year-old forward had arguably the best month of his young career in December as he averaged 16 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists on 49 percent shooting. The memorable game might have been against the Wizards, where he had an impressive 21/11/6 stat line. Hollis-Jefferson might be an unconventional scorer, but he’s gone a long way towards silencing some of the criticisms over his offensive ability this season.

Breakout Player: Caris LeVert

LeVert has looked a bit rusty after a two-game stint on the sidelines with a left groin injury, but similar to his good friend Hollis-Jefferson, he was dominant in December.

The second-year versatile guard averaged 14.3 points, 5.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds on 49 percent shooting in just 28.3 minutes per game. After struggling early on in the season, the 23-year-old found his niche as the Nets’ backup point guard and sixth man. And it is jaw-dropping crossover dribbles like the one below that have made him a favorite at Barclays Center

Rookie Check In: Jarrett Allen

Allen has made an impression despite still needing some work on both sides of the ball. The 19-year-old is further along defensively, as his rebounding and shot-blocking have helped with the Nets’ recent improvement on that side of the court.

Offensively, Allen is still raw for the most part as he relies on dunks and open opportunities to score. Still, when he is playing confidently, he has impacted games. The Raptors had no answer for him at times as he went 5-for-5 in the Jan. 8 loss. It’s scary to imagine what Allen can develop into as he continues to get strength training and refine his game.

Biggest Headline: The Arrival of Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas

Brooklyn stunned the NBA with its move for the two former lottery picks from the Sixers on Dec. 7, especially since it managed to also acquire a second rounder in the trade that sent Trevor Booker to Philadelphia. 

While neither player has managed to find consistency yet, both have shown glimpses of the potential that made them highly-regarded prospects heading into their respective drafts.

Biggest Result: Nets Rout Heat at American Airlines Arena

Brooklyn entered its second game of the season against the Heat hoping to end a six-game skid against the hosts. Not only did those fortunes change in a 111-87 rout, which matched the Nets’ biggest-ever win against the Heat, it also sparked a new identity of the team on defense.

The team would go on a six-game stretch where it held its opponents to 97.2 points per game, an 11.6 improvement from its season average of 108.8 – 26th in the league.

Toughest Defeat: Brooklyn Suffers Defeat in OT Against Toronto

The Nets have had uglier defeats, the blowout losses against the Pelicans and Pistons immediately come to mind, but the overtime loss against the Raptors was the most painful.

Brooklyn hadn’t beat Toronto in nine tries ahead of its Jan. 8 game and it gave everything it had to end the run. Dinwiddie broke out of a slow start to score a career-high 31 points, showing off of his athleticism in some bold attacks of the rim. But it wasn’t enough, as DeMar DeRozan led the visiting Raptors to a 114-113 victory in overtime.

This was clearly a hard result for the Nets to take as several players vented their frustrations after the game.

“This is an extremely heart-breaking [result] for us,” Caris LeVert said. “We felt we fought hard and we deserved to win the game, but we’ve just got to play better down the stretch.”

What to Watch For: D’Angelo Russell’s Return

Russell took a significant step forward in his recovery by practicing with the Long Island Nets on Monday, a signal that the guard is making good progress towards a return to the lineup. And the Nets could certainly use him.

The 21-year-old was off to a strong start before suffering a knee injury against the Utah Jazz on Nov. 11, averaging 20.9 points, 5.7 assists, 4.7 rebounds while shooting 46 percent. Russell’s return to competitive practice has already raised questions about how he and Dinwiddie will co-exist, but Atkinson has stressed the advantage of playing both together.

“Spencer is playing so well that we need him on the court,” the head coach said, according to the N.Y. Post. “Obviously what’s good about D’Angelo is that he proved with Jeremy [Lin] that he has absolutely no problem playing on the ball and off the ball. I actually think he enjoys playing off the ball also.

“He likes both.”

The Nets have missed Russell’s ability to take over games with his scoring as the team went two months without a 30-point scorer until Dinwiddie’s big night against the Raptors. Definitely a boost as the Nets approach their second half of the season.