Film Study: How Caris LeVert impacts the Nets' offense
With the Brooklyn Nets missing Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Spencer Dinwiddie (along with a few other rotation guys) for the season restart, fourth-year wing Caris LeVert might have the ball in his hands as much as any player in Orlando not named James Harden. Not unexpectedly, LeVert had a top-five usage rate in the week of scrimmages.
No matter the stakes, an abundance of ball-handling reps are great for the development of a still-developing player. And it’s very likely that LeVert, who turns 26 in August, will get some of those reps in a playoff series against one of the two best defensive teams in the league, either the Milwaukee Bucks or the Toronto Raptors.
But, assuming he’s back with the Nets, LeVert will have a much different role next season. No matter how well he plays over the next few weeks, he’ll be the third option behind two of the best scorers in the world.
With everybody healthy in 2020-21, LeVert could still be featured in the Nets’ second-unit offense for 5-7 minutes per half, even if he starts games alongside Irving and Durant. But how well will LeVert complement the Nets’ two stars when all three are on the floor together? Just how ideal of an option is he off the ball?
His catch-and-shoot numbers would be reason for concern. Over the last two seasons (both interrupted by injury), LeVert has shot just 40-for-135 (29.6%) on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. That’s neither a success rate nor a volume (just 2.2 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per 36 minutes) you’d want alongside two stars. That doesn’t make defenses pay for sending extra defenders to the ball, nor does it discourage them from doing so in the first place.
But LeVert’s shot isn’t broken. In fact, his pull-up 3-point percentage has improved every season he’s been in the league, from 31.1% as a rookie to 41.5%, the second best mark among 60 players who’ve attempted at least 100 pull-up 3s, this season.
It may just be that LeVert is more comfortable with the ball in his hands. And why not? He definitely has some stuff in his bag.
Which Way Did He Go?
LeVert’s herky-jerky game enables him to navigate multiple paths to the basket. He ranks 19th with 14.1 drives per game, one of two players in the top 20 (Derrick Rose is the other) averaging fewer than 30 minutes. Unfortunately, while he passes the eye test, LeVert’s season-long, off-the-dribble numbers have not been good.
Play 1. With Michael Carter-Williams preparing to go over Wilson Chandler’s screen, LeVert goes the other way and finishes with a wrong-foot floater over Mo Bamba.
Number to know: 30% of LeVert’s shots have been non-restricted-area shots in the paint. That’s the fifth highest rate among 137 players with at least 500 field goal attempts. The 35.4% he’s shot on those ranks 79th among 95 players who’ve attempted at least 100.
Play 2. LeVert uses a sideline screen from DeAndre Jordan, snakes into the paint and finishes with his left hand over John Collins.
Number to know: According to Synergy play-type tracking, the 0.82 points per possession that LeVert has scored as a pick-and-roll ball-handler are down from 0.93 last season and rank 43rd among 49 players who’ve averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game.
Play 3. LeVert isolates against Kyle Anderson, gets into the paint, and uses a left-shoulder spin move to get back to his right hand.
Number to know: The 0.69 points per possession that LeVert has scored on isolations are down from 0.94 last season and rank last among 30 players who have averaged at least two iso possessions per game.
Play 4. After a made bucket, LeVert pushes the ball up the floor and hits Dejounte Murray with a wicked Eurostep.
Number to know: According to Second Spectrum tracking, LeVert has an effective field goal percentage of 69.6% in the first six seconds of the shot clock and just 44.0% thereafter. That’s the second biggest drop among 188 players with at least 50 field goal attempts in the first six seconds.
Play 5. As the Nets run an action for Joe Harris on the right side of the floor, LeVert blows by DeMar DeRozan, going left. He then hits the breaks and finishes through contact.
Number to know: LeVert’s free throw rate (FTA/FGA) has been steady through his four seasons. His rate of 26.4 attempts per 100 shots from the field this season ranks 27th among 137 players with at least 500 field goal attempts.
Play 6. On a pick-and-roll with Jarrett Allen, LeVert drives at Rudy Gobert. When the two-time Defensive Player of the Year stays on the ground, LeVert finishes with his left hand.
Number to know: LeVert’s field goal percentage in the restricted area has dropped every season he’s been in the league, from 65.8% as a rookie to 53.5% (187th among 204 players with at least 100 restricted-area attempts) this season.
LeVert’s assist rate (assists per 100 possessions) used is a career-low 17.0 this season. But three of his 12 career games with eight or more assists came in February and March. That included his first career triple-double in a win over the Spurs on March 6.
He’s not LeBron James or Chris Paul in regard to knowing what the defender is going to do before the defender knows himself, but LeVert doesn’t have tunnel vision either. And he was making some good (and varied) reads before the season was suspended.
Play 1. On the third try, an Allen screen gets LeVert free of Kemba Walker. He gets to the basket, gets Daniel Theis to commit, and hits Allen with a last-second drop-off.
Number to know: The Nets rank 15th in assist rate (having recorded assists on 60.2% of their field goals), but 25th in ball movement (316 passes per 24 minutes of possession).
Play 2. LeVert isolates against DeRozan, draws help from Murray with one dribble and immediately kicks the ball back to Dinwiddie for an open 3-pointer.
Number to know: Among Nets that have played more than 20 games, Dinwiddie (20.6 and 6.8) and LeVert (17.7 and 4.1) rank first and second in both points and assists per game. But they have just 27 total assists to each other. Their rate of just 1.7 assists to each other per 36 minutes on the floor together is the fourth lowest among the league’s 30 pairs of leading scorers.
Play 3. Allen has just half a step on Wendell Carter Jr. in transition, but LeVert is able to thread the needle.
Number to know: LeVert has 159 total assists to 13 different teammates, with the most (27) going to Allen.
Play 4. Carter steps up on a pick-and-roll and LeVert hits Allen with a dart before Lauri Markkanen can get there.
Number to know: Allen has scored 1.34 points per possession as a roll man, the best mark among 27 players who have averaged at least 2.5 roll man possessions per game.
Play 5. LeVert beats Avery Bradley off the dribble and draws help from James. When JaVale McGee sinks down to prevent the lob to Jordan, LeVert kicks out to Chandler on the weak side.
Number to know: The Nets are the only team that ranks in the top five in both the percentage of their shots that have come in the restricted area (36.7%, second) and in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (42.0%, fifth).
He Who Hesitates …
LeVert isn’t an unwilling shooter off the catch, and he’s had his moments. He’s 7-for-14 on clutch 3-pointers this season, and that includes 4-for-8 off the catch. One of those four makes came after a jab step, but the other three (one, two, three) looked smooth and confident.
But there have also been times where LeVert hasn’t been ready or willing to shoot when he has the space. League-wide, the only things more valuable than a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer (1.1 points per attempt) are layups (1.2) and trips to the free throw line (1.5). So if you give up an open look off the catch, you’d better get to the bucket or to the stripe.
Play 1. LeVert is already at the free throw line. When Taurean Prince rebounds his miss, Brandon Ingram doesn’t match up with anybody and Prince eventually finds LeVert wide open behind the arc. But LeVert isn’t quick to shoot and Ingram is able to match up. LeVert’s drive doesn’t bear fruit and JJ Redick draws a charge on Joe Harris.
Number to know: The Nets have committed 2.9 more turnovers per game than their opponents. That’s the league’s second worst differential.
Play 2. After another offensive rebound, the ball is swung to an open LeVert at the top of the arc. He hesitates twice and, after Draymond Green continues to give him space, misses the 3-pointer.
Number to know: The Nets are one of two teams (Minnesota is the other) that rank in the top five in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (42.0%, fifth), but in the bottom five in 3-point percentage (34.0%, 26th).
Play 3. A Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot drive draws two to the ball and it’s again swung to LeVert at the top of the arc. He has space and time to shoot, but puts the ball on the floor and misses a floater in the paint.
Number to know: LeVert has averaged just 2.7 “spot-up” possessions per game, according to Synergy. That number ranks 132nd in the league, and the 0.85 points per possession he’s scored on those rank 144th among 162 players that have averaged 2.5 spot-up possessions per game.
Play 4. After another offensive rebound, the Sixers’ defense is scrambled and LeVert has another open look at the top of the arc. He gets around Josh Richardson’s close-out, but misses another floater.
Number to know: The Nets are one of four teams (the season is over for the other three) that rank in the bottom 10 in field goal percentage (44.4%, 26th), 3-point percentage (34.0%, 26th), and free throw percentage (74.4%, 25th).
Play 5. Trae Young sinks off LeVert in the right corner when Harris drives into the paint. LeVert has the opportunity to shoot over the shorter defender, but instead puts the ball on the floor and isolates. Young makes his case for First Team All-Defense and LeVert tosses up an ugly turnaround jumper as the shot clock expires.
Number to know: This will be the 19th time in the last 20 seasons that the Nets have scored fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average. (The only exception was their first season in Brooklyn.) And unless they have a much more efficient slate of seeding games than the 19th-ranked Kings or 20th-ranked Grizzlies, it will 13th time in the last 20 years that they’ve ranked in the bottom 10 offensively.
How Does It Come Together?
Brooklyn’s streak of seven straight years as a worse-than-average offensive team should end next season when Durant makes his Nets debut. But their ceiling will depend on the players surrounding their two stars and the rim-running of either Allen or Jordan.
Of the three perimeter Nets that have been around for the last four seasons, Harris – 13th all-time in 3-point percentage, though probably not as aggressive as a shooter as he should be – is the most obvious complement. He’s also an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
It’s been written multiple times in this Film Study series (with Boston, Utah and Oklahoma City) that three or four ball-handlers is better than one or two. You don’t need to pass like the Spurs in the 2014 Finals to score efficiently, and lots of teams take advantage of a rotating defense with secondary attacks. Multiple guys with some juice off the dribble can lead to a greater chance of creating an advantage (a lane to the basket or an open shooter) for the offense.
But sometimes, the advantage gained is an open shot from beyond the arc. And if you pass up that shot, the advantage could be lost for good.
If LeVert doesn’t improve as an off-the-catch shooter, he might not get enough respect off the ball on big possessions and in big games. He doesn’t need to be Duncan Robinson in that regard, but he does need to keep defenses honest when the ball is in the hands of Irving or Durant.
The Nets are without both Dinwiddie and Irving for the remainder of this season, but LeVert played 804 (71%) of his 1,131 pre-hiatus minutes with one or both also on the floor. And while Jrue Holiday (who’s been a relatively disengaged off-the-ball defender this season) didn’t give him much respect in an early-season matchup …
… most other teams did. Here are a few possessions from the second half of the Nets’ loss in Miami on Feb. 29 …
1. When Harris curls off two screens, Jimmy Butler (known to venture defensively) takes a step toward the shooter, but doesn’t commit and actually takes a peak back at LeVert.
2. When Dinwiddie drives around Bam Adebayo in Butler’s direction, Butler again takes one step toward helping, but then turns his attention back to LeVert.
3. When Harris flares to an open 3-pointer before Goran Dragic can get there, Jae Crowder slides back toward LeVert rather than trying to contest last season’s leader in 3-point percentage.
That game was one of the final 16 before the season was suspended, a stretch in which LeVert averaged 24.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists upon being moved back into the starting lineup. Three nights after the Miami game, he dropped a career-high 51 points against a top-five defense in Boston. The triple-double against the Spurs came three nights after that.
That wasn’t the only limited stretch over which LeVert has looked like the real deal. Over the first 12 games of last season, he led the Nets with 20.3 points per game on 49% shooting. In last year’s playoffs, he was the team’s best player, averaging 21 points on an effective field goal percentage of 58% in their series against Philly.
But, with injuries and now with a global pandemic, sustained success has been elusive. And despite those last 16 games, it’s been an inefficient ’19-20 for a player who had seemingly broke out on the postseason stage a year ago. LeVert’s true shooting percentage of 50.9% is the lowest mark among 40 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher. While his pull-up 3-point percentage ranks second in the league, all his other shooting numbers have been sub-par.
Brooklyn has a lot to look forward to. No matter what happens in free agency, the Nets will be getting the biggest influx of talent in the Eastern Conference (start your Irving and Durant vs. Curry and Thompson debate here). But they still have big offseason questions regarding their head coach and their supporting cast.
The “fit” questions don’t end with LeVert, because Dinwiddie (under contract for next season with a player option for ’21-22) is also at his best with the ball in his hands. Dinwiddie (5.15, 10th), Irving (4.55, 25th) and LeVert (4.40, 30th) all rank in the top 30 in average dribbles per touch among the 294 players with at least 1,000 touches this season. It’s not unreasonable to think that swapping one of those guys for a better off-the-ball option would raise the Nets’ ceiling.
LeVert is about to climb in those dribble-per-touch rankings. And with a contract extension already set to kick in next season, the next few weeks will be an opportunity for him to improve his numbers, regain his rhythm, and show the league what he can do in a leading role.
Alas, that might not help answer any questions about how the Nets move forward.
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