The Nets rightly have scoffed at suggestions they are a better team without six-time All-Star Kyrie Irving, but they certainly have played like one since the $142 million point guard left the lineup last month with a shoulder impingement.
The Nets opened the season with four wins in their first 11 games before Irving was injured Nov. 14 in Denver, but they unmistakably have shown better team-wide ball movement — and have gone 9-3 — in the New Jersey product’s absence from the lineup. They will enter their 13th straight game without him Wednesday against the Hornets.
Irving was putting up 28.5 points and 7.2 assists per game to start his Nets career, but Spencer Dinwiddie since has moved into the starting lineup and averaged 23.8 and 7.6 in those categories over his last 12 appearances.
Upon the return of Irving — as well as injured projected starting shooting guard Caris LeVert, who had thumb surgery, and (much further down the road) Kevin Durant — coach Kenny Atkinson has said he must figure out how to maximize everyone’s productivity. That includes Dinwiddie, who could be moved back to the second unit.
“I think right now, it’s just the coverage that teams are playing. And this isn’t even like a Kyrie or Spencer thing or whatever, because I know people try to make that one,” Dinwiddie said after practice Tuesday in Brooklyn. “You’ve got to remember, when we were healthy in the lineup, as prolific as a scorer as Kyrie is — and he’s been a better scorer in the NBA than me all the years — it’s harder to blitz him if you have Caris on the floor, too.
“The way they view our team as of right now, OK, if we blitz Spencer and we’re putting it in a quote-unquote ball-hander’s hands, we’re going to live with that. … It’s pretty much people just trying to pick their poison.”
The Nets (13-10) have notched at least 24 assists in each of their past seven games. They are averaging 28.7 over that span, the second-highest figure in the league since Nov. 25.
By contrast, the Nets managed as many as 24 assists in only six of the first 16 games, including the 11 with Irving on the floor. Against the Hornets last Friday in Charlotte, N.C., the Nets dished out a season-high 35 in a 111-104 victory.
“They’re blitzing me a lot. I have to get off the ball or else that would be obviously outrageously selfish to try to still score on a double- or triple-team, and then [teammates] are making plays,” Dinwiddie said. “That’s how we get secondary assists. It speeds up our offense.”
Atkinson said the 27-year-old Irving still hasn’t been cleared for contact but added “that’s kind of the next step, and integrating him into the team situation when that happens.” The coach also referred to Irving as “a gym-rat baller who just wants to play,” before adding “I’m sure it’s frustrating for him.”
DeAndre Jordan stressed that Irving is “here working all the time and busting his [butt] to get back, him and Caris both.” The veteran center also said he believes the Nets can maintain the unselfish style they’ve been playing once Irving and LeVert return to the lineup.
“I think everybody is getting better,” Jordan said. “We’re learning to play and be in these tight, end-of-game situations without our closers and guys who are really valuable to our team.
“Obviously, the 6-10 slender gentleman down there [Durant] is out for a while. Our team is going to change once he’s back. But with Caris and Ky out, we’ve got to adjust. So, whenever they come back, I think we’ll be an even stronger team.”