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  • Writer's pictureErik Slater

Kenny Atkinson experimenting with lineups to manage trio of ball handlers

Following an ugly three-game skid, the Nets snapped out of their funk with a 127-88 blowout win over the Dallas Mavericks Monday night.

Brooklyn is now tied with Detroit for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference with Orlando, Charlotte and Miami each trailing by just 2.5 games.

With Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie back on the court, the Nets are the healthiest they have been all season. This has brought upon an interesting conundrum for Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson as he searches for rotations that will allow for good offensive flow and effective defense.

D'Angelo Russell, LeVert and Dinwiddie have all played their best basketball when handling the ball. All three of the guards rank in the top 30 in the league in drives per game, each averaging at least 12.

LeVert led the Nets at the start of the season prior to his injury, averaging 18.4 PPG and earning league-wide recognition. The third-year guard established his identity as a slasher using a lightning-quick first step and impressive body control at the rim.

His game had been trending in the direction of a downhill slasher. LeVert's percentage of points in the paint has risen to 56.8% this season. That number was 48.7% last season and 39.7% in his rookie season.

Dinwiddie is the fastest downhill of the three. He ranks 9th in the league in drives per game, averaging 14.2. He does not play in the pick and roll as much as Russell and LeVert. The reason being that he does not probe in the mid-range as well. The third-year guard excels in isolation, using his blow-by ability to get to the basket and set up his three-point shot.

Dinwiddie is averaging a career-high 17.0 PPG and has been thrown into the sixth man of the year conversation. Brooklyn signed the point guard to a three-year, $34M extension in December.

Finally, there's Russell, the all-star. Russell's game has improved in every category this season. The fourth-year guard is averaging 20.5 PPG and 6.8 APG on 36.8% shooting from three this year, all career highs.

Russell has flourished handling the ball in the pick and roll this season. He has a natural ability to get guards moving over the top of screens on his back hip and read the retreating big man to decide whether to take the floater or dish off to Jarrett Allen.

He is also a gifted passer with the ball in his hands, using great vision to find shooters on the perimeter off of drives. Russell has posted a career-best 2.32 assist to turnover ratio this season.

All three are talented ball handlers. So how should Brooklyn manage the trio moving forward to maximize their production?

Atkinson took a different approach Monday night.

He moved LeVert to the bench, where he would play alongside Dinwiddie on the second unit. Allen Crabbe and Rodions Kurucs moved into the starting lineup replacing LeVert and an injured Treveon Graham.

Atkinson spoke highly of Russell's passing ability in the pick and roll and emphasized the threat of having him on the floor with shooters like Joe Harris and Crabbe:

"He's so good at finding those weakside guys and throwing bullets without a lot of motion. It's really a knack he has. I thought that opened up our three-point shooting," Atkinson said of Russell. "Allen gives us a little more spacing out there. Then you got Allen and Joe, now you got two shooters. I think that helps D'Angelo out. I think it helps our roll game."

Russell finished Monday night's game with 11 assists.

Dinwiddie and LeVert complimented each other nicely, sharing the ball effectively on quality possessions. LeVert operated in the pick and roll efficiently while Dinwiddie used his blow-by ability in isolation.

Atkinson liked what he saw out of his bench unit Monday night.

"In that second unit now I got Spencer and Caris, who are downhill guys. Then we'll put a shooter or two shooters with them. First look, I really liked it," Atkinson said. "We looked at their numbers together over the last couple of years. That was part of the reasoning for the decision, the analytic reason. I think they have good chemistry."

Without Harris and Crabbe on the floor, the Nets need shooting at the forward positions. Kurucs made his first start at power forward Monday night with Graham sidelined. The rookie scored 19 points on 5-7 shooting from three.

DeMarre Carroll also posted a stellar performance backing Kurucs up at the four, scoring a game-high 22 points on 5-7 shooting from three as well.

Atkinson noticed the immense difference when Kurucs is able to space the floor at power forward.

"It helps when Rodi makes shots like that. It just changes the equation when you got your four-man knocking it down, it's like pick your poison. I liked the lineup change. Again, it's one game, but it gave us more space out there and gave that second unit a thrust to the basket," Atkinson said.

Graham had been starting at power forward as of late. However, the first-year Net struggles to rebound at 6'5" and has shot just 26.8% from three this season. This could lead to Kurucs' establishment as Brooklyn's starting power forward.

With Atkinson high on the idea of several shooters alongside Russell, it would not be surprising to see the lineup of Russell, Crabbe, Harris, Kurucs and Allen starting moving forward.

If Atkinson goes in this direction, he will need to mix and match at the forward positions to put shooters alongside Dinwiddie and LeVert. Brooklyn can mix and match Harris, Crabbe, and Carroll at small forward with Kurucs and Carroll at power forward as shooters to open up driving lanes.

Rotations will surely be predicated on defense and rebounding as well, two areas of weakness in recent blowout losses. Atkinson has spoken highly of Graham's defensive ability, so it is hard to see him being moved out of the rotation completely, despite his shooting struggles.

LeVert will surely need to play alongside Russell at times to offer a defensive upgrade to Crabbe.

Kurucs is an X-factor in these areas. Power forward has been the weak spot in Brooklyn's lineup all year. This was evident in Saturday's loss to the Heat as Kelly Olynyk torched the Nets for 25 points on 9/13 shooting from the field.

The rookie always brings energy and is an upgrade to Graham offensively. But can he hold his ground defensively and on the boards at power forward? That is among the biggest question marks for Brooklyn moving forward.

While these lineup changes hope to spark the Nets moving forward, nothing is ever set in stone. Atkinson will continue to play the hot hands and find which pairings of Russell, LeVert, and Dinwiddie are playing well with one another at different times.

However, with the postseason approaching, the time for certain players to develop chemistry alongside one another is running out.

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