Brooklyn Nets 2018-2019 Season Roundup
The 2018-2019 Brooklyn Nets season has come to a close and will be remembered as a turning point in the Sean Marks-Kenny Atkinson era.
Brooklyn made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons after finishing with a 42-40 record.
The turnaround was even more improbable considering how the season started for Brooklyn. A gruesome leg injury, halting the breakout season of Caris LeVert, sent the Nets into a tailspin.
Brooklyn lost eight straight games on their way to an 8-18 start. It had all the makings of another lost season with many fans calling for the tank.
However, that was never an option to General Manager Sean Marks and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson. The pair knew what their team was capable of, they just needed something to bring it all together.
With the team at a crossroads, veteran Jared Dudley called for a players-only film session, pointing out various areas where each player could improve. Following the meeting, Brooklyn would win 19 of their next 24 games and become one of the hottest stories in the NBA.
The most important component of the turnaround was the stellar play of fourth-year guard D’Angelo Russell. With LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie both sidelined for extended periods, Russell carried the Nets into the playoff picture.
The floor general improved in every aspect of his game, most importantly his three-point shooting, defense, and late game decision making on his way to his first all-star selection.
When healthy, Dinwiddie led one of the best second units in the league, continuing to develop his game and earning sixth man of the year consideration.
Dinwiddie flourished offensively using his rare combination of explosiveness and size to get to the basket. Brooklyn rewarded the third-year Net with a three-year, $32M extension mid-way through the season.
Joe Harris continued to improve, emerging as the top three-point shooter in the league.
Second-round pick Rodions Kurucs burst onto the scene, moving into a prominent role as a sparkplug in Brooklyn’s lineup.
A brutal schedule down the stretch threatened the Nets’ playoff hopes, but they would win six of their last 10 games to clinch the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Despite winning game one of the series, Brooklyn was clearly outmatched against Philadelphia in the first round. The Nets struggled defensively, allowing 127.5 PPG in four straight losses.
Kenny Atkinson’s squad also struggled to space the floor with Harris and DeMarre Carroll failing to find consistency from three.
Brooklyn was competitive at times, but in the end, Philadelphia’s starting lineup featuring Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid overpowered the Nets on both ends of the floor.
A 12-win improvement and playoff berth make this season a success. The Nets gained respect around the league with their gritty, unselfish style of play. A team only a star away from contention, Brooklyn’s front office will hope free agents took notice.
With the season in the books, we hand out superlatives and analyze key pieces of Brooklyn’s success and struggles.
Most Valuable Player: D’Angelo Russell
Prior to the season, the narrative was that this would be the make or break year for D’Angelo Russell. The former second overall pick had shown flashes of star potential in his first three seasons but hadn’t shown the consistency to a top-tier player.
With the Nets set to have an abundance of cap space, Russell needed to make the jump to a star player to prove he is the point guard Brooklyn could build around long term. The fourth-year guard did just that, improving in all aspects of his game and earning his first all-star selection.
The fourth-year guard had the most efficient scoring season of his career, averaging 21.1 PPG on shooting splits of 43.4/36.9/78.0, all career-highs.
Russell struggled to take care of the ball down the stretch during his first season with the Nets. The point guard has great court vision, but that ability would often lead him to attempt tough passes that had a small margin for error, leading to turnovers. This led to a lack of trust from Atkinson and Russell landing on the bench late in games.
This season, Russell commanded the floor with intelligence and poise in big moments. He picked his spots, trusting Atkinson’s offense to create opportunities for him to find his teammates. Russell averaged a career-high 7.0 APG this season.
Russell shined in Brooklyn’s pick and roll oriented offense using his superb court vision, mid-range game and an improved pull up three-point shot. The point guard initiated the second most pick and rolls in the league this season, trailing only Kemba Walker.
Russell’s passing ability was on full display in pick and roll sets. He constantly found the open man when operating off of high-ball screens, whether it was a darting pass across the lane to Joe Harris for three or a crafty bounce pass to a rolling big man after forcing the opposing center to respect his high-arching floater.
An improved pull-up three served as a deadly weapon off high ball screens. Russell attempted the fifth most pull-up threes in the league at 5.4 per game, converting on 36% of those attempts. 47% of Russell’s threes were unassisted this year, an 11.4% increase from last season.
Russell also improved getting downhill to the basket as the season progressed. He consistently probed in the mid-range off the pick and roll, improving his floater which was often set up by a crafty ball fake to freeze the opposing center. Russell also improved beating defenders in isolation using a variety of hesitation moves and finishing strong toward the basket.
While he got downhill more frequently this season, Russell did not get to the free throw line nearly enough, attempting just 2.4 free throws per game. If Russell wants to make another jump next season, getting to the line will be key.
Despite Russell’s breakout season, he is not a lock to be back in Brooklyn next season. The all-star will hit restricted free agency and there have been rumblings about Kyrie Irving’s interest in the Nets.
It remains to be seen whether Brooklyn will be willing to pay him the max contract he may demand, but the 23-year-old’s play this season gave general manager Sean Marks a lot to think about.
Most Improved Player: Joe Harris
D'Angelo Russell is the obvious choice for this category, but being that we gave him the MVP award, Joe Harris is a close second.
This season, Harris established himself as one of the top three-point shooters in the NBA. The third-year Net led the league in three-point shooting at 47.4% and averaged a career-high 13.7 PPG.
Harris was able to knock down threes in a variety of ways. He excelled as a catch and shoot threat in transition and running off curl or flare screens in the half court.
The sharpshooter was among the most important pieces to Brooklyn’s success this season. With Allen Crabbe sidelined and a lack of shooting in the frontcourt, it was Harris’ scorching hot shooting that spaced the floor.
Harris occupies more than just his man when in the game. Atkinson’s system features constant actions where Harris is running off flare screens. This movement not only occupies Harris’ man but also the man of the screener and sometimes another defender. This allows Brooklyn’s guards to operate in the pick and roll or beat defenders off the dribble with less help defense.
Harris improved more than his three-point shot this season. Despite his success from deep, Harris did not settle for threes.
The 27-year-old also excelled when driving to the basket and attacking defenders, increasing his number of shots from 0-3 feet by six percent and converting on 64.6% of those attempts.
Hustle plays were also a key component of Harris’ value this season. He frequently came up with big offensive rebounds in key moments. Defensively, Harris elevated his play, hounding opposing shooters and staying in front of slashers in the half court.
Harris’ production was key to Brooklyn’s success this season. This was evident in the playoffs when he struggled to find his shot.
Having a sharpshooter like Harris is a necessity in today’s fast-paced, three-point oriented NBA. Similar to D’Angelo Russell, Harris made a huge jump this season and will be an impact player in the league for years to come.
Future Building Block: Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert may be Brooklyn’s most valuable foundational piece moving forward. The 24-year-old swingman burst onto the scene this season, averaging 18.4 PPG on 47.6% shooting from the field through Brooklyn’s first 14 games.
However, in a November 12th loss in Minnesota, LeVert suffered what looked like a career-altering leg injury. He had the look of an all-star prior to the injury and the league was taking notice. It appeared to be the worst possible scenario for the Nets.
Despite its horrific appearance, the injury was not as serious as many thought and LeVert returned to action shortly after the trade deadline. After shaking the rust off, the wing found his stride again just in time for the playoffs, where he was Brooklyn’s most effective player.
LeVert led Brooklyn, averaging 21.0 PPG on 12-26 (46.2%) shooting from three in five playoff games. He looked smooth and composed with the ball in his hands, providing a steady source of offense when the Nets needed it most.
The 24-year-old is extremely valuable because of his two-way ability. Two-way wings are in high demand in today’s fast-paced NBA.
Athletic wings who can defend multiple positions, score in transition and shoot in today’s up-tempo, position less NBA have a tremendous impact on the game.
Kawhi Leonard has terrorized the NBA with his dominant play on both ends of the floor. LeVert has similar measurables as a wing, standing 6’7” tall with a 6’10” wingspan, and employs a comparable hyperactive style of play.
Defensively, LeVert’s length and quickness allow him to get in passing lanes, stay in front of ball handlers, and contest shots. His size allows him to switch and defend one through four.
This season, unlike his first two, LeVert looked natural and under control with the ball in his hands. He used a lightning-quick first step to blow by defenders and consistently finished through contact at the rim. He also employed the use of crafty pivots and head fakes when cut off in the lane.
When handling the ball, LeVert excelled in the pick and roll. An improved mid-range game allowed him to probe and finish with a floater, or dish to a rolling big man.
Offensively, LeVert is the most balanced of Brooklyn’s ball handlers. He can efficiently score from all levels of the floor, unlike Russell and Dinwiddie. 32.1% of LeVert’s field goal attempts came from 0-3 feet as opposed to Russell’s 13.7%.
With defenders respecting his driving ability, LeVert improved shooting off the dribble, converting on 35.2% of his pull-up threes. The swingman doubled his percentage of unassisted threes from 27.1% to 54.2%.
The three-point shot is the barometer of LeVert’s play offensively. When he is making it with any sort of consistency, he excels as a scoring threat from all levels of the floor.
When he struggled from three following his return from injury, defenders played off LeVert, giving him as much as five feet of space on the outside. This neutralized LeVert’s driving ability in isolation and allowed defenders to go under high ball screens.
LeVert’s potential on both ends of the floor make him Brooklyn’s most complete player. If he can fully establish his outside shot, the 24-year-old will be an all-star in the coming years.
Biggest Disappointment: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Coming into the season, there were high hopes for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The 24-year-old had made a significant offensive improvement the year before and was entering the final year of his contract.
Hollis-Jefferson had improved his shot throughout the 2017-2018 season, consistently scoring from the mid-range. On a team in need of a versatile stretch four, many hoped the forward would extend his shot to the three-point line this season. That hope never materialized.
Not only did Hollis-Jefferson fail to extend his shot to the perimeter, he regressed offensively altogether. An adductor strain suffered in August while playing in a charity game in China lingered into the season and sidelined him.
When Hollis-Jefferson returned, he never regained the confidence from the midrange that served him well the season prior. In 2017-2018, a career-high 20.6% of Hollis-Jefferson’s field goal attempts came from 10-16 feet. This season, that number dropped to 12.9%, the lowest since his rookie season.
Hollis-Jefferson also shot a much lower percentage on a smaller sample size. In 2017-2018, he converted on 47.7% of those attempts, a 13% increase from the season prior. This year, he made just 25.4%, a career-low.
He appeared hesitant when shooting from any point on the floor and reverted to putting his head down and driving, often looking out of control and losing sight of the rim. When driving, Hollis-Jefferson attacked bigger defenders and took off-balance shots hoping for a foul call.
This led to the forward landing on the bench for the second half of the season. Rodions Kurucs and Treveon Graham began seeing extended minutes as the Nets searched for a power forward.
Although Hollis-Jefferson struggled offensively, he still brought the same intensity on the defensive end. He showed great hustle every time he was on the floor, but at a certain point, Atkinson couldn’t play four on five on the offensive end anymore.
There were still some nice moments for Hollis-Jefferson this season. He sparked the Nets in a March 19th win over Sacramento, capping off a 25-point fourth quarter comeback with the game-winning layup.
As Hollis-Jefferson hits restricted free agency, his future in Brooklyn is uncertain. The forward has a $7.4M cap hold and with the Nets expected to pursue top-tier free agents, every dollar of cap space counts.
Hollis-Jefferson is a favorite in the locker room and the longest tenured Net on the roster, but that may not be enough to save him this summer.
The 2018-2019 season brought competitive basketball back to Brooklyn. With a star-studded incoming free agent class and significant cap space, the timing could not have been better.
The breakouts of D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert give the Nets a young backcourt with star potential. Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen continued to develop, rounding out a solid young core for Brooklyn.
Brooklyn played a gritty, unselfish brand of basketball that won fans over as the season went on. The front office will hope that free agents take notice of the culture, solid core of young players, and the New York market.
With Brooklyn set to pursue star free agents, the futures of several players are uncertain. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, and Allen Crabbe all contributed this season and could be in a different uniform next season.
This season was a turning point for the Nets. A playoff appearance brought the team back into the spotlight, and this offseason will provide Brooklyn with an opportunity to stay in it for years to come.