Although the NBA is a top-heavy league dominated by teams with top-heavy lineups, the importance of depth on a roster should not be minimized.
The Brooklyn Nets are nowhere near the short list of legitimate championship contenders (Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, etc.), nor are they a star-studded group (Warriors, Thunder, Sixers, etc.). What the Nets do have going for them is depth — perhaps the defining characteristic of this young and rebuilding squad that is establishing a foundation on which to hopefully contend in the near future.
The Nets are especially deep in the backcourt. Five of Brooklyn’s guards averaged double figures in scoring last season; six if you count Jeremy Lin, who scored 18 points in the opener before a knee injury forced him to miss the next 81 games.
Starting point guard D’Angelo Russell and starting shooting guard Allen Crabbe averaged 15.5 and 13.2 points per game, respectively. Spencer Dinwiddie (12.6 ppg), Caris LeVert (12.1 ppg) and Joe Harris (10.8 ppg) also cracked the double-digit barrier.
This upcoming season, the Nets could suit up as many as seven guards capable of being double-figure scorers. Or at least noteworthy contributors to head coach Kenny Atkinson’s squad. While Lin has since been traded, the other aforementioned five return, and two new additions could play significant roles.
Russell and Crabbe are penciled in to return to the starting lineup.
Russell is Brooklyn’s top overall player and marquee name. He led the team in scoring last season, although injuries limited him to just 48 games. Staying healthy has been an issue for him in his nascent pro career, but he’s still just 22 years old and going into his fourth season. Russell is embracing his role as team leader and go-to player in crunch time.
Crabbe led the Nets in 3-pointers made with 201, connecting on 37.8 percent of his attempts. While he is in danger of being known as a poor man’s Joe Johnson — in that he will always be judged by his surprisingly large contract that came with expectations he may never fulfill — he is a solid producer. (“Poor man’s” is an ironic word choice, I know.)
Crabbe has two years left on the four-year, $75 million deal he inked in 2016, and while he set career-high marks in scoring, rebounding and assists last seasons, he’s far from All-Star caliber.
Dinwiddie is the 2nd-string point guard, but he may actually be the 2nd-best player on the Nets behind Russell. He led the team with 6.6 assists per game last season, and in 28 minutes per game he averaged just 1.6 turnovers. By comparison, Russell turned the ball over 3.1 times in 25 minutes per game.
LeVert is a versatile performer who can play both backcourt positions as well as small forward. Ever since I first watched LeVert play at the University of Michigan, he reminded me of a young Tracy McGrady. He’s not going to give you 25 or 30 points per game like prime T-Mac, but LeVert is long (6-foot-7), athletic, smooth, creative, and he’s a smart playmaker.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Dinwiddie and LeVert are the best 2nd-unit backcourt in the NBA.
Consider some of the contenders: Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart for the Celtics; Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili for the Spurs; Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson for the Lakers; Milos Teodosic and Lou Williams for the Clippers; Tony Parker and Jeremy Lamb for the Hornets; and Delon Wright and C.J. Miles for the Raptors come to mind. Dinwiddie and LeVert are at least as good, if not better than those tandems.
Brooklyn’s 3rd-unit backcourt consists of two players who could potentially start for a few teams.
Shabazz Napier, who signed with the Nets as a free agent this summer, will be the No. 3 point guard on the depth chart after serving as a solid No. 2 PG behind Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard.
Napier made 10 starts last season, in which he averaged 15.0 points and 4.4 assists per game. In one of those outings, Napier went head-to-head with then-reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook and scored 21 points in a Blazers victory, while Westbrook scored 22.
Joe Harris is the 3rd-best shooting guard on Brooklyn’s roster. He can also play small forward. Last season, Harris led the Nets in 3-point accuracy, hitting 41.9 percent of his tries from long range in 25 minutes per game. He ranked second on the team in 3-point makes while finishing fourth in attempts. Harris was a free agent this summer and re-signed with Brooklyn on a two-year, $16 million deal.
The seventh guard on the Nets’ roster who could conceivably be a double-figure scorer in 2018-19 is rookie Dzanan Musa.
At 6-foot-9, he projects as a natural small forward, but he could also play the 2-guard, point guard, or even a stretch-4. Musa is a pure scorer whose shooting range seems limitless. It’s hard to predict how much he’ll play right away, because there are so many more experienced players on the Nets’ roster. But Brooklyn used a first-round pick on Musa, and his talent and potential could make it hard to resist giving the 19-year-old long looks on the court sooner than later.
One of the best things an NBA coach can have is options, and Atkinson certainly has a lot of options with the Nets’ backcourt.
Brooklyn may not have the league’s most talented or most successful backcourt, but it may be the league’s deepest. If nothing else, the Nets’ group of guards is the team’s strongest unit and its best hope for the franchise showing real signs of progress next season.