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Caris LeVert entered the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s matchup against Boston Celtics with 14 points and his Brooklyn Nets trailing by 17. At the end of overtime—because yes, there was an overtime—he had pumped in 51 points, and Brooklyn had picked up an improbable 129-120 win.
What transpired in this game wasn’t exactly normal. It was also, somehow, a microcosm of this Nets season. Not because it ended in a victory, but because of the circumstances under which it came: shorthanded, without much expectation of a win, dotted with glimpses into what this team potentially could be at full strength.
Kevin Durant (Achilles) and Kyrie Irving (shoulder) are both done for the season. But the Nets’ number of healthy bodies wound up being even lower by the end of Tuesday night. Spencer Dinwiddie didn’t play in the fourth quarter or overtime.
It was LeVert’s show in that stretch, during which he tallied 37 points, including 26 in the fourth quarter alone and all of Brooklyn’s points in the bonus period:
His work came in all forms: tough drives, pull-up jumpers, shooting fouls, off-the-dribble threes, even a possession in the post. When he was fouled beyond the arc with 0.2 seconds remaining in regulation, he drilled all three free throws to force overtime.
The Celtics, collectively, had no answer:
Career nights aren’t suddenly LeVert’s new standard, but Tuesday’s detonation wasn’t a radical departure from the norm. He has been on a relative tear in recent weeks.
Since Irving last played on Feb. 3, a stretch spanning 12 games, LeVert is averaging a team-high 24.9 points and 5.0 assists. His efficiency isn’t the cleanest (56.0 true shooting percentage), but he’s banging in 41.3 percent of his triples, including a 46.8 percent clip on a steady volume of pull-up treys. He’s also converting 58.0 percent of his looks inside of five feet, compared to 44.8 percent beforehand.
What this means isn’t quite clear. The Nets aren’t built for a deep playoff push without both Durant and Irving. On some nights, it feels like they’ll be lucky to fend off the Washington Wizards for one of the Eastern Conference’s final two postseason spots.
LeVert alone does not transform them into something else. Perhaps they’ll make life difficult for their first-round opponent, but prospective matchups with the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and even the Celtics are hardly favorable. Lasting more than five games against any of them would be an accomplishment.
At the same time, there is comfort in seeing LeVert peak now, just ahead of the closing stretch of the regular season. It renders the Nets more of a sure thing to make the playoffs, and more importantly, they don’t have to question whether his ascent is sustainable.
LeVert has always flashed primary-option chops when healthy, and his confidence with the ball in his hands has already translated to the postseason crucible. It was him, not D’Angelo Russell, who carried Brooklyn’s offense during its five-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers last year.
Questions about his finishing are fair. He’s taking off a lot earlier on his drives this season. But he’s finished at a higher rate around the rim in the past, which makes his recent uptick less of an anomaly.
His efficiency from long range is the bigger wild card. This is the first time he’s flirted with a league-average clip from behind the rainbow. His latest incandescence might be overdue for a drop-off.
Then again, his long-distance shot-making has been a thing for most of the season. He’s canning 42.6 percent of his pull-up threes this year, the best mark among 61 players throwing up at least two such attempts per game (minimum five appearances). His catch-and-fire marksmanship is much lower (28.3 percent) and has never been his strong suit, but that should rise when he gets the opportunity to play beside both Durant and Irving.
That’s the most tantalizing part of LeVert’s play—not what it does now, as the quasi-No. 1 option, but what it means for the bigger picture, when this version of the Nets is whole for the first time.
LeVert will retreat to third-wheel duty next season with Durant and Irving in the fold. He’ll have to get used to hitting standstill treys and scoring off motion, but Brooklyn will still have room to tap into his secondary shot creation.
Whether he can develop into the team’s third star while playing a watered-down role is a separate matter. Squeezing his career-high usage even slightly could take him out of his element. His fit next to Durant and Irving may not be seamless—particularly if Dinwiddie, another ball-handler, is still on the roster. Brooklyn’s offense ranked in the 28th percentile when he played with Irving this season.
The Nets can stomach the variance in possibilities. They aren’t paying LeVert like a third star. His three-year, $52.5 million extension that kicks in next season remains a bargain if he becomes the third- or fourth-best player on a genuine contender.
LeVert is showing he has that upside—star potential in a vacuum. His range of outcomes changes everything for a Nets organization that finds itself brushing up against an uncertain future despite signing two superstars over the summer.
Perhaps Durant won’t be able to ferry his usual offensive burden next season. On Tuesday, Chris Haynes reported on TNT that league sources told him Durant is “getting stronger, playing some 3-on-3 and looking like the KD of old,” but Achilles injuries have threatened careers in the past. He may need a yearlong grace period to recapture his previous form, or he might permanently be a reduced version of himself.
Or perhaps Irving is destined to miss 20-something games per year for the rest of his career. His injury list is extensive, and it includes issues with both knees and shoulders. At the very least, the Nets will continuously need to manage his workload.
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Whether the Nets are more worried about Durant or Irving, LeVert will be indispensable to their future if they’re working with anything less than two top-15 incumbents. Should his current stock persist in tandem with a back-to-normal Durant and Irving, the Nets are infinitely better off. LeVert’s extension is eminently team-friendly and will invariably afford wiggle room relative to the luxury tax compared to what other third options are earning.
And in the event it doesn’t work out and Brooklyn needs to pivot toward a different kind of sidekick, his trade value is a part of that flexibility.
Anyone under team control for the next three years for less than $20 million annually who is capable of averaging something like 20 points and four assists on league-average efficiency will fetch an impactful return. LeVert would not net an inbound superstar on his own, but he’s young enough at 25 and good enough to headline the package for one.
This isn’t meant to imply that the Nets will or should gauge his market over the offseason. They’ve yet to see what they have in this exact core. Sending him elsewhere only makes sense if isn’t worth trying to make a Kyrie-KD-LeVert trio work.
Everything LeVert is doing now implies the opposite. That isn’t about to change.
In a season that could easily be considered lost or written off as a gap year, LeVert is giving the Nets exactly what they need: a North Star in the interim, and a swing piece for the future.