For long stretches over the past two seasons, the Nets have been without Caris LeVert because of injuries.
The 25-year-old guard is in for a big test, set to play a starring role for the Nets when the NBA resumes on July 30, with eight seeding games and, barring a disaster, the playoffs on the horizon. After the Nets arrived in Orlando on Tuesday night without the services of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler and Nic Claxton, all eyes will be on LeVert — both for his playmaking and leadership.
“I think for me it’s just taking on that challenge of being a leader, being the leader of that group,” LeVert said on a Zoom call last week, even before Dinwiddie and Prince were declared out. “Going down there with some of the most experience on the team, playoff experience. I feel like I relish these types of opportunities and situations. Everything aside, I’m looking forward to going down there and seeing what we can do.”
For LeVert, it’s another chance to answer a key Nets question: Is he capable of being their third star, behind Durant and Irving? Definitive judgments may be hard to make given the unusual circumstances of the restart, but a strong showing as the No. 1 option could support LeVert’s case for stardom. It could also make him an attractive trade target for another team who would be willing to give up its established star to land him. Or, perhaps, it could give credence to the thought that he is best as a supplementary player.
LeVert, who signed a three-year, $52.5 million extension last summer, has had a taste of this bigger role before, though not quite to this extent. Just before the NBA was suspended on March 11, he was in the midst of a hot stretch. He dropped 51 points on 17 of 26 shooting in a comeback win over the Celtics on March 3, which he followed up with a triple-double against the Spurs two games later.
But LeVert still had another threat like Dinwiddie on the floor with him for those games. Now the lineup is in flux, and the Nets could end up leaning heavily on him at point guard, alongside a potential starting five of Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs and Garrett Temple.
“Obviously there will be adjustments with different personnel,” LeVert said. “I think that’s inevitable. But like I said, next man up. We have a lot of talented guys on the roster still and I know those guys are very eager to get their chance and opportunity to go down there and make a statement and show what they can do. I’m sure that everyone who has opted in is very excited to go and play.”
The Nets signed Tyler Johnson to provide backcourt depth and have two-way point guard Chris Chiozza ready to fill some of the available minutes. They can still add further reinforcements before the games begin, though training camps are set to begin Thursday.
But regardless of who else comes on board, LeVert will be front and center. A year after missing 42 games with a dislocated foot and then being sidelined for 24 games earlier this season following thumb surgery, the Michigan product is primed to step up in a time of need.
“I feel good right now,” LeVert said. “I haven’t played in games since March so that’s the question I really don’t know. I feel good in my workouts though. And if I didn’t, I honestly wouldn’t be going down there to play. So I’m looking forward to getting out there.”