Nets legend Derrick Coleman can empathize with this current team’s pain.
Coleman was a member of the Charlotte Hornets in 2000, when his teammate Bobby Phills died in a car crash in the middle of the season. Those Hornets went on to a 49-33 record but were ultimately bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
“We didn’t realize how important he was,” Coleman recalled of Phills, a utility player who impacted all areas of the game for those Hornets.
It’s not as tragic as a beloved teammate dying, but this year’s Nets didn’t realize how important Spencer Dinwiddie was to their game plan, and as the saying goes, you never really know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Dinwiddie is out an indefinite period of time as he rehabs from the partial ACL tear in his right knee, which happened on Dec. 28 against the Memphis Grizzlies. He is optimistic about his odds of returning for this season, but no firm return date is available as of yet.
The Nets’ outlook without Dinwiddie does not look as promising: They are a wreck defensively, out-of-tune on offense and have fallen below .500 after losing three of their last four games.
“Losing Spence was a big, big, big blow for us,” Kyrie Irving said on Dec. 31. “Everyone likes to say this phrase ‘Next Man Up Mentality,’ but it’s hard to do that when we started off kind of the last few months together, and we’ve played together a certain type of style, and then we have one of our pieces go down.”
For Coleman, losing Dinwiddie in Brooklyn reminded him both of his Jan. 2000 experience with Phills, as well as the Golden State Warriors, who have become a shell of themselves after Klay Thompson’s consecutive season-ending injuries: first a torn ACL, then more recently a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Warriors, like the Nets, are learning it’s not so easy replacing an indispensable piece to the puzzle.
“Bobby, playing with us, he always had the hardest matchup to check on the other team, and I look at Klay Thompson, he’s always had the hardest matchup to check, but he still was able to do all the other things on the offensive end as well,” Coleman said on Monday, promoting the tie-dye throwback jerseys the Nets will wear as their Classic Edition uniforms this season. “So when I look at a guy like Spencer, you don’t realize that until somebody does get hurt and that’s just a part of that glue. You need that all-purpose guy that’s gonna give you 15 points, eight or nine rebounds, some assists but he’s also gonna lock up and play defense on the other end of the floor.”
The Nets have another all-purpose utility player of the Dinwiddie-ilk, but he’s been buried at the end of the rotation and has yet to see meaningful playing time.
The Nets acquired Bruce Brown from Detroit in a three-team trade that sent Dzanan Musa and a future second-round pick to the Pistons. Brown was a regular starter for Dwane Casey’s Pistons for each of the two seasons before this one. Last season, he averaged nine points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal.
Nets head coach Steve Nash touted him as one of the team’s best perimeter defenders, but considered Brown more of a developmental player who needs to make strides in three-point shooting and play-making for himself and his teammates. There’s also the roster reality: The Nets have many capable wings, including starter Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, sharpshooter Joe Harris, sixth man Caris LeVert, and reserve shooters Taurean Prince and Landry Shamet.
Those players, however, haven’t helped solve the Nets’ defensive issues. Brooklyn has been out of sorts, at times lacking energy, more often lacking communication and veering from the game plan Nash has laid out.
Coleman said there’s always room in the rotation for a player like Brown who can bring freshness and intensity on the defensive end.
“Once you get into a real series in the playoffs, it all boils down to the defense,” he said. “You’re gonna always need some guys that are gonna go out there and stop somebody, you know? My suggestion to (Bruce): Keep working on the three, but I mean, defense wins championships, guys. You’ve gotta be able to get out there and slide your feet.”