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Nets in tricky spot without Caris LeVert, who’s out reported 4-6 weeks after surgery to fix ligaments in thumb

Caris LeVert exited Sunday’s blowout loss in Phoenix with what the Brooklyn Nets called a sprained left thumb. Unfortunately, the team’s fear that the guard suffered ligament damage was realized as they announced he underwent thumb surgery on Thursday, which will sideline him 4-6 weeks, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. 

This is yet another setback for an emerging 25-year-old wing who has been hit with all sorts of them. He wouldn’t have fallen to the No. 20 pick in the 2016 draft if not for medical red flags scaring off other teams — he broke his left foot twice and dealt with other leg injuries in college. LeVert looked like an All-Star early last season and in the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia, but in between he missed about three months with a (frightening) leg injury and had to (gradually) work himself back to top form.

His extended absence in 2018-19 allowed D’Angelo Russell to make the All-Star team and play himself into a max contract. If he has to miss serious time again, the Nets will have to hope that they can make up for his playmaking — LeVert is averaging 16.8 points and 4.0 assists in 31.6 minutes — by leaning on Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie even more than they already have been, with everybody’s favorite combo guard, Garrett Temple, likely continuing to start in LeVert’s place. 

Irving and Dinwiddie might be a bit overtaxed in this situation, but I’ll bet the Nets can handle it. Through 10 games they have the league’s fourth-best offense, per Cleaning The Glass, and Temple is capable of sopping up more minutes and holding lineups together. I wonder, though, how many minutes coach Kenny Atkinson will be comfortable giving to reserve guards David Nwaba, Dzanan Musa and the reportedly soon-to-be-signed Iman Shumpert

The real issue here is how LeVert’s injury will affect the defense, which has been dreadful: They have surrendered 113.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 27th, per CTG, and are dead-last in forcing turnovers. Ordinarily, the analysis here would be straightforward, as LeVert has for most of his career been a disruptive defender with good instincts, possessing the size, length and quickness to switch across three or four positions. This season, however, LeVert has been inconsistent at best on that end. When he was on the bench for the last eight minutes of a rough loss in Detroit on Dec. 2, some observers raised their eyebrows. Atkinson told reporters it was because Dinwiddie was playing superior pick-and-roll defense, via Newsday‘s Greg Logan

It is not crazy, then, to imagine Brooklyn’s defense improving in the short term if LeVert’s minutes are distributed mostly to the versatile and reliable Temple and the tenacious and tough Nwaba. In the bigger picture, though, the Nets want LeVert to be the best version of himself, which means being a threat with and without the ball and being fully committed to his defensive responsibilities. For all the discussion of the Nets’ chemistry experiment, we essentially know who Irving is and who Kevin Durant will be when he returns. The variable here is how the likes of LeVert, Dinwiddie and center Jarrett Allen will grow their respective games next to them. LeVert has had his moments early on, but finding his comfort zone remains a work in progress. If he does indeed have ligament damage, that will be put on hold for a while.