There are now a maximum of 2 games left in the NBA Finals, and free agency rumors are flying into overdrive. Kyrie Irving potentially joining the Brooklyn Nets is one of the biggest talking points around the NBA.
The Nets are not opposed to playing D’Angelo Russell and Kyrie Irving together. Several notable NBA media members have mentioned Irving and Russell’s poor fit. Zach Lowe and Ryen Russillo mentioned this on Hoop Stream for ESPN before an NBA Finals game recently. Both agreed that Kyrie Irving and D’Angelo Russell would be a terrible fit next to each other.
This leads to the question, are Kyrie and DLo a terrible fit? There are 2 areas of Irving and Russell’s games that cause the bad fit narrative.
Usage Rating Fit
First, Kyrie and D’Angelo do a lot of the same things on the offensive end. Both are ball dominant, score first point guards who operate best out of the pick and roll. If we take a look at usage rating, we see that Irving and Russell both dominate the ball. D’Angelo Russell ranked 6th in usage rating during the regular season. Russell used 31.9 percent of the Nets possessions this year. That is ahead of ball dominant players such as LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and Kyrie Irving.
Irving came in at 16th with a usage rating of 29.6 percent. Irving ranked ahead of players such as Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, and Bradley Beal. A combined usage over 60 percent leaves very few touches available for players such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert.
What It Means for LeVert
This is notable because LeVert looked like the Nets best and most consistent scorer in their playoff series with Philadelphia. LeVert, mind you, is the player coming into this year who the Nets believed was most ready to make the All-Star leap. He played like an All-Star before getting injured earlier in the year. There are ways for Kenny Atkinson to alter his rotation to mix and match these players to minimize overlap of high usage players. Staggering minutes for Dinwiddie, Russell, LeVert, and Irving would be essential for the long term viability of this team.
Kenny Atkinson’s system is predicated on the ball and player movement, so hopefully, a significant portion of the usage issues can be mitigated by the system. Atkinson also utilizes a deep bench, often putting 11 players into the rotation. That should help to greatly mitigate the ball dominance of Irving and Russell.
A caveat is that Russell was also the only viable shot creator on the Nets for several weeks during the season. Dinwiddie and LeVert were both out for an extended stretch in the lead up to the All-Star break and after the All-Star break.
Even when Dinwiddie and LeVert returned through a large portion of the offense revolved around Russell pick and rolls. Someone has to play off the ball if the Irving and Russell team up, and there should be some serious concerns for the Nets after all the chemistry problems the Celtics had this season. Again, the Nets strong chemistry last season could help minimize this problem.
However, there is only 1 ball to go around. As we learned with the LeBron era Heat, the dueling banjos route does not work as smoothly as most people would seem to think. The question the Nets must ask themselves is, how much do they trust their system to iron out these problems? Brad Stevens had a strong culture and system in Boston. Yet, there were still numerous problems with the Celtics this past year.
Second, can the Nets get enough stops with Irving and Russell on the floor together? Will the perimeter defense turn into a turn-style? Having Jarrett Allen as a rim protector greatly mitigates many of these defensive issues, but Allen cannot mitigate all of them. If we look at each player’s defensive rating we see that Irving and Russell have a lot to improve upon on that end. Kyrie comes in at 224th in defensive rating on NBA.com’s website while Russell follows up at 231. Both are squarely in the middle of the pack defensively and both with a rating above 106. This ranks ahead of some well-known defensive luminaries such as Patrick Beverly, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant. That is positive, showing that Russell and Irving are not nearly as bad on defense as their reputations would suggest.
Also, in relation to their offensive ratings both come out as net positives while on the court, but Kyrie played in a strong defensive system in Boston that helped to cover up a lot of his weaknesses. In the regular season, Irving and Russell mostly hid on the worst offensive player on the floor. That cannot happen if both are sharing the floor as one of the two will be asked to take on a tougher assignment.
The Nets will face matchup issues, especially against high-level opponents who have multiple wings and guard options that can attack these mismatches. Remember, Atkinson had to pull Russell multiple times this past year for defensive reasons. Again, a strong team concept can overcome weaker defenders. However, Irving has shown an ability to be a higher level defender when he is locked in. A locked-in Irving will bode well for the Nets.
This all becomes increasingly relevant during playoff runs that last into late May and early June which is the Nets’ ultimate goal. As teams get deeper into the playoffs opponents repeatedly hunt a matchup that is advantageous to their offenses. In the conference finals and Finals, there is no hiding on the court. Last year we watched the Cavs hunt out mismatches against a strong defender in Terry Rozier. The Raptors are repeatedly hunting for mismatches for Kawhi in the Finals. This hunting has left DeMarcus Cousins and other Warrior big men almost incapable of staying on the court. Irving himself hunted for a Steph Curry switch before taking his famous Finals winning 3 in 2016.
Can Kyrie Irving and D’Angelo Russell fit together, especially during deep playoff runs? That is the question the Nets must ask themselves as they consider the viability of playing the two together. Kyrie’s tendency to be lackadaisical and Russell’s slight frame make this a tall order. Atkinson will have his work cut out for him.
We cannot forget though that these are two All-Star caliber guards that can score in bunches and can create for others. Irving hit the game-winning 3 in the NBA Finals against a team that won 73 games and Russell repeatedly rescued the Nets in big moments this season. Both are intelligent basketball players who make their teammates better. No one knows what Irving and Russell will actually look like next to each other.
According to VORP (Value Above Replacement Players), Kyrie and D’Angelo rank among the top 30 players in the league. This means the Nets will have two of the top 30 players on their roster if they sign Irving. The Nets goal is to acquire high-level talent to help in the playoffs, so signing Irving puts the Nets on the right path. Regardless of the fit between Kyrie Irving and D’Angelo Russell having multiple All-Stars will help the Nets.
What It Means for Next Year
Still, signing Irving will position the Nets among the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Remember Boston will take a hit with no Irving, Kawhi is still a strong possibility to flee Toronto, there is no guarantee Butler and Harris return to Philadelphia, the Bucks have to go way over the tax to bring Middleton and Brogdon back which might not happen, and Oladipo is coming off a serious injury for Pacers. All 5 of those teams finished in front of the Nets last year. All have serious question marks heading into the offseason. The East has a chance to look entirely different than it did last year. Now is the time for the Nets to pounce.
It is important to remember, Irving would be the biggest free agent signing in Nets history. At a certain point, teams have to trust that talent can win out. While not a match made in heaven, a combination of Irving and Russell improves the ceiling of the Nets for the foreseeable future.