Nets' Spencer Dinwiddie setting himself up for huge contract by thriving with Kyrie Irving sidelined
Spencer Dinwiddie looks like an All-Star when he gets the chance to run his own team
The easiest measure of a player's standing around the NBA is how opposing teams defend them. If a team is comfortable letting a player shoot, that player probably isn't a great shooter. If a team consistently hunts someone down defensively, it's because they think he's a bad defender. The mark of a great ball-handler is how much respect he garners while running pick-and-rolls.
For most of his career, Spencer Dinwiddie hasn't gotten much respect. Despite his numbers consistently improving, almost every team Dinwiddie's Brooklyn Nets played early this season has thrown a fairly standard defense at him. His man followed him over the screen, while the big man ran basic drop coverage to protect the rim.
This is, again fairly standard. It is among the most conservative schemes a defense can run against a ball-handler, and therefore the most common. It is the baseline, and outside of particularly aggressive teams, it is primarily veered from only in response to a specific threat. Dinwiddie drew the standard treatment early this season because defenses focused their game-planning around Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert. Both of them are out.
Dinwiddie has taken advantage of that. Entering Sunday, he had scored 23.4 points and dropped 7.3 assists since Irving left the lineup, and defenses have taken notice. In an effort to contain him specifically, opponents started using slightly more aggressive tactics, such as "showing" the pick-and-roll by having a second defender make a hard stab at Dinwiddie off of screens before scampering back to their original assignment.
The Boston Celtics tinkered with just about every manner of pick-and-roll defense against Dinwiddie on Sunday, ranging from conservative drops to showing to switching outright. They all failed. Dinwiddie finished the game with 32 points and 11 assists. Boston had no answer, and so, they bestowed upon him one of the highest honors a scorer can receive: true double-teams in the form of blitzed screens.
Boston determined in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game that stopping Dinwiddie was a high enough priority to allow four-on-three situations for the rest of Brooklyn's offense. Some of that was contextual. Without Irving and LeVert, Brooklyn was playing with only one ball-handler, theoretically weakening the value of a four-on-three, and the results were mixed. This is the treatment Damian Lillard typically gets. Dinwiddie isn't used to it, and more aggressive defenses have managed to goad him into turnovers during this stretch.
He already knows the theory behind beating blitzes, and has even spoken openly about it on Twitter. He'll get better as he adjusts to seeing it against live NBA defenses. Improvement is a near-given for him statistically. Since joining the Nets, his scoring has increased by at least 2.8 points every season. He is only 26, and the mere fact that Dinwiddie is receiving so much attention is what ultimately matters. Without Irving and LeVert to share the ball with, Dinwiddie is playing like an All-Star, and as such, opponents have treated him like one.
Opportunity may have held back his raw numbers in prior seasons, but Dinwiddie has been ruthlessly efficient when given command of the offense ever since he arrived in Brooklyn. He scored more points per possession out of pick-and-roll last season than LeBron James did, and among players to average at least three isolations per game last season, only James Harden and Kevin Durant were more efficient.
In small sample sizes, Dinwiddie-led units have always scored well. The Nets scored 111.5 points per 100 possessions last season when Dinwiddie played, but LeVert and D'Angelo Russell sat. That would put them in a dead heat with this year's Milwaukee Bucks over a full season, and that figure dropped only to 109.9 during the 2017-18 campaign. Defenses are only now catching on to something that has been true for years. The simple formula of Dinwiddie and the spacing Brooklyn has always emphasized in its playbook and roster construction has led to good offense.
But such lineups will be scarce when the Nets return to full strength. That becomes even truer next season, when Kevin Durant returns to the fold. While Brooklyn's offense has sputtered without Dinwiddie on the floor, eventually the Nets are going to have to reckon with the fact that they have much more committed to Irving, LeVert and Durant, and that cramming a 32 percent 3-point shooter onto a roster with them is hardly optimal.
Dinwiddie is currently criminally underpaid, and is locked in through only next season. He will make $22 million combined over this season and next, and while he has a player option for the 2021-22 season, he is almost certain to hit free agency if this keeps up. This stretch has answered any lingering questions about how he might handle the scoring volume of starting at point guard. That newfound respect teams have for Dinwiddie is going to be reflected in the enormous contract somebody gives him to run more of their offense than Brooklyn ever figures to need.
There are few commodities scarcer in all of basketball than an elite scoring ball-handler, and teams will pay out the nose when they think they've found one. Irving's last backup point guard, Terry Rozier, earned $58 million essentially based on the three months that Kyrie Irving missed in 2018. Dinwiddie has been substantially better, and with just about every team hoarding their cap space for 2021, someone is going to pay for the right to find out whether or not this is sustainable. Whether that is the Nets or someone else, this stretch is going to make Dinwiddie a very wealthy man.
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