Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets

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Lichtenstein: Nets Facing Dinwiddie Dilemma As Pending Free Agent Raises Game

Steve Lichtenstein
December 13, 2018 - 9:37 am
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Sixers coach Brett Brown was asked before Wednesday’s home game versus Brooklyn about Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie’s increased proclivity towards driving the ball to the rim.

In his previous two games, Dinwiddie averaged 21 drives per game, more than anyone in the league other than Spurs star DeMar DeRozan, per NBA.com. And he was pretty effective at finishing, with a 71.4 percent points percentage, sixth-best among players with more than 10 drives.

Should the Sixers’ strategy incorporate ways to get the ball out of Dinwiddie’s hands, the way they did to Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell in their remarkable 127-125 comeback victory in Brooklyn on November 25?

“(Dinwiddie) is really good,” Brown said.  “There’s no doubt about that.  I do not believe that we have the ability to live in a blitz. I think we spent six minutes (in Brooklyn) double-teaming the pick-and-roll.  It’s sort of a ‘don’t mistake activity for achievement’ type of notion for me, where you can get punished on the back side (on kick-out three-pointers).”

I wonder if Brown was second-guessing himself on his drive home Wednesday night, for Dinwiddie torched the injury-riddled Sixers with a career-high 39 points, 17 off 17 drives, off the bench in the Nets’ 127-124 upset. 

“I think the bigger thing is we won the game,” Dinwiddie said after going 11-for-18 (including 4-for-6 on three-pointers) from the floor and 13-for-14 from the free throw line. “Anybody can score and lose.”

The Nets have now won three in a row, which makes Dinwiddie’s performances in this stretch something more meaningful than “good stats on a bad team.”

In those three games, Dinwiddie is averaging 27 points and 6.3 assists while shooting 54/46/79.

Why am I focusing on this mini-streak? 

Because December 8, the morning after the Nets defeated first-place Toronto, was the day the Nets were allowed to offer Dinwiddie, an unrestricted free agent after this season, up to a four-year, $47.5 million extension.

Dinwiddie has been playing like this should be a no-brainer for Nets general manager Sean Marks, though he would rather not talk about it.

“I let (agent Raymond Brothers) and Sean talk about contract,” Dinwiddie said. “I’m just out here trying to help the Nets win games.”

It remains to be seen whether Dinwiddie can maintain anything close to this level, which would make him a strong candidate for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. His 39 points were the most by any NBA reserve this season, per the Nets PR.

When he can knock down his three-point shot at this high of a rate, he can be formidable.

“If I hit two threes in a row, I feel like Steph (Curry),” Dinwiddie said of his 15-point third quarter, when he hit on three-of-four from deep. “I hit a couple of threes--boy—I’m telling you, I felt like I was six-three and light-skinned.  I wasn’t going to stop shooting after that.”

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It’s that, shall we say, irrational exuberance that has sometimes led to trouble in the past. Dinwiddie’s penchant for hero-ball down the stretch of games wasn’t helpful when the Nets were blowing double-digit leads, four in the most unfathomable ways, this season. He committed three turnovers in a two-minute span late in Wednesday's fourth quarter trying to do too much.

Dinwiddie, 25, is six-foot-six with exceptional downhill speed. But he’s not Stephen Curry. To get to another level, Dinwiddie will have to improve his assist rate when he takes off to the basket.  He is 32nd in assist percentage off drives of the 38 players averaging more than 10 drives per game. (injured teammate Caris LeVert is 35th).

“I think it’s a read,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said of Dinwiddie’s decision-making in his pre-game remarks. “Listen, our spacing sometimes isn’t perfect for him.  So I have to do a better job of getting the spacing better on Spencer’s drives because I think it’s clogged up right now. He was obviously a good assist guy last year (8.2 assists per 36 minutes in 2017-18, 6.2 this season).”

Against the Sixers, who were without injured All Star Jimmy Butler, Atkinson rode rookie Rodions Kurucs for all 12 fourth-quarter minutes, leaving poor-shooting starting forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the bench for all but 1:33 of the frame.

Kurucs scored eight of his career-high 13 points in the fourth quarter and added three huge steals to help the cause, not just the spacing.

“(Kurucs) gives us length and activity—he forced us to keep him in there,” Atkinson said.

Kurucs is the only Net with a guaranteed contract in 2020-21, not too shabby for a second-round pick.

Will Dinwiddie join him by the season’s end? If not, Dinwiddie hinted that all bets are off and he will test the free agent market.

That puts the Nets in a bind.  In an ideal world, they’d love to back-channel a wink-wink arrangement where they agree on the terms, but save the announcement until after Marks makes all his offseason moves.  Dinwiddie’s cap hold is a mere $1.6 million. Having that hit on July 1 would give the Nets much more flexibility than the approximately $10.6 million he would be slated to earn in the first season if he signs the extension beforehand. As a ”Bird’s rights” free agent, the Nets would even be allowed to go over the salary cap to re-sign him during the free agency period.

The Nets had a similar arrangement with Joe Harris last summer before signing him to a two-year, $16 million extension. 

However, Dinwiddie is playing himself out of that mid-level stratum. The Nets could look to trade him, but they seem reluctant, reportedly declining past offers.  It could be because they see him as their poster-child for their development program, where they plucked a guy who was toiling in the G League two years ago and made him a legitimate NBA player.

As recently as a few days ago, I was hoping Marks would wait Dinwiddie out and then get him at the most optimal timing to maximize cap space.

The more Dinwiddie plays like this, however, the less likely that will be possible. The sign-him-or-trade-him decision might evolve into a trade-him-or-lose-him scenario before they know it.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.