Caris LeVert is a character actor, a kind of secondary everything—a ballhandler if your regular one is out sick, a scorer you can lean against but not on, a defender for anybody who isn’t overwhelmingly strong or quick. Kenny Atkinson speaks about him protectively, because he’s the kind of versatile gap-filler coaches like and because he represents what the modest reconstruction project the Nets were engaged in before Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant showed up to transform the franchise into a glossy contender. “[Caris is] our first-born,” Atkinson said in February. “We drafted him and we’ve seen him play at an All-Star level for stretches.”
He’s in the midst of one of those stretches, averaging 24.1 points, 5.1 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per night over his last 13 games. This is not LeVert Ball at its quintessence, but it’s something he can pull off from time to time. If you’re going to show out from within the deepest concave of the armpit of the NBA calendar, you might as well do it with Ian Eagle on the call, and against the Celtics. LeVert hung 51 on Boston in an overtime win this past Tuesday. Atkinson compared him to Michael Jordan, which is what some requisitely talented players occasionally resemble when they’ve got no help—LeVert played entirely too many minutes next to Chris Chiozza—and a license to heave. LeVert went 6-for-19 in a blowout loss to Memphis the next night. He looked like Larry Hughes.
What LeVert’s doing at the moment is a because-it’s-there proposition. The Nets, five games clear of the ninth-place Wizards in the loss column, are going to make the playoffs if they don’t trip over their own feet, so they technically have something to play for—on the one hand, a postseason berth, and on the other an opportunity to get wrecked by the Raptors or Bucks. The organization is used to these vibes; they only recently reassumed dominion over their own draft picks. For a long time they’ve been doing their best, striving for improvement with no particular goal in mind. In that span, LeVert became the demi-star he is now. He was afforded ample room to grow.
Balling in blank space might not suit his development anymore. He’s 25, not a pup, and this carrying a mediocre playoff team act, while admirable—what else is he supposed to do?—isn’t anything like what he’s going to be doing next season, when Irving’s debilitating shoulder injury suddenly clears up and Kevin Durant’s doing pain-free jumping jacks. There’s going to be a big fat neon delineation between the Old Nets and the New Nets and LeVert is currently playing for an iteration of the ballclub that will soon no longer exist. If it can be said that he’s developing skills he’ll use next year, they are for the nights when one of the headliners is resting in street clothes, or during a span when Atkinson has Scott Brooks’d the rotation and said to him: Caris, just play ‘em to a draw for a few minutes.
Given the devouring sprawl of the season and the fact that only a few teams are fortunate enough to employ a generational talent or two, a lot of NBA basketball takes on a Beckettian quality. We’re going through this because we have to go through this, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing—hey, the Thunder are playing the Heat tonight; I’ll totally watch that—but it moves toward no end. It’s sorting the mail. We’re not working on our novel or training for a marathon; we’re living. Caris LeVert drops 37 in a loss, drops 11 in a win. Yeah, good. Okay. It’s an accumulation of experiences adding up to—you really can’t say. The big event that puts all the smaller ones into perspective hasn’t yet arrived.
Franchises don’t rise to prominence over long arcs anymore. They snag one or two of the best players in the league in a trade or free agency, their title odds drop into the single digits, and they learn to become what we expect of them on the fly. The Clippers might have the most talented squad in the league and there’s been an UNDER CONSTRUCTION sign hovering above them all season. The Nets will be that way next year, and there’s not much they can do in the meantime to prepare themselves for it. Everyone will shift down the hierarchy a couple notches. Some players will be let go or traded away, others banished to the end of the bench. The shape of most offensive possessions will be significantly altered because, duh, Kevin and Kyrie need to seize the rhythm of the game for themselves, and get a bunch of shots up.
LeVert’s going to be the player who is most radically displaced as the Nets pivot toward more ambitious goals. He knows that, and he’s probably as anxious as anybody to get down to serious work after nearly four seasons of purgatorial basketball. But for now there’s only the meantime to navigate—one last gleeful splaying of his talents before they’re kneaded into a shape that occupies the spaces his betters don’t. Maybe that is the way to make sense of this franchise player trial period LeVert is alternately enjoying and enduring: it’s a little bit wistful, a hint of what could be but definitely won’t come to pass. He’s exploring an impossible future. He can’t keep this up, but he doesn’t need to. He’s just having fun, killing time.