So far, Mikal Bridges is doing his best Kevin Durant impression and giving the Brooklyn Nets a star to build around.
It’s understandable that the Nets would slip in the standings after trading Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Their hand was forced toward a rebuild and but they were able to bring back five future first-round picks, and a pick swap, as well as a handful of what appeared to be high-end role players that could either be plugged into an attempt to remain competitive or flipped for additional assets.
The slippage has definitely occurred — the Nets are 3-6 since the deadline and have fallen to No. 6 in the Eastern Conference. But there’s a good chance they can still avoid the play-in thanks to a breakout stretch from Mikal Bridges.
Bridges has been an extremely high-level role player for the past two years, a strong finisher and spot-up shooter whose elite defense helped make him a borderline All-Star, even if he never really looked like a dominant individual scorer. But since being traded to the Nets, he is averaging 26.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, shooting 53.6 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from beyond the arc. Admittedly, we’re looking at a nine-game sample but Bridge’s looking more prepared to step into a primary scorer role than we’ve ever seen before.
In his four-and-a-half seasons in Phoenix, Bridges was always firmly a complementary player on offense. His usage rate never broke 20 percent and he was consistently assisted on more than 75 percent of his 2-point baskets and 95 percent of his 3-point baskets. When he did have an opportunity to attack and create his own shot off the dribble it was far more likely to be in transition or semi-transition, or after some other initial action that relied on the gravity of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
Mikal Bridges is taking an offensive leap with the Brooklyn Nets
In nine games with Brooklyn, Bridges has already made 30 unassisted 2-point baskets and we’re seeing much of him initiating halfcourt offense in actions that mostly just rely on his own creation ability — bringing the ball up the court himself and attacking.
Bridges’ shooting percentages with the Nets have been much higher but his usage rate has also jumped from 19.2 to 27.0 and just 49.2 percent of his 2s and 86.4 percent of his 3s have been assisted. In terms of those numbers — usage rate and assisted percentage — he’s gone from a P.J. Washington-type offensive role, to a Kyle Kuzma-type role.
You can basically run down the list of attributes you’d want to see in a primary scorer and Bridges has been demonstrating them all for the Nets. He’s averaging nearly twice as many possessions as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll with Brooklyn, and ranking in the 96th percentile in scoring efficiency. He’s driving more often, shooting more efficiently and drawing fouls on a higher percentage of his drives. He’s taking nearly twice as many pull-up jumpers and hitting them, both inside and outside of the arc, at improved rates.
Across the board, Bridges has assumed more offensive primacy and has improved his offensive efficiency in the role. It’s absurd to compare him to Kevin Durant BUT there’s something intrinsically Durant-like about plays like this, snaking the pick-and-roll and draining the free-throw line pull-up over a sagging big man.
To be clear, he did some of these things with the Suns. You saw it in flashes. But his opportunities were limited enough that it was fair to wonder whether he’d be able to do them at the same level when the offensive system relied on it more heavily, and when Paul, Ayton and Booker weren’t there to draw defensive attention.
Restocking their collection of draft picks may have been the most important part of the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving trades for the suddenly rebuilding Nets. But in Bridges, they also landed a 26-year-old who is already one of the best wing defenders in the league, a guy who didn’t miss a single game in three of the last four seasons and is under contract for three more years at just over $20 million per season, a figure that is looking like it could be an absurd value.
The Nets might have found themselves a star.
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Ranking the most competitive possible first-round series
The NBA playoff bracket is far from set but, as it currently stands, we could be in for a doozy of a first round. Here are the best possible first-round series, ranked from first to worst.
- No. 4 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 5 Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant revenge series, please.
- No. 3 Sacramento Kings vs. No. 6 Minnesota Timberwolves: This one might not have a lot of recent history or animosity behind it but watching two immensely talented, up-and-coming teams try to build a playoff legacy sounds like too much fun.
- No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 New York Knicks: This has the chance to be among the most competitive series in the first round. Plus we get the Knicks trying to show Donovan Mitchell what he could have had.
- No. 1 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks: We’d need the Mavs to come out of the play-in tournament with the No. 8 seed but Luka Doncic vs. Nikola Jokic would be incredible.
- No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Clippers: If the Clippers win out in the play-in tournament and the Grizzlies hold on to No. 2 we get two possible contenders plus a Looper-esque showdown between Russell Westbrook and Ja Morant.
- No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 7 Miami Heat: There’s just enough historic animosity here to give this one some juice, even if Boston should separate itself pretty quickly.
- No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets: I guess this would be fun for the people who really loathe Ben Simmons.
- No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks: The most entertaining possible outcome also feels the most likely — a bunch of 50-point games by Trae Young and a gentleman’s sweep for the Bucks.