Today is the one-month anniversary of the NBA trade deadline that put the league in a blender. While the Phoenix Suns seem content with their half of the trade that netted them Kevin Durant, the Brooklyn Nets have quietly been winners in their own way. In addition to the first-round picks Phoenix surrendered, giving up Mikal Bridges was the cost of doing business.
A year ago, Bridges was the NBA’s runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting to Celtics guard Marcus Smart. His perimeter containment of every opponent’s top perimeter player was instrumental in Phoenix obtaining a top-3 defensive rating.
However, he was pigeonholed as a 3-and-D swingman. Every year a player gets pushed out of town to make way for a bigger NBA constellation and either continues carving out a role for themselves as a niche player, gets exposed with more responsibility under their belt, or runs with their franchise player audition and never looks back. Before the 2022 trade deadline, Tyrese Haliburton responded to being traded to Indiana by transmuting himself from a role player in Sacramento to an All-Star playmaker. A decade ago, James Harden exploded from Sixth Man of the Year to avant-garde offensive generator. Mikal Bridges has made a leap that’s somewhere between those two and drastically altered his career trajectory in the meantime.
Bridges coming into his own
This season, Bridges has assumed a similar mantle as the trade deadline piece who’s proven themselves the most in new surroundings. Since he first suited up for Brooklyn on Feb. 11, Bridges has become the Nets’ diamond in the rough averaging 26.5 points on 53 percent shooting from the field, 3.3 assists, and 5.3 boards.
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With the confidence in Bridges swelling at hyper-speed, the Nets have moved on from the Kyrie and Durant saga with few regrets. In retrospect, they would have been better off shedding both earlier this summer and entering the Wembanyama race their two stars were preoccupied with sending resumes out. However, Bridges is a first-class consolation prize.
Becoming the fulcrum of the Nets’ offense has enabled him to stretch beyond his worker bee duties, playing lockdown defense, draining corner threes off of kick-outs, or occasionally slashing down the baseline when his defender overcommitted. In Brooklyn, he’s become the elite two-way player we saw glimpses of when he was the captain of his upside as the focal point of Jay Wright’s National Championship Villanova squads.
In Brooklyn, his usage rate has increased from the 19.7 rate career-high he accumulated over 56 games in Phoenix to 26, which he accumulated over the last month in Brooklyn. That usage rate would rank among the league’s top 10 if it were extrapolated over the course of an entire season. Bridges has also squeezed into the profile of an elite three-dimensional scorer by getting to the line twice as often since he was jettisoned to Brooklyn and by averaging 50/40/90 in a Nets uniform. He’s even shown the capacity to take all-universe defenders like Giannis off the dribble.
Not only has Bridges kept up his proficiency behind the arc, but he’s ramped up his activity on mid-range attempts while maintaining the efficiency of a top-10 mid-range scorer. Bridges has increased both his volume and accuracy on pull-up jumpers, even as Jacque Vaughn has questioned the shot selection.
“What we do want is for him to continue to get to the rim and shoot threes for us,” Vaughn said after Brooklyn’s win over Houston on Tuesday. “I’m learning more about him, what shots he likes to get to. If they’re going in we love them, but we do wanna have a profile of really getting to the rim and shooting threes and putting pressure on the defense that way also.”
But don’t expect him to cut that out of his game anytime soon. As long as he’s a threat from outside, the midrange game will be a valuable tool in his arsenal when defenders play drop coverages to take away his strengths.
In the long run, Bridges’ emergence has made it possible for Brooklyn to hit the ground running on their rebuild. Because they possess a bevy of first-round picks that belong to the Jazz, Suns, 76ers, and Mavericks and play in a large market that can at least grab the ear of prospective free agents, the incentive to gut the roster isn’t as strong as it would be in Oklahoma City. The Nets obviously won’t be in contention until a more potent cavalry arrives, but Bridges has made them a team worth watching on the peripherals.
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