A 2-5 Start: So What’s Wrong

Needless to say, a 2-5 start is not what any Net fan envisioned this year. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Andrei Kirilenko have come to play our weakest positions. Gone is Avery Johnson’s isolation regime, replaced with Jason Kidd and an all star staff of assistants. And with four starters back from last year (including our top three players), we did not lose much from what was a 49-33 group.

So, why the bad start? Some had this team winning 55-65 games. The team’s mantra is “all in.” On paper, the worst starter on the roster was the best player on a playoff team just 19 months ago (Joe Johnson). A 2-5 start?  Here are some of the reasons, and some of my views on how concerning these issues are. How far the Nets go this year depends on how many of these issues they resolve as the season wears on.

I. The Nets are ranked 26th in Offensive Efficiency

Despite an all star starting five and deep bench, the Nets are currently one of the league’s bottom five offenses. The primary reason: the star talent has not yet learned how to play together, and it is showing. Last year, the Nets ran their offense through Deron and Brook, with Johnson serving as a complementary part who had his chance to shine when he played with the second unit. When the Nets went to the bench they ran some offense through Blatche. The rest of the roster was made up of role players: designed to hit spotup shots off the creation of Williams and Lopez (Bogans), offensive rebound (Evans), or perform other defined tasks.  Those players fit next to Deron and Brook, like the pieces of a puzzle. Players who were accustomed to dominating the ball dominated it, while players accustomed to filling roles off the ball played those roles as they always have.

Except, with this year’s roster, that cannot happen. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have grown accustomed to dominating the ball in the way Deron, Brook, and to an extent Joe have with the Nets. They are in no way used to functioning off the ball, and have struggled as a result of being placed into a new role with the Nets. The pieces are far more talented than last year: but the puzzle is not a natural fit. Integrating pieces of their stature, and revamping your system from the year prior (the Nets are moving the ball more this year, playing with more motion), is a difficult process for that very reason. It’s not like the Clippers adding JJ Redick, a player who thrives as a catch and shoot guard, whose role fits right next to Chris Paul when he generates attention in the lane. It’s taking five players, all of whom have been the principle go to player on different rosters, and asking them to unite those talents, and complement one another instead of finding role players that complement them specifically.

The 2010-2011 Heat serve as a great example of what is happening with the Nets at the moment. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh were each the best player on their respective teams before they joined in Miami. Each team featured role players around them, whose skills were tailored to theirs. Then, when they joined, their new roster did not fit together in the same way. LeBron and Wade were used to always playing on the ball and struggled when one had the ball, and the other played off them. LeBron had floor spacers in Cleveland, but in Miami he had Bosh taking up space in the lane he would normally use.

But, here is the thing. In the NBA, talent figures it out. NBA players can learn how to play together. The Miami big 3 learned how to play together, how to unite their skills into a single confluence of offensive motion. The big 3 has done far more together, than alone, as a result. Natural fits may come together quicker, but when talent learns HOW to function as a unit, look out.

How can this group function together: for one, there has been overpassing just like there was in Miami in 2010. The Nets big name pieces, as I’ve said, have grown accustomed to dominating the ball, to being the main guy offensively. Players of that stature are used to getting their touches. Deron knows that Pierce is used to getting the ball, Pierce that Garnett is used to it. And that respect for each other has led to overpassing, guys being too unselfish as they worry about stepping on one another’s toes. Often it seems that Garnett will have an open jumper, but look to pass it to Johnson. Or Pierce has an opening, then passes to Deron, or any other combination. The problem? In the NBA, your goal is to break a defense down, and once you succeed at breaking it down, you need to take the shot you get. Pass out of that, and NBA defenses: even the worst ones, will recover. That has continually happened to the Nets.

These types of issues did not arise last year, again because roles were so natural. Deron was not worried about making sure Bogans for example got his touches. He was simply his catch and shoot outlet: if I have a driving lane I’m taking it, and if not he’ll get my kickout pass. It may feel unnatural to treat bigger names that way, but he and his fellow starters must begin doing that.

Until then, the Nets offense will look stilted, unnatural, like five individuals trying to score without help. Only when roles are defined, when Deron and Brook run the offense, and Pierce, Johnson, and Garnett play off their abilities, will the offense truly thrive.

Concern Level: Moderate

II. The Defense Is Ranked 15th, and Has Been Average

After a training camp focused primarily on defense, the Nets have been at best pedestrian defensively. Defending for 20 seconds before committing a foul, or allowing an offensive player to find an opening at the last second, has become all too common. With low team speed, teams have been beating us off the dribble. Brook Lopez has defended the hoop admirably but will never be a DPOY candidate due to his foot speed: yet he’s been our best defender thus far.

The defense actually concerns me more than the offense: my concern level is high. I expect the offense to come around, as our new pieces grow used to one another and transition into what will be new rules for all of them. But the defense? Kirilenko has been hurt all year, and Garnett does not look like himself: those are the only two pieces with the potential of providing elite defense. Johnson and Pierce are decent defenders on the wing but not stoppers. Deron’s defense was never great, and it has slipped as much as his offense has with his gimpy ankle. With that type of perimeter defense in place, Brook Lopez needs to be Dwight Howard circa 2010 for the Nets to field a top 10 defense: he has steadily improved his defense and deserves tremendous credit for that, but will likely never reach that peak defensively.

The Nets need at least one of a healthy Kirilenko and adjusted Garnett. And they need that guy on defense, fast.

Concern Level: High

III. Deron Williams is Not Healthy, and it Shows in His Play

It has become obvious that Deron is not himself. Utah comparisons aside, Deron has the ability within him to be that guy as a Net. He was that guy right after the deal. In 2011-2012, he had the ability and health to be that guy, but hie shamefully was lazy defensively, and moped through what was unavoidably a lost year. Last year after the all star break, he was incredible. He received PRP therapy over the break, dropped some weight, and the difference in his results was tremendous.

Deron this year? 11 and 7.4 on 41.7% shooting, with a PER of 13.77 (under league average) is unacceptable, especially when it comes with below average defense. Deron is clearly not himself. He makes an effort to get in the lane, and cannot. He appears to be close to busting into the lane to make a play, and chooses to pass up makeable looks. He’s turning the ball over. His moves off the dribble are not as quick as they are when he’s healthy.

I’ll say this in Deron’s defense: he does look lighter than he was last year during his first half struggles: you can see the difference in his face. But his ankle is very evidently bothering him: per Stefan Bondy he was seen limping in the locker room after the loss in Sacramento, and he does not look right on the court.

The problem: for the Nets to reach their full potential, they need Deron at 100%. Brook can command attention inside, but with Pierce, Garnett, and Johnson loafing around the perimeter, offenses are able to remove Brook from the picture with hard double teams. There is no worry that those three will torch a defense, and the Nets need Deron to open up their offense by attacking. If he’s healthy, much of what ails this team would go away. He’d probe and attack the lane, opening both shot opportunities and driving lanes for his star teammates. Lopez would find himself with more openings inside: and he is lethal when he’s not schemed against as heavily as he was against the Kings last night.

My concern level is high. Deron has not established, to date, that he is ready, whether it is mental or physical, to lead the Nets where they hope to go. He surely has the talent, and has done enough as a player both in Utah and New Jersey/Brooklyn that I will continue to believe in him. But he has not justified that belief this season. We can discuss the Nets’ struggles offensively until we are blue in the face: for this roster to reach its full potential, Deron needs to be Deron. And for the moment, he’s nothing more a below average defender and guy who does not get to the rim, with a good jumper. Will he show more than that in 2013-2014. He can, but I sure hope so.

IV. Andray Blatche’s Struggles, and the Bigs

Coming into the season, a major strength appeared to be the Nets bigs. Lopez and Garnett makes for an elite tandem on paper. Blatche was great last year. Teletovic was believed to be getting a chance from the coaching staff to show off his skills, being more comfortable in year 2. Add Evans as an elite rebounder and first rounder Mason Plumlee and the team’s size has been seen as a strength: the Nets have been presumed to possess the type of front line that can bother Miami in the playoffs.

Lopez has played his part. Plumlee has worked as hard as he can to provide positive energy: and given the talent around him cannot be reasonably expected to provide more. Evans is what he is: his rebounding and pick and roll defense are strengths, while he’s limited besides those skills. However, Garnett is struggling (as is the starting lineup). Teletovic has not seemed to figure out how to play at this level and Kidd thinks little of him: his production may be a pipe dream.

Then there’s Blatche. Sporting a 21.98 PER last year, Blatche was a sensational bench piece. He dominated opposing bench bigs. The reason? Blatche is excellent when he gets good post position, faces up, and attacks bigs off the dribble. When in shape, he gets to the rim and is a great finisher. When double teamed, he is a good and willing passer (albeit with some tunnel vision). Last year’s staff deserved some of the criticism it received – including criticism from myself – but one thing it did was essentially force Blatche to play that style, exclusively. Don’t take long 2’s, don’t float around the perimeter. Blatche’s game is unorthodox: effective when channeled, a disaster when given free reign. Right now, his turnover rate of 23 (way above last year’s 12.6) and abysmal PER of 5.58 leaves more than a lot to be desired.

Given the natural limitations facing Evans, Plumlee’s lack of polish, and Teletovic’s continued struggles, the Nets need Blatche to be productive to carve together a legitimate rotation of bigs. Part of the problem is that I believe Jason Kidd has afforded him too much free reign in letting him venture onto the perimeter. That works with some players, but Blatche has the type of game that needs to be kept in check, constantly focused. He had a singular focus last year in his venture to save his career. But thus far he does not have that focus, and the onus is on our staff to instill it, and get Blatche back to being his 2012-2013 self.

My Concern Level: High. This looks too much like Washington’s Blatche for comfort

V. Final Thoughts

While the Nets are 2-5, I am confident they won’t finish 24-58 as the record would portend. At some point, the offense is going to look better: there’s too much talent to finish 26th. I’d like to believe Deron and the defense will also begin to come around.

However, “looking better,” and competing for a championship are two different things, and while I believe the Nets can contend, certain things will need to change for the Nets to reach that level.

Maybe the Nets should tinker with some different lineup combinations. Will going small with Pierce at the 4 give him greater ability to take guys off the dribble and provide him comfort? Will Garnett thrive with some minutes at the 5 that he has not seen much of? What about playing Terry with the starters? That removes one all star from the crowded group in Joe and places Terry with Garnett and Pierce, his teammates of one year. Maybe the pace is too fast. This year’s Nets rank 16th in pace, well ahead of last year’s 28th. And with one of the oldest rosters in the league, is playing at a quicker pace a good idea? Slowing the pace would ensure that the Nets come down, run their sets, and get quality shots, without the game becoming a frenzy against quicker athletes.

The Nets clearly have several issues … right now. But it’s not time to panic, because there’s plenty of time, and stars typically figure it out over time, as they adjust. Sure, the Lakers were a flop last year, and the Nets have drawn some comparisons to them. But the Lakers dealt with a ton of injuries to Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard was never healthy, and Kobe got hurt before the playoffs: the Nets will not be starting Andrew Goudelock in the playoffs. The Nets also have a bench, unlike those Lakers.

But for now, the reality is that the Nets are 2-5. Getting past this slow start? That will require better defense, Deron to get healthy, and everyone to get used to playing together. The wait is tough. But Nets fans have no choice other than to do just that.

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