Billy’s Only Piece Left is the King

The 2014-2015 season for the Brooklyn Nets has been nothing short of sobering. A losing record through 22 games. 1-11 against teams over .500, the lone win in overtime against a tired San Antonio Spurs team. And while none may be fully healthy, this has come, largely, with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez on the court. Add in rumors of a “firesale,” (or, at least, loud shoppping of one or two of the three), and rumors that Mikhail Prokhorov may want to sell the team (which, while the Nets have not confirmed this, the circumstantial evidence of the Nets cutting salary and Prokhorov’s history of buying low and selling high on his holdings at least hints at) and you have a nightmare of a season at the quarter pole.

It is true that not all has gone wrong.  As bad as things are going, the east is terrible. The Nets are in the 8 spot at this moment, and could vault to 6 by late tomorrow night. They are adjusting to a new coaching regime, and did pick their play up the past 2 years when the new year came — is a third year in store?

Still, this clearly was not the vision coming into the season. What has gone wrong? More importantly, can the Nets fix it?

Deron Williams’ Resurgence is Real, but Overdramatized

The old lightning rod.  One thing about Deron cannot be argued. Say something good about him, and you will have a trail of his naysayers, after you. Say something bad? Those who believe in him, fully, will be as aggressive. The reason? The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Deron has been a better player than he was last year, or in the first half of 2012-2013. However, Deron has NOT been the player he was to close 2012-2013, or the player he was in New Jersey. And for all the spilled ink on failed Jason Kidd power plays, and Prokhorov’s sights on combinations with the Dodgers or an extrication from the NBA, and Billy King and his having traded a near roster full of NBA draft picks, this is the true issue in Net land.

The bottom line is the Nets, since 2010, made everything about dealing for a star, and surrounding him with talent to win in the present. That flagship player was Deron. Not Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez or Paul Pierce (that’s not why they brought HIM here), but Deron.

Is Deron better than last year? Yes! Is he THAT? No! And that’s the problem.

Sadly, and concerningly, there were signs of Deron getting back to that early in the season: and with all his maladies, expecting a rapid spike was unreasonable. But Deron has not built on that resurgence, having generally played worse, or at best neutrally to the early portion of the year, as the season progressed.

In today’s game, it is critical for a lead guard to be able to get to the rim. Gone are the days of Shaq, Hakeem, prime Duncan, and giants bullying through defenses. The new NBA is built on the dribble drive and three pointer.  Want open threes? You won’t get them by just passing the ball around the perimeter as the defense watches. You have to get into the teeth of the defense. Force doubleteams. Force mistakes in rotations. That’s how you turn contested threes into open ones. That’s not something Brooklyn gets enough of. Don’t you think a team with ALL this three point shooting on paper (Deron, Joe, Mirza, Bojan, etc) should rank above 19th in 3 point %.

It would, if they took good threes. But the Nets don’t get into the teeth of the defense, to force unpressured, good looks. Far too often their lead playmaker, Deron, possums around with the ball, and passes to a complementary player, puttting him in a position to create, as opposed to facilitating, and creating the easy look.

The proof is in the pudding. For Deron, a good breakdown point is the first 8 games and the last 14.  Through 8 games, the Nets looked sharp. A nice 4-2 start, and two losses in Phoenix and Golden State that, despite the blown lead in Phoenix, had many positives. Since, the team is a wreck offensively.

Deron is shooting just 43% from inside 10 feet since that point in the year (!/101114/tracking/shots/). That is down from 49% in the first 8. A Deron finishing inside 10 feet: that’s a Deron getting into the lane and making things happen. A near elite player (he was not elite, but he was positively trending).

The result? The defense has to respect his dribble drive. Defenders commit. Deron is unselfish, so the ball whips around. Guys like Teletovic, Bogdanovic, and even Johnson are the recipients, and get nice, clean looks at the basket.

Deron shooting 43% from inside the lane, with his attempts down? (!/101114/tracking/shots/?DateFrom=11%2F14%2F2014&DateTo=12%2F15%2F2014 – Deron is shooting 33% of his shots inside 10 feet since the Warriors game; he was near 38%).  Now, the defense is not being broken down. Teletovic and Bogdanovic are not open, or attacking frantic closeouts. Rather, they are going up against set defenders. Suddenly, Deron’s effectiveness wanes, even just a little, and theirs does. Guys lose confidence. Start submarining the offense going 1 on 1. Sound familiar?

The other place this effect is extremely noticeable: Deron’s hockey assists are way down from the start of the season.  Sure, the NBA does not credit secondary assists (or hockey assists: making the pass that leads to the pass) in the traditional box score, but the stat is valuable.  It tells you when a player is drawing the defense, and causing it to collapse: often that player passes it out, and the defense is able to rotate once — but not twice — the next pass is the killer.

Through 8 games, Deron averaged 3.1 hockey assists per game, per Devin Kharpertian of the Brooklyn Game ( Scroll to his tweet of 11/13). Right now? He is averaging just 1.8 on the season, with just 18 hockey assists since that point–just a touch over one per game. The difference is stark in the Nets offense. When Deron was getting into the lane more effectively, defenses collapsed. He willingly passed. It often led to open shots, either off his pass or the next. Those secondary assist opportunities are not coming, because he is not breaking defenses down with the same vigor.

Maybe it’s the ankles and he gets it back. Maybe it’s the way the roster fits. Maybe it’s a permanent loss of explosion. But the further New Jersey Deron seeps into the rearview mirror, the less likely he comes back.

Why is the decreased shot creation a problem? For starters, it’s necessary for the offense to function. Joe Johnson, struggling early in the year, really is what he is. Ride him, and he’ll sometimes get hot, sometimes shoot you out of games. He is so much better when he is the focal point in the post, or when he is the beneficiary of Deron penetration, because he is a knockdown shooter when he has space. When Deron does not create, he has to. When he has to create, things work really well when it happens out of the post, and generally go poorly otherwise. That shot creation from the post, of course, is largely absent when Brook Lopez is on the court: you can’t build two beautiful houses on the same parcel of land.  (More on that later).

Brook Lopez, for that matter, is struggling too. As with Deron he is struggling to finish inside compared to his all star year in Brooklyn (!/201572/stats/shooting/?Season=2012-13 ). Such is the nature of a foot injury. You lose explosion, and that makes it harder to elevate and thus, be in proper position to finish. You are ginger with your moves, as opposed to confident and smooth. You watch where you plant, and think instead of react.

Put the struggles together, and ironically, this is a Nets team that is struggling to score, not struggling to defend. The Nets rank 11th in the league on defense, 23rd on offense (!/advanced/?sort=DEF_RATING&dir=-1). That is a team defending well enough to win–a team playing hard for its coach–but a team struggling to put the ball in the hoop.  Through 8 games the team ranked 5th offensively, and 20th defensively. Ironically, the defense is top 10 in the league since the strong start to the year–the Nets are actually defending better than when they were 4-2. The offense? 27th since the Portland road game. Bottom 4.

Bottom line: the roster is struggling. This was not the vision. So, what do the Nets do.
Here is the painful reality that Nets fans have to face: the Nets cannot, can not, rebuild. For starters, not a single player on the roster would fetch a lottery pick in a trade. The roster is a collection of overpaid talent, and role players — there is no way the Nets will get a lottery pick in a deal. What does that mean? That the Nets, in short, cannot pick in the lottery until 2019, unless the Celtics and Nets both miss the 2017 playoffs:
In 2015, the Hawks get to swap picks with the Nets if their pick is lower. The Hawks currently pick 23rd, and are overwhelmingly likely to make the playoffs (if not pick quite that low).
In 2016 and 2018 the Nets pick goes to Boston.
In 2017, the Celtics get to swap picks with the Nets. So, if the Celtics are a playoff team, the Nets will not pick in the lottery. It is impossible to project what Boston will be by then, given they face huge decisions going forward on Rondo, but if they land a star next to Rondo, or rebuild well via draft, they could easily be a playoff team by then.
In short, the Nets have 0 lottery picks over the next 4 drafts unless Boston and Brooklyn are both in the 2017 lottery. That’s not something they can change.
So, what are the Nets options.
The Worst Option: “Blow it Up”
People love to say “blow it up,” because it’s a fun catchphrase. “I’m tired of this team.” “I can’t look at these guys.” You’ve seen it all.
Except, here’s the thing.  Arguably, being reactionary is what got Brooklyn into this mess. They justified the Boston trade off building the brand. A year after making it, and undertaking the future debt it imposed, they decided the future debt was too much, even though it was CLEAR that the trade was going to beef up the tax bill and lighten up the draft pick outlook — that’s CBA 101.
What, exactly, would dealing the core for tablescraps accomplish? As stated above, here is what would happen. The Nets would be a collection of mid to late first round picks and role players. They would not own a lottery pick for FOUR seasons. Imagine that. Four seasons of role players, no lottery picks, and likely just one top 20 pick (in 2017!).
Free agency? As you saw in 2010, free agency is not productive unless players want to play for an organization. If the Nets dump Deron Joe and Brook for whatever picks and kids they can muster (likely incredibly few picks, likely second rounders, and MAYBE a mid to late first rounder, if that), they would be in a position where free agents would not want to come onboard. Free agents want to join teams on which they believe they can be the missing piece. LeBron went to Miami to join a mediocre team the year prior, believing he could vault it to the next stage. Kevin Love wanted to join the Cleveland party. Washington was an attractive destination this summer, as was Chicago.
If the Nets go into a rebuild, they will become an organization that free agents do not want to play for, because players do not want to join a rebuild. Even worse, they will be bad, WITHOUT the lottery pick reward that comes with being bad — for four years! That makes for an absolutely horrific future.
Many seem to like this option on the idea of avoiding “sunk costs” and “cutting losses.” But launching into a 55 loss rebuild without lottery picks (!) is literally awful-a suicide mission.
Option Number 2: Tinker With the Roster
That leads to option 2. Not nuking the core for whatever youth it can fetch, but tinkering with it.
There IS logic behind such roster work. For starters, the core of the roster does have clear weaknesses.  Besides Mason Plumlee, no regular on the roster (Cory Jefferson is not there yet), has even above average speed at their position. The roster, as a whole, is slow and unathletic. Slow and unathletic does not mean bad: Paul Pierce carved 17 years of it. However, it is a problem when the entire roster has the same weakness. For all the talk of Livingston and Pierce allowing the Nets to go small in ways they may not be able this year (another concern), one reason going small helped was because the roster was so slow, so low to the ground, that it gave the team at least something of a jolt of speed. When you watch games around the league, you simply see the type of athletic plays you don’t get in Brooklyn.
Making a trade could be advantageous.  Stability is important, and trading all 3 of the big 3 seems wild and rash.
Trading one or two? Maybe the Nets can turn Lopez into a wing (Lance Stephenson?), which would force them to reinvent into last year’s smallball identity.  For all the dislike for its lack of rebounding, the unit did so many things so well, that it made up for struggling at one thing. Maybe they deal Joe for a quicker wing, or for a power forward that can jump off the ground and provide a jolt to the frontline.
The disadvantage? History shows that when you trade bad contracts, all you can get back are other bad contracts.  The Nets would not be looking to deal their key players, were they achieving. In turn, they will not get frontline players back who … are achieving. They will get another team’s overpaid, underachieving talent.
In that regard, the hot name in the Twitterverse has been Lance Stephenson.  The Hornets are 6-18. They cannot wait to dump Stephenson, who was the key addition to a 43-39 team that has tanked on his arrival. Is he really going to help Brooklyn? Maybe.
Which comes to the other point. Some murmurs out there seem to indicate a willingness to ship Joe and Brook to Charlotte. That would require the Nets assuming $40 million of Charlotte’s $56.5 million in payroll (after deducting Tyrus Thomas’ amnestied contract), when they have already committed to Jefferson and Walker. (and if Lopez is not the answer, is Jefferson–another back to the basket big–the answer?). Maybe acquiring 70% of a 6-18 team’s payroll, when the other 30% is what includes its two core players, is not the recipe for success for the Nets.
That highlights the key issue, however.  It is easy to say “make some deals.” But, look around the league. Who would deal for any of the Nets big 3. If they would deal, would they make a deal the Nets would actually want to do? That requires considering what those teams need and want, too. And usually, what teams don’t want, is bad contracts.
After all, that’s why they’re on the block, right?
Finally, the other key here is the Nets are essentially doomed to their current talent level, more or less, until their cap space wad opens in 2016.  Any trade that cuts into that, and puts the Nets out of serious 2016 play, only stalls further their current struggles.
Option 3: The Interesting One — Fastforwarding the 2016 Window to 2015
Hat tip to @NotEvenTryingS on Twitter for this one. Everyone knows the idea of the 2016 free agency fireworks show. What about a 2015 window?
The cap in 2015-2016 is set for $66.5 million.  The Nets are currently at approximately $76,786,017 for that season: add $845,059 to that if they pickup Cory Jefferson’s team option
Basically, the Nets would have to trim approximately $31 million off next year’s payroll to make this plan work.  That cannot happen unless the Nets jettison either 2 of their big 3 member for expiring contracts, or jettison one, but also jettison nearly the entirety of the rest of their roster for expiring deals — the big 3 account for about 62 of the 77 million alone.
That is easier said than done. And even 31 million in savings is only enough for one max guy. Is any team going to want to put any of these Nets deals on the books at the expense of free agency. Would they do it without requiring the Nets to attach a pick? Seems unlikely, and the Nets cannot afford to go into further pick debt. Or, the Nets would have to surrender someone like Bojan, for nothing in return.  It’s one thing to turn 2 big 3 member into a different overpaid piece, hoping that piece fits better. To deal one for nothing in return, likely having to send value back, in the hope that they sign a piece in 2015, is fraught with risk. It could result in the Nets not replacing the production in 2015, which would be damaging: the team cannot rebuild, and must win as much as possible to sell free agents on Brooklyn.

As an aside, some have said the cap space plan is not a good one. And normally, it isn’t. But here is the thing? What can the Nets do that is better? Launch a rebuild without lottery picks? Rely on the trade market when they are one of the lowest asset pool teams in the league, and even if they deal much of their core for assets, STILL would be asset because the player value is low?
The best option they have is to hope to sell free agents on Brooklyn, the building, and the roster generally in place. That’s not a great plan, but at least it has a chance — a chance, even a low one, beats a prayer—rebuilding through picks in the 20s or trying to deal for stars without assets is a prayer.
In that regard, the Nets best chance at scoring on the market is winning games in the present. The more they win, the more likely free agents are to see the program as something to join in the beliefs they can be the missing ingredient. That is the Nets best future play: win as much as possible to sell new talent on the place.
A good plan? Maybe not. But when you deal all these picks and kids for a roster that lacks an elite player, there are no good plans. Only less bad ones.

The Final Option: Just Do Nothing!
For all the talk of trades, the smartest choice may very well be sticking with the current group. Early in the season, you see multiple rosters (while, yes, talented) benefitting from returning a similar core group from last year, which has allowed them to build off last year. The Raptors, Hawks, Wizards, Spurs, Blazers, Rockets, Grizzlies, and Warriors quickly come to mind, and they’re not alone.
Will a trade really help? Bringing in Lance Stephenson? Greg Monroe, another low post big who struggles to guard? George Hill for an offense that can’t put points up? Kenneth Faried, whom the Nuggets will charge picks for, and whom, for all his hustle, can’t defend or shoot? Josh Smith, a pariah in league circles?
The old saying goes, it always looks better on someone else’s plate — much of what’s available has that feel to it.
At the same time, the “keep the band together” option is also rife with issues. The Nets have very clear personnel issues. Johnson loves the post, and Lopez loves the post: so Lopez forces Johnson to the perimeter, where he does not get to handle the ball next to Williams. All three players are slow, and that leads to issues beating teams off the dribble.

Maybe it all sounds like doomsday. And it’s easy to read this and think, “man, all of the options suck.”  And that’s the problem: they all, in a way, do. When you have no flexibility, and you’re backed into a corner, there is not much you can do to get out without making it worse.

It’s the end of the game of chess, and Billy has nothing left but his King. So he’ll move once left, once right ……..
Until the inevitable. #Checkmate
slow start concerns

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