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 (http://stats.nba.com/player/#!/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? (http://stats.nba.com/player/#!/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 (https://twitter.com/uuords: 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 (http://stats.nba.com/player/#!/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 (http://stats.nba.com/league/team/#!/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.
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.
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.