With trade rumors in the Brooklyn air, nearly every game seems to be a referendum on the Nets. Tonight’s 102-96 victory over the Denver Nuggets? It felt like a referendum, in many ways. Here are some of the takeaways.
First: DON’T GET CARRIED AWAY
Naturally, it is easy for a fan to feel that their team is atop the world when they win, and to feel like the world shattered and the team should trade everyone when they lose. Almost always, the reality is someplace inbetween.
The Nets beat a 12-17 Denver Nuggets team, on the second night of a back to back. For all the good feelings, the Nets have generally beaten sub .500 teams throughout the season, so in a sense, tonight was no different.
Does tonight feel good for Brooklyn? It’s good to win, and the Nets did win shorthanded (Deron Williams was out, and at 8 minutes, Brook Lopez may as well have been).
The takeaway? That sentence.
SECOND: PERHAPS TONIGHT IS MORE EVIDENCE THAT THE ROSTER DOES NOT FIT
It sounds too obvious to even write, but is incredibly relevant. An NBA basketball team should play worse when its best two players (or two cornerstones, however you view it) are not healthy. The Thunder cratered early this season with Durant and Westbrook shelved, and sorely missed Ibaka when he was injured. The Spurs fell to the 8th seeded Grizzlies in 2011 as Manu Ginobili played through an arm fracture. Obviously, when the Cavaliers lost LeBron James, they cratered. The Heat have struggled in a distinct way when Bosh has hit the shelf this year.
With the Nets, however, something weird happens: when their top players go down, they are no worse for the wear. Sure it was two years ago, but in two games with Deron out before the allstar break, the Nets beat the Nuggets (57-25 that year) and Pacers in back to back games that were among their best wins of the season. Last year, of course, the team surged without Brook Lopez on the court.
Right now? I would not go as far as to say this 2 game streak is the Nets best stretch of the season. When you put too much stock in wins against bad teams, that can be fool’s gold.
But one sustained trend has come about: the Nets, when facing injuries to their key pieces, playing “shorthanded,” are no worse for the wear. You could certainly argue the Nets were no better these past two games than they have been all year. But were they any worse? And in some ways, they were better. Barclays Center has rarely been as alive as it was tonight. The Nets surged when things looked bad in the fourth, a rarely seen occurrence for this roster. And the ball moved freely around the floor.
Do not be fooled by W’s against bad teams. But it may be worth taking stock in that fact that many of Joe Johnson’s best statistical games, and most comfortable looking moments, have largely come without either player on the floor. Deron loves to hold the ball, pound it for most of the shot clock, and hope everyone plays off of that. That leads to Joe standing in a corner. He dislikes turning into a catch and shoot guy, which is essentially what that makes him. So when he gets the ball, he then likes to slow it down again, after Deron had it moving. It’s made for a questionable mix for parts of three seasons now, and that Joe looks better without him is telling.
For that matter, the team seems to play harder when Deron is on the shelf, and Joe is pilot, than the reverse.
Joe and Brook? Same problems. Joe loves to get himself into the lane, and use the block to his advantage. Brook? … he likes to do the same thing. In parts of three seasons there have been chemistry struggles on that end of things.
Did the Nets go 49-33 two years ago? Yes! But there’s a catch. Deron had a great second half of the year, Joe settled in at times, and Brook had his best individual season … and even then, the Nets went 31-5 against sub .500 teams: which means 18-28 against better opposition. Translation? The Nets talent feasted on bad teams (three players of that caliber with the depth–that Deron and this Deron just aren’t the same guy, and the Nets finished the year 19-9, so the team was not that good until he picked it up), but struggled with good ones.
That the Nets are performing, at least, as well as they did all year healthy, while shorthanded, is yet another window into this issue.
As I have said, ad nauseum, the Nets goal is to compete for playoff berths this and next year, and position themselves (cap wise AND roster attraction wise) for a chance at a 2016 reset. Any deal that worsens the Nets in those objectives, is a deal the Nets should not do. There is never a situation where a team has to make a deal, or has to trade a player. No player, no matter how badly one wishes his departure, should be traded in a hurtful deal, under any circumstances.
However, the Nets should be extremely aggressive in exploring the market, and seeing what it may yield for Deron and Brook: teams would like to have them, but won’t exactly blow the doors down. The Nets should search under every nook, cranny, and crevice: is there a deal involving one or both of those players that improves the situation? If there is, do it. But if there isn’t, do not overreact and continue along with the current roster.
THIRD: MORE EVIDENCE THAT THE NETS ARE BETTER SMALL
The NBA, simply, is a smaller league than ever in its history. There are less bruising back to the basket bigs. Attacks, once based on bigs who post, are now based on the dribble drive and pick and roll. Elite guard play, quickness, athleticism, and the ability to guard quick ball handlers in space is absolutely essential to success.
The Nets finishing lineup tonight? Jack, Anderson, Johnson, Karasev, Plumlee.
Again, the result tonight is not something that breeds a takeaway. The Nets playing better when they went small? That’s a sustained trend in Brooklyn. Forced into the unit last year with Lopez’s injury, the Nets went 34-13 over 47 games to solidify the east’s 5 seed. The reasons for it: the lack of team speed. The largest roster flaw in Brooklyn is the shocking lack of speed and athleticism. The Nets get beat to the ball on the boards often because the opponent jumps higher. They struggle containing or creating dribble penetration.
When they go small, they mitigate some of that damage. By virtue of playing a smaller lineup, they put a faster unit on the floor, and are able to better negotiate those issues, by default. The benefits go beyond that. With 2 traditional bigs, the Nets lack floor space. Playing one big with four smalls spaces the floor. Suddenly, Joe Johnson penetrates into a free and clear paint, where without overloaded help (due to no fear of shooting), he can actually do something. 3’s are hit.
And while the myth goes that going small will kill you defensively, or on the glass, that does not hold water. The key to defense? Containing dribble penetration. Easier when you go small.
Rebounds? The largest misconception of a lack of team rebounding is that it is due to the individual rebounders on the floor, but studies have shown that inserting a better rebounder does not typically improve team rebounding. Often, a lack of rebounding comes from poor defensive rotations. The sequence? A defense spreads out struggling to contain an offense. Rotations are out of whack. Players are not near their man. Then, the shot goes up. The problem? You’re not near your man. The result? A lot of offensive rebounds. A problem better containment defensively can cure partially.
Often, you hear people talk too rigidly about the NBA in terms of positions, but at the end of the day, all positions are are spots named for the 5 players on the court when basketball was invented, to distinguish people. They are not sacrosanct. At the end of the day, all you need in basketball (again, obviously) are 5 players who can dribble, pass, shoot, score, defend, and rebound. The Nets do those things best small tonight.
What were the positions late? Joe as the 4 when he was playing offense on the perimeter? Karasev as the nominal 4 as a 3 point shooter? How about, it doesn’t matter. The Nets played the type of unit that has been best for them in Brooklyn, and won the game.
All of the evidence shows the Nets play better small. Their best units in Brooklyn have been 1 big 4 out lineups, usually featuring one of Mason or KG, with 4 smalls. Tonight was a continuation of that trend.
Lionel Hollins repeatedly views going small as a plan B or C. He likes to start games big, go with different bigs when things don’t work, and if things continue to slide, then goes small in the hopes of a spark. Usually, that’s when he gets his spark. It’s time to make going small a plan A.