The Playoff Push, Lopez and Reggie Jackson, and Going Small

With the trade deadline having come and gone, the Nets stood at 21-31 (now 22-31, opening their post break schedule with a road win over the Lakers), and in the thick of the race for the 7-8th seeds in the East.  A look at the standings reveals, simply, that the top 6 teams in the east are largely solidified, the bottom 3 are out, and that leaves the Heat, Nets, Hornets, Pistons, Pacers, and Celtics (in current standings order), competing for the final two seeds in the playoff picture.

Taking the longer view, that means that if the Nets make the playoffs, they are looking at the Hawks or Raptors, unless a team in the 3-6 seed range (most likely the Cavs, if you had to speculate) leap frogs the Hawks (seems unlikely given their 8.5 game lead), or Raptors (whose lead is just 2.5 games).

With that, here is where things stand for Brooklyn as they march on with their year.

The Playoff Race: 

To make the playoffs, the Nets, flat out, must play better basketball than they have all year.  While they currently reside in the 8th spot, just 2 games separate the 7-12 seeds in the east. The Nets rank bottom 10 in the league in offensive and defensive rating, with a worse rating than each team in the 7-12 seed region.  The Nets also have an expected record of 18-35 given their struggles this season, and have outperformed that expectation at 22-31: the current record may be a mirage in a bad way.  They also have the toughest schedule of the 6 teams in the race for 7-8.  Paul George may return for Indiana.  Boston and Detroit added Isaiah Thomas and Reggie Jackson.  Even Charlotte added Mo Williams, and while Chris Bosh’s medical condition is an extremely sad story not to be wished on anybody, the Heat did add Goran Dragic to their mix.

Can the Nets make the playoffs? Absolutely.  But that is not a guarantee.

Back to Going Small? 

Recently, Steve Kerr sat down with nba.com to talk about his incredible Warriors team.  And while most (including myself) see Andrew Bogut as the key to their defense, this was was Kerr had to say about his defense: its key is Draymond Green because of his ability to guard multiple positions:

“One of the keys to our defense is our ability to switch on the perimeter. We have a lot of like-sized guys. And Draymond [Green], to me, is the key to our defense. He’s the key figure, because as the power forward, he’s frequently involved in screen-and-rolls. And because he’s quick enough and active enough to switch out onto a point guard, we’re able to stifle a lot of the first options out of the opponent’s attacks. And when that happens and the shot clock starts to wind down, we’re able to stay in front of people and force a tough shot.”

Playing multiple players of similar sizes? Taking advantage of that, by switching to handle pick and rolls, as opposed to losing a split second trailing the pick? Sound familiar? That sounds like last year’s Nets, who were not as good as these Warriors, but, in going on a 34-13 run to surge to the 5 seed, was clearly better than this year’s group.

 Many traditionalists love to say you cannot win small, and you cannot win shooting threes, but that ignores all recent evidence.  The Spurs just marched through the league built around a dribble drive kick and 3 point shooting style.  The Heat have played small to accomplish what they have the past several years.  The Warriors and Hawks are small and shoot the 3 now (Horford and Millsap both are undersized).  I can go on, but the point is made.

There are less back to the basket bigs today, and more talented guards who knife through your defense with the pick and roll. Like any sport, the most important skills to have are the skills the sport’s greatest players have, and the ability to defend against the use of those skills.  That makes shooting the 3, attacking the rim off the dribble to create looks, and defenders that can stop those skills, the league’s most important skills.

Such is true of any sport.  It was easier to get away with subpar passing QB’s in the NFL when offenses were built around the run.  That changed in today’s passing based NFL.  What else happened?  Run stopping interior linemen were more important than pass rushers and elite corners but that importance flipped: when the pass was emphasized value in stopping it grew.  In tennis, when players used to serve and volley, the volley was a more valuable skill: with everyone rallying at the baseline, baseline play became more important.

Can you win by going big and just pummeling teams with that size?  Sure, but if your bigs are not so good, to the point that they can just abuse teams for the choice of going small, and do so continuously, your strategy will be blunted by teams exploiting you with the dribble drive.  Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are indeed that.

Mason Plumlee and Brook Lopez?  Even if your view of both is as rosy as can be, they are not quite that.  The Nets have a -17.2 net rating in 298 minutes where Lopez and Plumlee share the floor.  That is awful, and at over 6 full games worth of minutes, there is a large enough sample to judge it.  The reasons are obvious.  Offensively, a center who likes to post up or score on flip shots in the lane when fed by guards needs space inside, not a cramped lane.  A dive roll man off the pick and roll needs the same thing.  Brook and Plumlee take that away from one another.  Either one has to float to the perimeter, where teams would happily let them shoot, or both clog the paint, and with the ability for 1 player to essentially guard both guys, the offense is cramped, with no openings for the smalls to attack.

Defensively? Brook cannot guard 4’s, exclusive of the league’s biggest ones.  Mason also struggles some with guarding 4’s.  That makes it tough to switch the pick and roll, and makes it easier for quick guards (which the league is full of) to exploit the Nets. And for all the talk that going small kills rebounding, the go big Nets are a bottom 8 team on the glass.

The bottom line: the Nets need to separate Lopez and Plumlee’s time.  And with the addition of Thaddeus Young, a good pick and roll defender who can toggle between positions defensively, the Nets should go back to the smallball approach that helped them last year.

The rotations really should be simple.  Karasev, Morris, and Jordan are out of it, and Mirza Teletovic of course is injured.  Play Brook and Mason, and Deron and Jarrett Jack (who’ve failed to play well together), separately, with one of the two but not both on court at most all times). Play three of of Johnson, Bogdanovic, Young, and Anderson at teams at the same time, with Markel Brown and Cory Jefferson soaking up spot minutes from those four players, and in Brown’s case, some of Deron and Jack’s.  Johnson and Young, and Anderson, can switch relatively easily on defense.  Jefferson has the body to do so.  Bogdanovic may struggle, but if he shoots the ball like he did in LA, that will be ok.

And for all the talk of it killing the Nets on the glass, it did not against LA, did not last year, and the Nets have not been rebounding anyway.

Is that a championship roster?  Most certainly not.  But it’s a group that can make the postseason.

Some Other Notes

JOE JOHNSON SPRY IN GAME 1: Joe Johnson looked awful to close 2012-2013 and we found out why: he was plagued by tendinitis.  He was excellent to close 2013-2014, carrying the Nets past the Raptors in round 1, his body not burdened by pain.  Of late, Joe has struggled for Brooklyn, and it was finally revealed that he was again plagued by tendinitis.  However, he looked very good in his first game back from the break: the 10 days off work helped his body.  Tendinitis results from overuse, and rest is a helpful remedy: if Joe can continue playing the way he did Friday, that will bode well for Brooklyn.  Not being plagued by tendinitis would help.

DERON WILLIAMS SPRY IN GAME 1: 

Whatever the news or spin out there, it’s critical for the Nets that Deron consistently attack and create as he did against the Lakers Friday, with some 20 point type scoring efforts added to the mix.  For all the adoration Jack has received, he is a bottom rung starter at best in such a deep league at point guard: he just gets credit because he’s compared to a man making nearly quadruple what he is.

The Nets offense hummed Friday because Deron broke the Lakers down and found everyone for baskets.  The Lakers are 23rd in defensive rating, and are awful: this is not a huge accomplishment, by any means.  But the Nets have a long way to go to climb to where they need to be to make the playoffs, and at least have a puncher’s chance of causing their opponent some concern: this was one step.

As I have said many times the Nets have shown many times that they can take one step forward, maybe even 2.  They’ve had some nice wins this season, like Friday’s.  It’s taking steps 3, 4, 5, and beyond where the Nets have repeatedly failed.  If they want to succeed that will need to change.

Nobody on the roster can create looks for teammates the way Deron did Friday.  He got his own shot.  He got his teammates good shots.  Guys like Bogdanovic and Anderson benefitted from getting better shots, rather than being forced to do it themselves.  Joe was a huge beneficiary as well: Deron assisted on numerous Joe hoops.  Deron played  Friday the way he played to start the season: he did start the year well over it’s first 8 or so games and the Nets sported a  top 10 offense in mid November because of it.

I will say this.  There is every reason in the world to doubt Deron Williams. I doubt him. You should too.  But the Nets need him: the reason they are in such bad shape is because of that need.  Can he build on Friday, or was this a one game situation?  I’m leaning towards the latter, but at least hold out hope on the former, if only because I want it to happen.

THE BROOK LOPEZ REGGIE JACKSON FIASCO: BROOKLYN’S FAULT

I will talk more about the Lopez-Plumlee dynamic (and the pros and cons of the Nets trading either) in a later piece.  Regardless, on deadline day, the Nets seemingly had a deal lined up for Reggie Jackson, before the Thunder switched gears and chose to deal Jackson to Detroit.  The timeline of deadline day, per Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojyahoonba, aka Woj).

10:25am: @wojyahoonba Sources: Brooklyn, OKC could have traction on Brook Lopez talks again — if Nets believe they can convince Reggie Jackson to sign extension.

1:15pm: @wojyahoonba Yahoo’s latest on Oklahoma City and Brooklyn push to complete trade.

From there, the Nets, without time to line another deal up, failed to deal Lopez.

As I said many times pre deadline, the Nets should never deal a player at a loss just to say they did, but should deal anyone at a gain.  It is clear Plumlee and Lopez cannot play together: Hollins deviating from that unit and the Nets getting this close on a Brook deal tells me the Nets are aware of this.

What bothers me: this idea that some have propagated, that the Nets believe they got screwed by OKC at the deadline: that is off base.

You can make many arguments as to the happenings of the trade deadline as they relate to Lopez.  You can argue the Nets dodged a bullet, because Jackson is likely, at best, a mid to low tier starter set to command $13-$15 million per year.  You can argue the Nets, in only being prudent if they dealt Lopez in a smart deal, would not have found another deal if they looked for one.  You can argue, even, that the Nets should build around Lopez instead of Plumlee going forward.  Each position is open to counters, but can be argued reasonably.

To say the Nets got screwed because it was OKC’s fault they could not find a backup deal? That is ridiculous.  If the Nets believed another deal for Brook may have existed were the Jackson deal to fall through, why didn’t they search for it? The Jacskon deal essentially sat on the table for 4.5 hours (approximately 10:25-2:46) on deadline day.  The Thunder, in that time, never agreed to the deal, never decided to do a trade call.  The reason is obvious: they clearly liked the deal enough to have it on the table, but not enough to immediately agree to it, so they decided to give the league another review to see if they could beat it.  When they did, they let the Nets know.

The Nets should have been similarly diligent.  They should have searched the league, to see if they could find either a better Brook deal, or another Brook deal that they would have been amenable to, as a backup plan.  That they didn’t, quite frankly, shows a lack of diligence on their part.

If the Nets scoured the league, and saw there were no deals they liked, or found deals they liked but could not come to fruition, that would be understandable.  If they knew from the get the only deal for Brook they wanted was for Jackson, and sat for that reason, I guess that’s ok too. But to say they had no time to find plan B because OKC screwed them at the 11th hour begs a simple question.

What were they doing at the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th hour?

Brook did play very well against the Lakers and the hope clearly is that continues: his game has improved since the foot injury.  But for all arguments that can be made about the Lopez non trade, the one that can’t is that OKC screwed Brooklyn.

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