The Nets: Small Sample Size or Larger Problems? by Justin Salkin
Through 13 games, the Brooklyn Nets 2013-2014 season could not have gone much worse. After adding Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, and more to a 49-33 team, expectations were sky high. But things clearly have not gone as planned. And while some issues figure to iron out over time, some could loom as problems the Nets face all year long.
THE DEFENSE: DID GARNETT AND LOPEZ SWITCH BODIES?
“Defense wins championships” is a classic moniker, and since the offseason the Nets have talked about their plan to be elite defensively using every cliché in the book, whether it’s We hang our hat on defense, we can't let our defense dictate our offense, we have no egos and want to be one of "those teams," and all about "sacrifice" for the good of the team.
The reality is far uglier. The Nets rank 29th in defensive efficiency, after ranking 18th last year. And while the Nets do figure to improve on that end, this is a problem that very well may linger all year long. The Nets are one of the league’s slowest teams in part because they are so big, and it’s resulted in their getting repeatedly beat off the dribble, causing breakdowns that lead to open shots. The Nets have tried to cover up that weakness by funneling traffic into Brook Lopez, in the hope that he could block shots, intimidate shots, control the paint, and make teams beat them from the perimeter. When he’s played that has worked. Lopez has played 38% of the team’s minutes and in that timeframe, the Nets are tied for 6th in the NBA in defense. When he sits: 30th by a wide margin.
Lopez has always scored at an elite level, and now that he’s a capable defender he’s become absolutely indispensable to Brooklyn. The problem defensively: the Nets are slow, and are going to need their bigs to compensate for that by being able to guard the perimeter and recover to control the paint. Andray Blatche and Mirza Teletovic are atrocious defensively (Teletovic is showing us why he did not get time last year), and Reggie Evans is limited: he does a nice job guarding smaller players in the pick and roll but struggles with size inside. Mason Plumlee is understandably raw. The Nets knew all of this, so they addressed their big man issue by adding Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko.
Or, they thought they addressed it. Kirilenko has been injured, and it’s hard to judge his play. Garnett? He was brought to Brooklyn to change the defensive culture, to be an all purpose defender at the 4, but has been nothing short of brutal in the early going. Garnett’s teams have always been substantially better defensively with him on the court, but the Nets have a poor 104.1 defensive rating when he plays, and it’s only better than the team’s 106.3 rating because he has shared court time with Lopez. Garnett is getting beat in all facets, both physically by opposing bigs and off the dribble by quicker guards.
Going forward, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Paul Pierce need to do their part outside, but they’re a slow trio and will require help to stop pick and rolls. And Lopez can only do so much: the Nets need Garnett and Kirilenko to step up and fill the team’s gaping hole at the 4. The Nets can try to use Tyshawn Taylor more to stay with quicker guards, but still need better defense at the 4 to bring their scheme together.
It’s possible the Nets get it together defensively. But they’re currently at the bottom of the league, and have to improve a ton to play playoff defense. And even if they do, the defense will be built similarly to the Pacers: who funnel perimeter drives into Roy Hibbert – but with Lopez instead of Hibbert and without a Paul George type wing defender. That scheme will have inherent limitations.
Still, the Nets can become, and must become, miles better defensively if Garnett wakes up and Kirilenko gets healthy. And while they may not have the personnel to become a top 5 defense, perhaps there is hope for a team whose catchphrase is “All In.”
THE OFFENSE: A Broken Promise Not to Play Iso Heavy Ball
Despite their loaded roster, the Nets are 24th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. It was music to Net fan ears (including mine) when Jason Kidd proclaimed that the Nets were done with last year’s isolation system, in favor of more ball movement and motion. Deron proudly called the offense free flowing, Joe Johnson saying it’s a freelance type of offense.
Through 12 games? The Nets routinely bog down into isolation sets, and rank 24th in the NBA in assist ratio. Only one team in the bottom 12: the Thunder, is above .500. But the Nets don’t have Kevin Durant, and even the Thunder have been exposed in recent playoffs for their lack of offensive creativity.
Nets offensive possessions are ugly. There’s little weak side movement, nobody is setting screens. The shot clock dwindles. Most jumpers are contested: no wonder a team loaded with shooting is 20th in the league in 3 Point Percentage. You rarely see Johnson catching on the move and rolling into a smooth floater, or Lopez using cross screens to catch on the move and get an easy jump hook off. Everything is forced.
When Deron and Lopez are healthy, the offense should improve by default because they are the Nets’ two best shot creators: for themselves and for others. Nobody else on the roster can break a defense down and get in the paint, which helps explain why the Nets can't score inside. But in the interim and when they return, the offense has to get more creative.
John Welch came to Jason Kidd’s staff from Denver, having worked under George Karl in Denver. The Nets pay lip service to the idea of freelance offense: Welch actually helped pilot a freelance offense in Denver. Brooklyn needs something similar so that its talent can play off one another, instead of possessions ending up in 1 on 1 struggles to score.
Another area of concern besides ball movement: turnovers. Bad transition defense is usually viewed as a defense issue, but really it is an offense issue: the transition opportunities resulted from turnovers. The problem for the Nets: this is a slow team that simply is not going to score much in transition, even when Deron is healthy. So if the Nets continue to surrender a ton of transition baskets, they are starting every game with a hole dug for them. While the Nets rank 12th in turnover rate, that number is deceiving: many teams behind them have more athleticism to get back and ensure those turnovers do not become points. For the Nets, a turnover is as good as two points for the opposition, and it is imperative they clean up that area.
Despite the bottom seven offense, I do believe the Nets will substantially improve on that end as the season progresses. Deron and Lopez are going to be tremendous boosts on this end when they return, simply because they provide the ability to beat defenders and actually attack the paint. Their impact will be limited unless the Nets become more imaginative with their play calling, but perhaps the Nets are hoping their players begin to sync before unlocking a larger playbook.
While the struggles on defense are tough to explain, I expected the Nets offense to stumble out of the gate as pieces adjusted to playing together. Guys like Pierce and Garnett are not in natural roles for them as complementary pieces, and learning to play a new way just takes time. That growth has been setback by poor health, but overall, I believe the Nets offense will be fine when the team is whole.
COACH KIDD: The Right Man for the Job?
The murmurs have grown louder. Anonymous reports that Jason Kidd “does nothing” on the bench. ESPN’s David Thorpe calling Kidd the league’s worst coach. And the noise raises some interesting questions that as an outsider are impossible to answer. Many believe the Nets hired Kidd to make a splash. And it’s not hard to figure out why. The Nets came into the offseason with no cap room, looked very much locked into their roster: the deal with the Celtics and signing of Kirilenko totally came out of the blue. So some believed the Nets figured, “we can't generate headlines with the roster so let's make a splash with the coach.” That GM Billy King initially resisted the hire before Prokhorov talked him into it does lend support to the view that the hire was at least partially a PR move. The good PR from Kidd as coach is a no brainer. Kidd’s relationship with the team became contentious in 2008, as he did not believe the organization cared about winning. He did not even believe in the move to Brooklyn as of two years ago. The move to Brooklyn was about embracing a new identity and vanquishing old demons: Kidd becoming the face of that new identity after even he did not believe in the process, the team’s best ever player making amends in the most extreme way possible: not exactly a tough sell to Nets fans.
Here’s the problem. The euphoria of the Nets offseason is gone, and it appears the Nets are not responding to Kidd right now. This team, injuries or not, is too good to be 3-10. Kidd as a coach? It’s simply difficult for a person to develop a coach-player relationship with his players, when he was so recently a player. Kidd has strong peer relationships with most of his players dating back to their playing days, which is precisely the problem.
A coach takes on many faces in his relationships with players. Sometimes a confidant, sometimes a friend, but sometimes a strict disciplinarian. Players grow close to coaches: Pierce and Doc Rivers, Kobe and Phil, Duncan and Pop: but that relationship grows of respect through a teacher-student relationship. It’s why coaches are typically older than their players and if they played, did so before their players.
The thing with Kidd is that he’s so close with many guys on his roster and that makes it hard for Kidd to crack the whip, and develop that type of instructor-student relationship. On some nights, it just looks like his guys are not playing for him. And while he has an all-star staff, some have argued that players simply do not listen to assistant coaches and see them as a 'substitute teacher'. What is going to happen when Kidd attempts to discipline his players? Kidd seemed to bench Garnett, Pierce, and Blatche against the Pistons: do they listen? Do they see him as a figure who has power over their role and playing time? Or does Garnett see him as the guy he schemed against in the playoffs last year?
Firing Kidd this early would be rash, and from the outside looking in it is impossible to know what happens when he coaches and runs huddles behind the scenes. I never like blaming coaches, and do not think he should be fired like Avery Johnson was a year ago. But if Kidd is really not ready for the job, the Nets may be well served moving him down the bench, and giving Frank command of the team. They say they’re grooming Kidd for the long term: this would highlight that. It may be unusual, may not be good PR, but there is no better PR than a championship. And if the Nets seek to make a move that bold, the earlier the better.
Another thing: the Nets second half struggles have been well documented. Some feel this has to do with effort, and perhaps the Nets are finding themselves down and mailing games in: which reflects poorly on Kidd. Another explanation: a scout recently said the Nets have run just 15 plays all season. Be that predictable in the first half of a game, and teams will adjust and lock your schemes up in the second half. That could be plaguing the Nets, and that again would reflect poorly on Kidd. The team’s refusal to speak with the media after losing to Portland reflects on his leadership as well, fair or not.
Kidd does not need to yell, but he needs to have command of his troops as their leader, not their friend. It’s a different type of leadership than his leadership as a player: where you do lead as a friend.
It was difficult for me to write anything negative about Kidd. I grew up during his time with the team, and as most fans adored him. Sure he left on a bad note, but that all went away with his becoming coach. It was a lot easier to blame Avery and PJ Carlesimo for Net struggles a year ago: perhaps how hard it is to say anything bad about Kidd speaks to the fact that hiring him was partially a PR move. After all, the Nets didn't sell Avery and PJ shirts last year.
THE BIG IF: HEALTH
The Nets can gel. Kidd can learn on the job as the organization hopes. Garnett may play like Garnett when he’s on the court. Here’s the thing: the Nets have already been riddled with atrocious health problems, and they will not have the success they hoped for without health. An ensemble, 2004 Pistons like cast, every piece serves a purpose and most all need to be out there. Deron, Lopez, and Kirilenko have all been out with injuries: that is simply a lot of manpower not to have. And while they may get healthy, what happens when the next group of players goes down with an injury? Having the Nets talent is nice, but when a ton of it is injured, that makes it tough to mesh and find a rhythm (see: 2012 LA Lakers). Kirilenko, for example, could be the Swiss army knife defending quick guards and locking down the interior the Nets need. We don’t know that because he’s barely been on the court.
More importantly, the Nets need a healthy Deron Williams. This team, with all its shooting and a big that plays incredibly well off guards, is built around having a guard that can get into the teeth of defenses, draw attention, and then score and make plays for teammates. That guy is Deron, but he has either played injured or been out of the lineup all year, which has hurt the team considerably. He actually looks worse than last year’s first half where he was clearly overweight and compromised physically: to his credit he does not look heavy this year but he is unfortunately plagued by ankle issues.
What can Deron do healthy? Just look at the second half of last year, when he got healthy and he came back from the break a new man (as this linked piece shows). Deron at full flight is an excellent player, but the Nets just do not have that guy right now. He does things like overpass, refuse to go the opposite direction of a screen when the chance is there, and neglects to attack, that all highlight the pain his ankles are in. 3-10 is not all on his injury, but a healthy Deron would definitely provide a boost.
Lopez being injured is also a significant loss. He is the guy the Nets go to when they need a bucket. He scores at will, he is a safety valve that opens the floor for the Nets perimeter players, and the defense has been built around him. This Nets team is getting destroyed in the paint: Lopez scores in it and defends it on the other end. It makes him invaluable to the Nets cause.
At the end of the day, the Nets are going to get better. Once they get their major parts back, this team should begin to gel. And as guys mesh the ball will start flying around more, they’ll begin to score more. The defense may never be great, but if Kirilenko gets healthy or Garnett wakes up from his daze, they just may be able to put a good product together on that end of the floor.
In the meantime, the criticism is here. But that is fine. The Nets said “Hello Brooklyn.” And now, New York is giving its hello: part of moving to New York is facing the music when things go poorly.
Time for the Nets to respond.