*Since this article was written, the Nets have gone 1-2 including a surprising blowout win on the road against New Orleans Pelicans, and Caris LeVert continues to play like one of the best rookies in the league. On a sad note, the team issued a statement on 1/23/17 that Jeremy Lin reaggravated his left hamstring and he is expected to be out for another 3-5 week. The saying “when it rains, it pours” seems fitting for Lin this season.
Since then, Sean Kilpatrick, Isaiah Whitehead, Yogi Ferrell, and Spencer Dinwiddie have had stints as a replacement for Lin. None of them have much experience playing point guard in the NBA and their play has been below average a majority of the time. Head coach Kenny Atkinson has referred to the point guard position as being crucial both on and off the court and Lin missing so many games is the biggest factor why the team has just eight wins at the halfway mark.
Although the team record with Lin in the lineup is just 3-9, he played well, as he is averaging 13.9 points and 5.8 assists on 46.9 percent shooting in just 25 minutes per game. His stats per 36 minutes (20 points and 8.4 assists) are slightly better than his season with the Knicks, where he averaged 19.6 points and 8.3 assists per game.
Lin was on the verge of playing more minutes without restrictions when he re-injured his left hamstring against the Charlotte Hornets on December 26. He scored 17 points in 22 minutes before he had to leave the game and it could have been a breakthrough game if he did not get injured. Also, I could make the case that the Nets could have won at least two more games against the Orlando Magic and the Philadelphia 76ers if he was not under a minutes restriction after coming back from the first hamstring injury.
Lin simply did not spend enough time playing with his teammates to develop chemistry due to his hamstring injuries. It is easy to point out that Lin’s absence has been the primary reason to the Nets having the worst record, but there are several other issues which have impacted the team in a negative way.
Although the team officially said that Lin’s second hamstring injury is not as severe as the first, Lin has been out for about three weeks now and there is no indication on when he will be back or when he will be able to practice again. Management continues to be very tight-lipped regarding his injury status and it has been frustrating for Lin and Nets fans alike who are curious to know the timetable of when he will return.
The performance team is likely to be extra cautious again and I would not be surprised if he returned sometime in February. The best case scenario is that the team could make a second half push with Lin in the lineup going into the offseason, but that remains to be seen.
There is no question that defense has been the biggest weakness for the Nets and the team is last in the NBA in points allowed at 115 per game. The Nets are 28th in defensive rating (109.4) and 25th in opponent field goal percentage (46.5). They are ranked 23rd in opponent three-point percentage (36.4). The Nets’ defense gives up the most shots per game in the league at 92.1, so the simple math is that the opponents get the most opportunities to score and this is related to the offense, as the team is the fastest in terms of pace (104.25). The defense has been poor from the beginning of the season and it seems to be getting worse, which is a very bad sign.
There is no good defensive system in place and there are so many breakdowns during the games, as opponents get easy baskets both inside and out. Both the players as well as Atkinson have talked about improving on defense, but it has not happened and there continues to be bad individual defense along with team defense, which is not a good reflection on the coaching staff. The Nets are also last in point differential at -9.6 and the next worst are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns at -5.8, per NBA and ESPN.
Despite the bad defensive statistics, the Nets have some decent individual defenders and they are the youngsters on the team. Isaiah Whitehead, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Caris LeVert have shown that they are capable defensive players with their athleticism. They are the best perimeter defenders along with Lin, but the issue is that none of the three players are starters and they do not play significant minutes at this time. Also, it would be more beneficial if the Nets had good veteran defenders, but that is not the case. Trevor Booker is a decent defender, but he is not enough of a presence inside and Randy Foye is decent as well, but he is a limited player at best who is not in the rotation.
One of the major issues that the Nets have is that Brook Lopez is not a center who could anchor a defense and his offense is not good enough to overcome his deficiencies on defense. His lack of rebounding is why the team would benefit from trading him for either multiple first-round picks or a first-round pick and a player. He averages 20 points per game, but he gives up just as much, if not more, on the defensive end, which hurts the team and he is not capable of carrying the team on either end of the floor.
I know that the Nets Twitter account has emphasized Brooklyn Grit from the start of the season, but the bottom line is that this team is soft. Lopez is the softest player on the roster and the second on the list is Bojan Bogdanovic.
Bogdanovic plays turnstile defense most of the time and he contributes little to nothing when he does not shoot the ball well, due to his defensive limitations. He will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season and the early indication is that he could receive a contract around $10 to 12 million per year, which is a high price to pay for a one-dimensional and inconsistent offensive player.
This roster requires more two-way players to compete and Lopez along with Bogdanovic are two of the biggest assets for a trade. The Nets need to develop a culture of defense along with toughness and that is what Brooklyn Grit should be about. The second half should be more about playing the young guys to evaluate them going into next season before reshaping the roster.
By playing at the fastest pace, it is often to the detriment of the defense and turnovers are a byproduct of running a motion offense with players that are neither good ball handlers nor passers. Atkinson talks about imitating the Hawks, but this roster has not shown the ability to be efficient in playing the motion offense, and it appears that the offense has regressed.
For the first 25 games or so, the Nets were top 10 in points per game, but now are 15th (105.3) and the field goal percentage continues to be low at 44 percent, which is 24th in the league. Their three-point field goal percentage is 33.6 (28th) and their offensive rating is also 28th (100.8). The area that has hurt the most on offense has been the turnovers, which have occurred throughout the season and the Nets lead the league by turning the ball over an average of 17.1 times per game.
Also, the team has given up the most points off turnovers (20.5) and the opponents have scored too many easy baskets in transition as a result. Instead of making safe passes, players often throw the ball away or make careless passes that get picked off by the opposing defense and much like the defensive mistakes, it happens repeatedly and it has become a broken record. Atkinson deserves blame for the ongoing turnovers and I have not seen him make many adjustments on either offense or defense.
Atkinson does not appear to be overly concerned at least outwardly about the state of the offense or defense and he keeps preaching improvement as well as player development over wins and losses. Sean Marks also shares this philosophy and my issue with this is that player development, and winning games do not have to be mutually exclusive.
For example, there have been numerous times when the rotations have been bizarre, which may have cost the Nets games and Atkinson has made his share of mistakes as a rookie coach, which is to be expected. There is hardly any margin for error with a team lacking talent like the Nets and Atkinson has not done a good job with strategy up to this point. I hope that he is learning on the job, but I am worried that the constant losing will negatively affect Atkinson along with the players because it is human nature to be discouraged with repeated failure.
The players appear to run out of gas in the second half of games and when the opponents turn up the pressure, Atkinson nor the players have the answers to remain competitive. It is deflating to watch as a fan, and my concern is heading into next season is that it will be difficult again to acquire free agents since the Nets are likely to be the last place team.
One player that I am very high on is rookie Caris LeVert and he has gradually become one of the best players on the Nets. He was drafted with the 20th pick by Marks after a trade with the Indiana Pacers for Thaddeus Young and some draft experts thought he would go somewhere in the second round due to an injury-plagued career at the University of Michigan. It is clear that the Nets are bringing him along slowly after a major surgery on his foot, but he is making a case for more playing time with his solid play on both ends of the floor.
In the month of January so far, he is averaging 8.6 points on 48.3 percent shooting in 21.8 minutes per game, and that is an increase from December when he averaged 4.7 points on 35.8 percent shooting in 15.5 minutes per game. He appears to be more comfortable now with increased playing time and you could easily make the case that he is the best playmaker and passer on the team now with Lin being out with the injury.
LeVert looks like a player who could do it all and it will speed up the rebuilding process if he turns out to be a star player, which he is capable of being. His shooting should improve over time and I like how he is already a good defensive player coming out of college with a potential to become a lockdown defender.
Of course, I am most looking forward to Lin returning from his injury, but what I am equally hoping for is to see Lin start with LeVert in the backcourt. Lin will provide much-needed offense and I like this duo because I consider them to be the best two-way players on the team. LeVert should only get better with time and Lin will help improve his game by creating offense for him as the point guard. One of the biggest advantages of playing them together is that they are good ball handlers as well as passers and they both have the ability to make other players better, which will improve the offense.
However, my wish is that Atkinson will make some changes with the motion offense and allow mostly Lin or LeVert to handle the ball since they are the most reliable on the team. Also, both Lin and LeVert should be involved in more pick-and-rolls and a sign of a good head coach is to adjust to the personnel, so I hope Atkinson could change. I would like to see Atkinson become more like Mike D’Antoni regarding coaching philosophy going forward this season.
The Nets have the worst record in the league and it makes more sense to play the young guys more in the second half of the season and assess how the roster could shape up for next season. Specifically, RHJ and LeVert need increased minutes and both should be starting shortly. RHJ has regressed as a player this season, but he has shown signs of progress as of late offensively, and he is one of the best defensive players on the team.
He needs to stop forcing shots and play within his limitations offensively, as he is not a good shooter. In addition to RHJ and LeVert, Whitehead has to keep developing, and Chris McCullough deserves a chance to play some meaningful minutes rather than sit on the bench even in blowouts. I am hopeful that Lin will stay healthy this time to establish himself as a starting point guard and that he will lead the team for a second half push.