The Brooklyn Nets, Oklahoma City Thunder, and a Tale of Two Seasons
As the NBA seeks to conjure up plans on how to proceed with its season, there is no looking ahead for its franchises. Despite the calendar turning to spring, there are no desperate GMs counting down the days to the draft lottery, nor coaches tidying up their ideal playoff rotations. For teams outside the basement of the NBA, their season grade remains incomplete, even with 60 games in the rearview mirror. So, as the NBA struggles with everything from fiscal concerns to when to put players back on the hardwood, the only basketball choice teams have is to look back.
For the Brooklyn Nets and their fans, this ultimatum is tough to swallow. Next season holds the promise of a special team, a team Brooklyn has started advertising season tickets for a month ago. The 2021 Nets will have star power, a shiny new face at head coach, and whatever extra ammunition Sean Marks brings in this summer.
This year’s Brooklyn team offers less optimism, as the 2019-2020 squad never got off the ground for a myriad of reasons. Some, like injuries and dysfunctional player-coaching staff relationships, were standard NBA maladies. Others, like centuries of imperial friction between the United States and China bleeding into preseason festivities, were a bit harder to predict. Flunked pee tests and misdemeanor assault charges surrounding Brooklyn’s backup forwards didn’t help either.
Yet, admirably so, the Nets have competed night in and night out. Brooklyn has had a chance to win nearly every game they’ve played. And that’s where the real trouble begins.
The Fourth Quarter of the Apocalypse
Brooklyn, saved only by the Charlotte Hornets from being the worst fourth quarter team in the league, is outscored by an average of 1.8 points in the closing period. To fully understand how detrimental those 1.8 points have been to Brooklyn’s season as a whole, consider the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder entered the apocalypse-mandated hiatus at 40-24, clutching onto the 5th seed in a crowded Western conference. They’ve accomplished this by transforming into a world-beater in the fourth quarter, outscoring opponents by an average of 2.5 points. As Brooklyn has settled into NBA purgatory at 30-34 and a likely first-round exit* in the Eastern Conference playoffs, it’s clear the difference in this Tale of Two Seasons has been the final frame. *barring a KD/Kyrie post-hiatus return
An unfortunate scene has played out in too many of Brooklyn’s close games this year: failing to get quality looks at the basket as the game winds down. OKC’s offense, meanwhile, seems to work at its most efficient in late game situations. And while, yes, OKC is led by Mr. Point God himself, Chris Paul, the disparity in offensive output is confusing at first glance. The potential of both teams in late game situations is comparable: having multiple, capable ball-handlers ready to attack switches or pick and rolls at will. For OKC, that potential has bloomed; Chris Paul is still CP3, which has helped Shai Gilgeous-Alexander look like a Face of the Franchise type of guard, while Dennis Schröder will get 6th Man of the Year votes. The Nets and their three-headed monster of Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert have had a strikingly opposite experience from the jump, due to both injuries and lack of late-game execution.
Kyrie and LeVert were plagued by the injuries throughout the year. The late-game minutes they shared with Spencer Dinwiddie were few and far between, and ultimately a wash. Even less ideal is that the fourth quarter Nets lineups featuring two of their primary offense-creators resulted in a negative net rating over 230 minutes. While OKC rode their guard rotation to absurd heights, Brooklyn watched their season fall into mediocrity, brick by brick, with Kyrie Irving in street clothes.
(For perspective, that yellow dot represents the fourth quarter Net Rating of lineups featuring Steph, Klay, and Draymond during the Warriors’ 73-win season…)
The best look we had at a Kyrie/Dinwiddie/LeVert lineup came early in the season in Memphis, a game the Nets would ultimately lose in OT. It offered a glimpse into the potential of a lineup spearheaded by three dynamic playmakers: Somebody is going to get hot. It looked like Caris LeVert was going to be the one to take over, as he briefly did on consecutive possessions.
Unfortunately, it also served as a preview for some of the struggles the Nets offense would face. This would not be the last Spencer Dinwiddie pick and roll (PnR) that didn’t attack the basket forcefully enough, but wasn’t patient enough for Dinwiddie to assess his options:
Part of the struggles the Nets faced in Memphis were due to the typical October struggles teams face trying to get accustomed to one another. To alleviate the issue in this game and in the following weeks, Kenny Atkinson and the Nets staff would try to hot-wire the offense with just enough action to catch a defense leaning:
When OKC would first face the Grizzlies about a month later, it was a different story than the one Brooklyn wrote, as the Thunder would put up 33 points in the final frame and pull out a win. It was apparent the guard trio for OKC and their complimentary pieces were in sync, as simple actions to get Thunder ball handlers down hill worked to perfection:
What really stood out, and became the main difference in the offense of Brooklyn vs. OKC, was the Thunder guards’ willingness to be patient and take mid-range jumpers. It’s a shot the Nets don’t preach, and don’t take, outside of Kyrie Irving.
The strategy the Grizzlies employed against Brooklyn was not viable vs. OKC. Memphis’ bigs, especially the slow-footed Jonas Valanciunas, dropped down in the paint to protect against attacks by Thunder ball-handlers that never came. CP3, SGA, Dennis Schröder were all too content to pull up for in-rhythm 15-footers while Steven Adams got in rebounding position. It’s a skill that Nets guards didn’t really develop this year, and when defenses dropped bigs back vs the PnR, Brooklyn had no answer. It’s a bit unfair to pick on Spencer Dinwiddie, as he was the only Nets guard who stayed healthy throughout the year, but you have to wonder how his fourth quarter numbers would look if he trusted his pull-up jumper earlier in possessions:
Now, unlike the Thunder, who have played nearly zero meaningful late-game minutes without at least two ball-handlers on the floor, Brooklyn has been forced into a ton of minutes with only Dinwiddie running the show. Defenses have been able zero in on stopping him for large portions of the season. With only so much mid-season tinkering a coaching staff can make to an offense, Dinwiddie has been left out to dry. His lackluster fourth quarter numbers are certainly due in part to his occasional struggles in the PnR, but far more of the offensive load has been thrust upon him than we first imagined.
The nadir of the Nets fourth quarter struggles came in mid-January, when they faced Philadelphia’s towering defense twice in a week. To erase any doubts about the hierarchal standing of the Eastern Conference, the 76ers held Brooklyn to 16, and then 20 points over two 4th Quarters in a pair of wins. Philly’s defense simply sat back in the paint vs. PnR’s, and massacred Brooklyn ball-handlers with their size and physicality.
On this play from January 15th, the lack of synergy between Kyrie and Jarrett Allen shows. Allen never catches up with Kyrie to create a 2-on-1 and Kyrie simply barrels into two much traffic to create a good shot:
On the next possession, still down 2, the Nets tried a Dinwiddie-Allen PnR. With pressure on his back and Al Horford sitting in the paint, Spencer Dinwiddie never looked to create a good shot. Instead, he spent too much time dribbling in the failed pursuit of creating a great one:
By the time Philly came to Brooklyn five days later, Kyrie was hurt again and LeVert on a minutes restriction. To help take the burden off Dinwiddie , Kenny Atkinson drew up more plays that tried to bend the 76ers defense out of position…they didn’t:
That lineup of Dinwiddie/Prince/Allen/Harris/Temple has been by far the Nets most common fourth quarter lineup this year. It has a net rating of *not a typo* -21 in 103 minutes. (The Thunder’s most common 4Q lineup, 3 guards flanked by Gallinari and Steven Adams, has a net rating of 31.5 in 98 minutes…31.5!)
Compare that to how the Thunder were able to attack the 76ers when they played all the way back in November, where OKC dropped 47 points across the fourth quarter and OT. In a nearly identical possession to the one Spencer Dinwiddie dribbled out of bounds, CP3 attacks Ben Simmons in the PnR. But, by getting into Simmons’ chest before separating for a jumper, CP3 gets off a clean look:
When all three guards can hit that pull up, it sends the defense into a panic. It forces the big man defending the PnR to guard in space, akin to a nose tackle trying to bring down Darren Sproles in the open field. Look at these back-to-back possessions, where all-world defender Joel Embiid first commits too anxiously to an SGA drive, then plays CP3 too cautiously:
What Does it Mean?
How much this analysis matters in the grand scheme of these two franchises is not much. Brooklyn will have Kevin Durant next year, as we’ve been incessantly reminded every time the Nets grace a national television game. The fourth quarter offense will run through him and Kyrie hitting all sorts of shots, including many ridiculous mid-rangers. The likelihood of both LeVert and Dinwiddie being on Brooklyn to experience it is slim. Kenny Atkinson is gone, and the offense will be re-tooled under whoever takes the reins next.
Oklahoma City is in an interesting position, fiercely competitive while hoarding a whole bunch of stock in future draft picks. Chris Paul is unlikely to spend the final two years of his contract there, and it’s presumed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be running the show there for years to come. Yes, the Thunder are certainly set up for greatness in the long-run. But unlike Brooklyn, nobody knows what exactly has to come next.
All of that is to say, the 1800 words you just read about these two teams, the needlessly colorful graphs, and the silent YouTube clips that will inevitably get my account banned for violating draconian copyright laws will matter very little in the grand scheme of these two franchises.
Any on-court action prior to the hiatus in what will be forever known as the NBA’s Coronavirus Season matters very little now, but especially for teams about to experience as much transition as these two.
In a Freaky Friday scenario where the Nets are blessed with a clean bill of health, maybe Kyrie’s mid-range expertise rubs off on LeVert and Dinwiddie. Maybe they all gel with shared playing time, and form a three-headed monster that beats teams to sleep in the fourth quarter, and make a surprisingly deep playoff run. Yet, it would still be a throwaway year without Kevin Durant. That was always 2020’s best-case scenario for Brooklyn, it just didn’t materialize. How Nets fans remember this strange season will ultimately be decided by what happens in the future. Looking back at these 60 games in a vacuum isn’t fun, but it provides more optimism than I initially thought it would. Brooklyn is set up for next season, and every midrange jumper swished by the men who spent game-time in street clothes this season will feel that much sweeter.
If the playoffs do indeed tip-off this summer, the Nets may not be a viable threat to play David to a Greek Goliath in the first round. If that happens, you’ll catch me rooting for the Thunder, who have realized the failed potential Brooklyn flashed back in October. OKC’s postseason run won’t be clouded by what could happen next year. The 2020 Thunder all are that the Nets could have been on the court, without the incessant anticipation of a promised new reality. In a world where each day brings bleaker news than the last, we need things to enjoy non-conditionally, no strings attached. As weird as it to say, Thunder basketball is that thing for this Nets fan. Here’s to hoping it returns soon.