After an offseason unlike any other in team history, expectations for the Nets have never been higher. However, with Kevin Durant sitting in street clothes, the Nets have started 3-4 which includes their most recent loss to the injury decimated Detroit Pistons and close win against the New Orleans Pelicans. Nets Twitter is in pre-emptive mourning. Gotham’s Reckoning and Justin Thomas decided to join forces to debate the key issue at hand: is it time to panic?
GR: To quote Aaron Rodgers, R-E-L-A-X. You know who should panic? The Warriors at 2-5, with a point differential of -11.8 and Steph Curry out for at least 3 months. Or how about the Knicks because of, well, pretty much everything. This Nets team is 3-4, it’s the Eastern Conference, and there’s a lot of growth opportunities in a long season with an eye towards a playoff spot.
JT: With the off season the Nets had coupled with how the longer tenured Nets have progressed it is concerning that the team has looked subpar to say the least in what was considered an “easy” schedule to start the season. Bad losses and sloppy play are NOT befitting an organization with loftier expectations than a fringe playoff team.
Let’s break this down into three facets for the purpose of this discussion – offense, defense, and coaching.
GR: The offense is likely the least of anyone’s worries, but it is also the unit with the most upside. Even with a struggling Spencer Dinwiddie, and the integration of a new ball-dominant point guard, the Nets rank 5th in the league in offense at 110.9 points per 100 possessions (per Cleaning The Glass). If you look at the traditional Four Factors, they rank 2nd in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage trailing only the gargantuan Philadelphia 76ers lineup, and 2nd in effective field goal percentage (trailing only the Bucks). Admittedly, they are turning the ball over a ton which is more or less the norm of these Kenny Atkinson teams. But they are also getting to the line less frequently than a “typical” Atkinson team, and I would expect that to improve as the season goes on.
Also, Caris LeVert looks like he is still improving! Joe Harris is doing Joe Harris things while knocking down 3s at a blistering rate of, that can’t be right, 55%?! Taurean Prince and Kyrie Irving are both better outside shooters than the guys they replaced. And, oh yeah, Irving is pretty good at basketball in general. Some tall dude in street clothes on the bench can play too, from what I’ve heard.
JT: There’s no denying the Nets have been lights out shooting the ball from the field. It’s honestly a treat watching Kyrie and Caris ball out. HOWEVER, the turnovers and free throw shooting are huge areas of concern so far. Brooklyn is averaging a whopping 19.9 turnovers per game which is the most in the league. An Assist/Turnover ratio of 1.23 (25th in the league) is nothing to ignore either. The Nets currently average just five more assists per game than turnovers. It’s one thing if you’re going against good defensive teams but 90% of the turnovers each game are boneheaded mistakes. Ill advised passes, traveling calls and just lack of focus can be attributed to Brooklyn’s turnover woes.
As for the free throws it’s something that’s concerning from the standpoint that if it’s not corrected soon it’ll be a lingering problem all year. Two of the Nets losses can be attributed to poor free throw shooting. Take away Jarrett Allen’s missed free throws at the end of regulation against Minnesota and Dinwiddie’s missed free throw against the Grizzlies and the Nets could be sitting at a 5-3 record. As a team Brooklyn is shooting 70.4% from the charity line which is the 5th worst mark in the league. Jarrett Allen has been especially atrocious from the line shooting at a 50% clip. Just for context Allen is a career 74% free throw shooter. With all the time he’s spent working with DeAndre Jordan perhaps Jordan’s free throw shooting abilities have rubbed off on the youngster.
GR: Admittedly, turnovers have been a serious issue. The general sloppiness and timing of the mistakes have made them exponentially more frustrating. That said, I think it is a pretty safe bet that we will see some improvement the remainder of the season. The team is currently 29th in the league with a turnover rate of 18.3%. Last season, the most careless team in the league (Atlanta) turned the ball over on 16.4% of possessions. Another driver of that potential normalization is improved team chemistry. Two new starters, almost 50% roster turnover, these things just take some time.
And as for the free throw issues, 27th in the league at 70.4% is not great. But you mentioned Allen has been around 70% consistently in his career, and barring a case of the yips I think he’ll be back around that range come season end. Dinwiddie is an 80% career free throw shooter who is still hitting 78% this season. Their misses feel extra noteworthy because of timing. Taurean Prince, Joe Harris, and Caris LeVert are all shooting below their career averages as well. Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders, chalk things up to variance, and enjoy when it swings in a positive direction.
The team as currently constructed still has more room to grow offensively, and that is without considering the potential of Brooklyn’s own version of a Death Lineup down the road. Think about throwing Irving-Dinwiddie-LeVert-Prince-Durant out there one night, should be worth the wait to see.
JT: The goal for this year is to have a team that appears to be close enough to contend but just need Durant to get over the hump. This team is too skilled offensively to be in the basement in terms of ball security. If corrections aren’t made soon the turnover issue especially could be the difference in a lot of games which will go a long way towards seeding come playoff time.
JT: If I had a dollar for every time I yelled at the TV screen while the Nets were on defense I’d have enough money to make a small dent in my student loans. To quote Shaq, the Nets defense is “Barbeque Chicken”. So far on the season teams know that they can and will drop buckets on the Nets. Brooklyn is currently giving up 120.3 ppg which is bottom five in the league. They are allowing opponents to shoot 46% from the field and 38% from 3-point range. Players look lost on simple defensive rotations.The inability to guard big men who can shoot is very apparent. Prime examples are how the Nets fared against Karl Anthony-Towns and Domantas Sabonis. Even Jonas Valančiūnas had a decent shooting night from the perimeter.
GR: If you told me the the team’s chances of winning depended on Jonas Valančiūnas shooting from deep, I’d roll that die every time. Kevin Pelton recently wrote a piece for ESPN+ discussing the value of continuity for NBA teams. With so many new pieces, it is not surprising to see players look lost or assignments missed. Chemistry grows as the players become more comfortable with each other throughout the season.
The Nets play at a fast pace. If you adjust for pace and consider defensive points allowed per 100 possessions, they rank 21st in the league at 110.2 points per 100. So yeah, that’s still not great! Based on what we’ve seen it may feel like the end of the world, but the team gave up 109.9 points per 100 last year and ranked 15th in the league. Pretty close to in line with last season.
Teams are shooting well against the Nets from the perimeter, but the Nets also have the fifth best mark in the league in opponent shooting at the rim, after ranking 10th last year. They’ve continued to do a great job of minimizing threes and shots at the rim, while forcing teams into less efficient long 2’s. They’ve ranked first and third in the league the last two years, respectively, in highest opponent long mid-range frequency, and they’re third this year. It is a positive shot profile for the modern NBA.
That said, the best defensive possession is a turnover and they rank 21st in the league in forcing turnovers. This has been an issue for the team under Atkinson, and part of what has kept them from taking the next step defensively.
JT: The old basketball proverb of “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins games” rings so true, especially when talking about this team. We’ve seen already just how exciting it is to watch Kyrie on offense. And you’d think more people will come out to Barclay’s next season once KD is back. But seeing fancy dribble moves and acrobatic layups will soon get old if the Nets can’t stop the opponent from scoring. Better defense leads to better offense. You can’t give up 120 points every night because there’s no guarantee your offense will show up every night.
Players aren’t the only one to blame though. As you mentioned defense has been a problem for the Nets under Atkinson. Although he’s where he is and we’re where we are for a reason, it feels like there are many instances where the defensive adjustment that needs to be made is simple yet he doesn’t do it. Especially in the 2nd half. What has seemed like an ongoing problem for the Nets, the lack of 2nd half adjustments have especially been detrimental to team success.
GR: Agreed, if this team is going to contend it is not going to happen with a bottom 10 defense. So the question is, where does that improvement come from? Is it player development? Is it acquisition? The defensive rating with Ed Davis on the floor last season would have ranked above the league best Bucks, so I think Kenny is capable of throwing together a good-to-great defensive lineup.
Though it is fair to question, how much credit does he get for that (and why did we never appreciate Ed Davis to the extent he deserved), and what can he get from the team as currently constructed.
GR: 20 wins. 28 wins. 42 wins. These are the first three seasons under Kenny Atkinson. You can quibble with the little things, but the general philosophy established under the Atkinson and Marks regime has lead to significant improvements as players have progressed and they’ve acquired talent that fits their style of play. People wield the “player development coach” as a negative towards Atkinson, but what team with sustained success doesn’t continuously focus on player development? Sean Marks came from the Spurs, the pinnacle of sustained success. Continued player development until this team gains its final form with the Slim Reaper (let’s bring it back) is the real key here. Do you really miss Lionel Hollins? I didn’t think so.
JT: Coaching without talent is one thing but it’s a whole new ball game when you have to coach with talent. The Nets are no longer a scrappy lovable bunch. They are a legitimate team that teams will send their best shot at each night. So far on the season Kenny has made some horrible mistakes that have cost the Nets some games. The biggest issue is lineups. The first unit for the Nets has exceeded expectations and seems to be clicking on all cylinders. It’s when they go to the bench that they falter.
Lineups that consist of only one scorer or guys that don’t compliment each other has resulted in the Nets blowing leads due to lack of efficiency on the court. Kenny’s decision to play Dinwiddie over Caris LeVert down the stretch of games has been head scratching to say the least. Yes it’ll take this new collection of talent to find its groove together but clearly forcing the issue with certain lineups is doing nobody any good.
GR: More expectations, more problems. The Markinson regime has been patient, willing to take lumps along the way. To play devil’s advocate, is it really safe to just assume decisions are ignorance or should we consider what type of data the organization is considering (or gathering). It is a long season, I don’t expect to see panic, and this is a team where the front office and coaching staff seem to be pretty unified on their approach. They monitor player’s minutes very closely. They have played their most successful lineup (Kyrie-LeVert-Harris-Prince-Allen – +16.3 per 100) almost twice as many possessions as the next most utilized lineup.
I would say any lineup that includes only one of the three creators (Irving, LeVert, and Dinwidde) is probably coaching malpractice. However, and don’t shoot the messenger here, I think the argument that Dinwiddie is a better defender than LeVert is true. But that’s a big topic for another article in the near future, and it also does not tell the whole story of who should be playing “crunch time”. I think it is best to take a wait-and-see approach based on a really small sample size of games so far. You don’t truly appreciate a functional coaching staff and front office until you don’t have one. I think Nets fans know that about as well as any.
JT: There’s no denying Nets fans, myself included, have had the utmost faith in not only Brooklyn’s coaching staff but also the front office. When expectations are low, it’s easier to have people go along with the game plan. But now that the Nets have gained notoriety, the coaching staff and front office will be under a bigger microscope. Much like you want to see player development you want to see coaches develop and get better as well. So far for Kenny there hasn’t been much growth as we’re still seeing some of the same mistakes from his first year.
GR: Well, this was a fun conversation and we didn’t even have to meet up in Temecula to settle our differences. Obviously, we approached this from two ideological extremes for the sake of discussion and it gives us a lot to think about. One thing we can both agree on is that there is a long season ahead with a lot to learn about this team, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. Run it back in a month?
JT: This was very fun and a nice change of pace from the usual back and forth banter on the toxic utopia we call Twitter. Amazing the eloquence and detail you can have on a topic without the restriction of a character count. And as you said it is a long season. Hopefully in a month we’ll be on the same side but if not I guess we’ll have to fire up the old google docs again.
If you agree, disagree or just feel like interacting you can follow GR at (@gothamreck) and Justin ”JT” Thomas at (@J_Thomas_24)