By Steve Lichtenstein
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A 2-4 record so early in an NBA season doesn’t spell panic. But I can clearly make out the “p” and the “a” forming in the Nets’ locker room.
Remember those feel-good moments from the summer, when Brooklyn unveiled talented player after talented player to their fans after owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s shocking spending spree? They’re pretty faint right now, thanks to the Nets’ stuttering start.
I can’t say last night’s 96-91 loss to Indiana at the Barclays Center was unexpected—the Pacers are a tough defensive outfit whose core has played together–they make taking good shots a priority. The Nets, with all their new parts and new coach, figured to need some time to form the cohesiveness necessary to execute with teams like the Pacers for 48 minutes.
But losing to Washington on Friday? And Orlando before that? And Cleveland?! In a 10-day span?!
For all that was written on the epitaph of the Nets’ 2012-13 season, particularly how their incomplete roster could not compete with the big boys, at least that group rarely gave away games to the league’s dregs. Brooklyn went 10-1 versus the trio of teams above, none of which are now appreciably better than last season’s iterations.
These Nets must have thought they could win anywhere just by showing up. After all, they boast a starting lineup that has accumulated 35 All Star appearances while the diversification of their bench players’ skills should be the envy of the league.
Unfortunately, there aren’t that many teams “Riggin’ for Wiggins” or tanking this early in the season (ok, Utah is one). If you take quick mid-range shots, play lax with the ball, and leave shooters uncontested, that’s a recipe for getting beat fairly regularly in the NBA.
The Nets are doing that, and much more. Despite owning size advantages over most teams they play, the Nets have been out-rebounded in four of their six games. One night after Nene’s killer putback allowed the Wizards to force overtime, the Nets surrendered 20 second-chance points to the Pacers.
Rookie coach Jason Kidd is correct in telling fans like me to take a step back and be a little patient. We’d all rather see the Nets peak in mid-April rather than mid-November.
However, Kidd needs to also recognize these issues require fixes to design flaws as much as patience with the group’s chemistry. It’s not too early to make adjustments.
Let’s start with the defense, which has brought back all my nightmares from the Lawrence Frank head coaching era in New Jersey. Frank, now the Nets lead defensive assistant, wants to play like the Pacers, packing the paint and forcing opponents into take jump shots.
Except that the Nets haven’t been quick enough to at least get a hand in the shooters’ faces. How many wide open jump shots do opposing bigs have to make before Nets center Brook Lopez or forward Kevin Garnett contest to force a dribble?
The Nets are in the bottom third of the league in defending the three point line, another Frank trademark. If you exclude the Jazz game, Nets’ opponents are shooting a ridiculous 43 percent from three-point range this season.
I’m hoping for a quick return from forward Andrei Kirilienko, who has been in and out of the lineup with back spasms. Kirilenko’s length and basketball IQ allow him to guard multiple positions, giving Kidd more flexibility in those instances when, say, Andray Blatche loses his mind out on the court.
Kirilenko steal of an inbounds pass and subsequent quick pass to a cutting Lopez at Washington on Friday was straight out of Larry Bird’s playbook, requiring a dexterity/savviness combination that few Nets possess.
Still, Kidd so far has been loath to remove Lopez for defensive purposes at the end of games. It has cost the Nets in the losses in Cleveland and Washington.
The Nets do have the firepower to match opposing outputs, but we’ve only seen glimpses of it, for a few reasons:
One is the aforementioned unfamiliarity. It’s fair to allow for more time so that the players get a better feel for each other as to where they like the ball. That will reduce the high number of turnovers the Nets are committing every game as well as increase the efficiency of things like catch-and-shoots.
On the other hand, with Kidd playing 11 or 12 players on a nightly basis, this process might take longer. Nine players are averaging over 18 minutes per game. The spreading of the wealth was supposed to make the Nets harder to defend, but the reality so far has been that only Lopez has eclipsed 20 points in a game. There are too many cooks.
It’s tough, for instance, for Garnett to come off the bench after sitting for a half hour and then be expected to knock down 20-footers. Then again, maybe it would behoove Kidd to move the 32 percent-shooting Garnett to the low block opposite Lopez, like where Reggie Evans used to play. Presumably, Garnett would be in a better position to garner more offensive rebounds than the 0.6 per game he is averaging and then convert them at a better rate than the offensively-challenged Evans (though Garnett air-balled a key five-foot hook shot in the final minute last night and has been generally atrocious in the restricted area all season).
The Nets’ attack no longer gets bogged down by a bevy of isolation plays like last season, but they often succumb to the allure of quick jump shots, since virtually every player has the confidence they can make them.
Kidd talks about having the Nets “make plays” instead of “run plays.” I doubt that Kidd is lazy, but it sounds like a copout. Maybe point guard Deron Williams needs more structure so that he doesn’t carelessly turn the ball over so much. In any event, Kidd only needs to look at how Indiana epitomizes how you can have athletic freedom within a disciplined offense.
Unfortunately for Kidd, he is under a finely-tuned microscope given his owner’s grand expectations. The Nets were in a similar situation at the beginning of last season, with the integration of many new faces and injuries contributing to a less-than-stellar start for then-coach Avery Johnson.
By Christmas, with the Nets at 14-14, Prokhorov had seen enough.
So while it’s too early to panic, in the words of Yogi Berra, “it gets late early out there” in Prokhorov’s world.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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