By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets closed out 2015 with yet another steal-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory performance on Wednesday, falling in Orlando, 100-93.
Too bad the NBA still requires Brooklyn to play another 50 games.
This will be unlike the 2012 holiday season, when the then-middling Nets replaced Avery Johnson with P.J. Carlesimo as head coach and then surged to the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed in the postseason. It will be unlike New Year’s Day 2014, when coach Jason Kidd’s “small-ball” epiphany was the springboard that vaulted Brooklyn from a 10-21 start to the second round of the playoffs.
There won’t be anything to look forward to at the 2016 trade deadline either, unlike last year when Thaddeus Young arrived to help nudge Brooklyn across the finish line and into the eighth and final playoff berth.
No, the Nets are implicitly referring to this campaign as a “bridge year,” a season where their goal is to get out from under the luxury-tax restrictions of the salary cap while transitioning from an old and slow veteran core to a youthful and athletic one.
Someone should tell Nets coach Lionel Hollins.
The loss to the Magic dropped Brooklyn to 9-23, the third-worst mark in the NBA. Meanwhile, the rest of the Eastern Conference (outside of obviously-tanking Philadelphia and underachieving Milwaukee) has undergone a resurgence. The Heat and Pacers are currently healthy and thriving, while previous East weaklings like the Pistons, Magic, Hornets and Knicks are all at least playing respectable basketball.
That means that even if the Nets are somehow able to make a late-season run to get back to .500, it still probably won’t be enough to get into the playoffs.
This season, for all practical competitive purposes, is over.
So why is Hollins still giving 32-year-old point guard Jarrett Jack over 30 minutes a night? Even worse, why hasn’t he recognized that it’s time to take the carcass of what was once seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson and put the 34-year-old wing on the bench?
The Nets have played lousy defense since rookie wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was lost with an ankle injury. Since December 5, only the Lakers and Sixers have recorded a worse defensive rating than the Nets’ 108.4 points surrendered per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The rating of Brooklyn’s current starting five — with Jack, Johnson, Young, Brook Lopez and Bojan Bogdanovic — is the worst in the NBA for units that have played over 200 minutes, at 109 points allowed per 100 possessions.
As evidenced during the 14-4 run over the final 2:55 that sealed Brooklyn’s loss to Orlando, the problems with this Nets lineup start with defending on the perimeter.
Jack, Johnson and Bogdanovic all struggled to prevent the Magic ball handlers — which did not include injured point guard Elfrid Payton — from penetrating into the paint. In a domino effect, Lopez would then move over into a help position (sometimes unnecessarily), thereby freeing up Magic center Nikola Vucevic for a pass inside or for an offensive rebound.
Orlando forward Tobias Harris blew by Johnson as if he wasn’t there, feeding Vucevic twice for layups and scoring another bucket on his own during that span. Vucevic also scored on a put-back after Orlando guard Victor Oladipo beat Bogdanovic off the dribble but missed at the rim.
Bogdanovic, who might be the worst defender of any NBA starter, had no business shadowing the athletic Oladipo down the stretch in the first place. In fact, from here on out, he shouldn’t be put on any guard. At 6-foot-8, he really has to play forward.
The only reason he hasn’t is because the stubborn Hollins has figuratively tethered Johnson to that spot. This despite Johnson’s prodigious slump this season, where his efficiency (35 percent shooting from the floor) is at a career-low and his three-point marksmanship of 30.2 percent is 60 basis points below his career average.
Earlier in the season, Johnson was providing value with his court vision, professionalism and — yes — his defense. But since his 22-point outburst in a win over Houston on December 8, his game has fallen off a cliff.
In the last 11 games, Johnson has knocked down only 37 of 116 field-goal attempts (31.9 percent) while averaging 8.6 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 turnovers in about 34 minutes per game.
Johnson’s legs are shot. The hope that the Nets could showcase him for teams looking for a rental and then extract some value for his expiring contract at the trade deadline (like general manager Billy King did last year when he sent fossilized Kevin Garnett to Minnesota in exchange for Young) might be lost as well.
Jack’s late-game hero-ball antics have also gotten old. His penchant for contested mid-range pull-up jump shots at the most inopportune moments of games has been well-documented in his season-plus tenure in Brooklyn.
On Wednesday, the Nets were leading, 93-92, with 1:30 remaining. On their ensuing three offensive possessions, Jack missed an 8-footer, lost his handle for a turnover and was short on a chucked 20-footer at the end of the shot clock.
By that point, the Nets were down and had to foul. Jack closed the game with two more bricks on desperate three-point heaves.
This on top of Jack’s defensive deficiencies that prompted Hollins to take him off Oladipo.
At halftime on Monday in Miami, Hollins was so disappointed with his club’s defensive effort to that point that he opened the third quarter with backups Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington in the backcourt.
“We were down 14,” Hollins said in his postgame media conference on Monday, “and we weren’t going anywhere. We looked like we were dying and I needed a spark. I had written on a paper to take all five starters out, and then as I walked to the court I rethought that and decided to just take the guards out and see if that would be enough. And it turned out to be enough.”
Larkin’s pressure defense and Ellington’s long-range shot-making ignited a 34-19 Brooklyn run that turned the game around, and the Nets held on for a 111-105 win.
If only Hollins would think outside the box more often. Instead, he’s stuck on a unit that is not at all athletic and really not very young.
As the season marches on, it would be prudent for Hollins to move Larkin into the starting unit over Jack, and go with Ellington and Bogdanovic at the wings more to cut down on Johnson’s minutes until Hollis-Jefferson returns sometime after the All-Star break.
And while we’re at it, how about getting energetic big men Willie Reed and Thomas Robinson more time on the floor as opposed to enigmatic Andrea Bargnani? Or developing Markel Brown and/or Sergey Karasev?
The 2016 playoffs are a lost cause. Boston owns Brooklyn’s pick at the 2016 NBA draft. The Nets’ New Year’s resolution should be to stop alienating what’s left of their fan base by force-feeding players who they have no intention of building around.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.