By Steve Lichtenstein
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I will preface this rant by re-emphasizing that I did not have high expectations for the Nets this season, nor did most experts.
However, the media, both mainstream and social, keeps trying to sell us that Brooklyn is on the rise.
They do this by constantly comparing the Nets’ results to those of last season.
Talk about hurdling over a low bar.
Why bother patting the Nets on the back for, say, winning their fourth road game of the season last Wednesday in Dallas because it took until March to reach that not-so-impressive goal in 2016-17?
Congratulations? Whatever the milepost, we’re talking about improvement upon a 20-62 season, one of the worst in a woebegone franchise’s history.
The Nets have started this campaign 8-14 after Saturday’s distressing 114-1102 home loss to the tanking Hawks. Dropping down, five of those wins have come against teams currently sitting outside of playoff position. They have also fallen to such dregs as the Lakers, Suns, and Magic.
Brooklyn is 3-9 against the teams currently occupying the eight playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That includes a victory over the Cavaliers, who at the time were in one of their ho-hum stretches. The Nets have three more meetings with the Celtics and have yet to face the Raptors, Bucks, Wizards, Pistons, and Sixers, all solid conference opponents.
It’s going to get a lot uglier. We’re still far away from being able to call the Nets mediocre.
But we should cut the Nets a little slack given their injury woes, you say? Jeremy Lin crumbled to the ground in the season opener in Indiana and was lost for the season with a ruptured patella tendon in his right leg. Backcourt mate D’Angelo Russell has been out since an awkward landing in Utah three weeks ago required surgery on his left knee. The Nets have since had man-games lost due to various ailments to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker, and Allen Crabbe.
Well, injuries continue to be a league-wide epidemic, the scheduling adjustments and new-age performance analytics notwithstanding. (Side note: if Brooklyn’s Performance Team is so highly regarded, why is Lin rehabilitating in Vancouver?) Few teams play these games at full strength. Do the Nets beat the Jazz if Utah wasn’t missing Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum, and Joe Johnson?
Besides, I would argue that Spencer Dinwiddie has given the Nets exactly what Kenny Atkinson wants out of his point guard. Since becoming the full-time starter, Dinwiddie has averaged 16.2 points, 8 assists and only 1.3 turnovers per game. He doesn’t have Russell’s flair for end-game close-outs, but Dinwiddie is less likely to draw Atkinson’s ire for defensive and general decision-making malfeasance. If anything, Dinwiddie should have played more than the 31.2 minutes he averaged over the last nine games.
Brooklyn’s bigs have betrayed the cause. Opponents have feasted on the Nets’ lack of size and fortitude around the rim (47.2 paint points allowed per game, fifth-worst in the league) and have graciously accepted the generosity from centers like Timofey Mozgov and Tyler Zeller to shoot uncontested from anywhere else.
For everyone so drawn to Hollis-Jefferson’s quirkiness as a small-ball four, let me be clear: The Nets cannot succeed with him at that spot unless he is slotted next to a perimeter shooting big.
According to NBA.com, Brooklyn had a positive net rating last season of nearly 1 point per 100 possessions in the 1,155-minutes Hollis-Jefferson played with Brook Lopez, an all-range scoring machine. Remember, this was on a god-awful team.
How bad have the Nets been this season with Hollis-Jefferson on the court now that they sport more old-school bigs? Here are the net ratings:
Hollis-Jefferson/Mozgov: minus-23.8 (144 minutes)
Hollis-Jefferson/Booker: minus-6.8 (93 minutes)
Hollis-Jefferson/Zeller: minus minus-5.6 (77 minutes)
Ah, but Brooklyn has sometimes paired Hollis-Jefferson with Quincy Acy, who is (somewhat) of a floor-spacer. In those 62 minutes, the Nets have outscored their opponents by 16.6 points per 100 possessions.
Don’t be fooled by Hollis-Jefferson’s raw numbers. Computational stats such as total points, rebounds, etc. can be misleading on terrible teams, mattering less than how players contribute to wins and losses.
And this team is not going to win enough to get excited about anything.
In one sentence, we hear that it is understood that this rebuild will take years. But then in the next, folks rave about a certain player’s improvement over last season, combing over the odds that maybe said player won’t be here when/if it comes to fruition.
Sure, praise Dinwiddie, Hollis-Jefferson, Joe Harris, et al for being all that they can be, and Atkinson and his staff for bringing that out, but the bottom line is that this roster boasts just one player — DeMarre Carroll — who has proven he can start on a relevant team. The young guns — Russell, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen — may develop into that type of player. Or they may not.
The bigger problem is that transformational help is not right around the corner. Brooklyn, remember, is not in tank mode, since the last of its four first-round picks sent or swapped with Boston will belong to Cleveland at next June’s draft.
On the contrary, Nets general manager Sean Marks “strategically” upgraded the talent in the offseason to prompt some movement in the standings. Marks spent all but about $3 million of Brooklyn’s salary cap space in trades that brought in Russell, Mozgov, Crabbe, and Carroll.
While the Carroll trade seems to be a clear-cut win from every angle, I believe Marks settled by not securing a first-round pick from Portland for taking on Crabbe’s anchor of a contract and also surrendering a first-rounder in the Lopez-for-Russell deal that included the useless Mozgov’s monstrosity.
The Nets should be better than last season’s debacle. Let’s not throw a parade just because they are on pace to be.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1