The Brooklyn Nets aren’t the team we envisioned in preseason yet. They’re 6-4, which isn’t bad, but have dropped winnable games to Minnesota (losing a 22-point lead), Los Angeles (losing a fourth-quarter lead), and Golden State (losing a big first-quarter lead). The season hasn’t come as expected. Here are three things that have surprised me.
Joe Johnson’s figurative disappearance
The big thing on most Brooklyn Nets fans minds, at least from the crowdsourcing I’ve done and seen, is the curious disappearance of Joe Johnson’s offense. Oddly, the player the Nets signed with the hope of bringing consistency to their starting lineup has been the most confounding talent; Johnson often looks like the fifth-most important player in the Nets starting lineup. Outside of one quarter when everything seemed to click — his 16-point outburst against the Boston Celtics to help seal a 102-97 victory — Johnson’s looked out-of-place, out of sorts, and off-balance. There are moments when Johnson seems to force his own offense, throwing up a contested shot or a quick look just to try to get himself going, but it hasn’t ended well.
There are two parts of Johnson’s offense that have looked particularly ineffective. Firstly, Johnson has looked lost trying to create in the pick-and-roll, for a few reasons. If there’s such a thing as passively forcing your offense, Johnson’s doing it; he’s coming off weak screens from his big men and trying to piece together offensive looks that just aren’t there. Additionally, he’s coming up short most of his shots in the pick-and-roll, possibly from a sense of urgency (or just random fluctuation).
Secondly, after ranking as one of the best post-up guards in the NBA last season, Johnson’s back to the basket game has fallen off a cliff in the early going. Johnson either missed a shot or turned the ball over in his first 11 attempts before finally scoring a post shot against the Los Angeles Lakers. That’s two points in 12 possessions, a losing formula at any level. On too many occasions, Johnson begins his post-up 18 to 20 feet from the basket, backs in until he can back no more, then relies on a stepback or turnaround fadeaway with a hand in his face. These shots have also normally ended up short. The few times he has burrowed in, he’s met with significant resistance.
Johnson’s got a fair amount of time to turn this around — in total, these two facets of his offense represent a little over 15% of his total offense to this point. It’s not much in a short span. It’s entirely possible that Johnson finds his shot legs and starts getting the extra inches he needs on those looks. It just hasn’t happened yet.
The Williams-Johnson synergy
Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, otherwise called the best backcourt in the NBA or Brooklyn’s Backcourt, has not lived up to its billing. With two guards that are generally considered in the top 5 at their position, the Brooklyn Nets expected to make a significant impact with those two, but they have instead relied heavily on Brook Lopez to act as the main catalyst of their offense.
That said, scoring isn’t as much of an issue with these two — the team averages a solid 107.7 points per 100 possessions with the two in the game — but defending is another matter. Of the top 10 two-man lineup combos the Brooklyn Nets have given minutes to, the Johnson-Williams pairing has played the most — 297 minutes together — and is the only one with a negative plus-minus per 48 minutes. The perimeter they’re supposed to defend has been open season, as opponents have shot 41% beyond the arc with these two in the game. Williams has taken flack for his defensive effort with the Nets before, but Johnson’s struggles are relatively new — he’s had issues navigating screens, both on and off the ball, and quicker opponents have taken advantage.
Mirza Teletovic’s literal disappearance
Almost as curious as Johnson’s inability to find a groove in this offense is Mirza Teletovic’s inability to find a spot in it. Teletovic, whom the Brooklyn Nets signed to the mini mid-level exception (three years at roughly $9.7 million), recorded five consecutive DNP-CD’s (did not play – coach’s decision) before finally getting spot minutes in Wednesday night’s matchup against the Golden State Warriors.
The Brooklyn Nets do have a solid big man rotation without Teletovic at this point — Kris Humphries, Reggie Evans, and Gerald Wallace take up a bulk of the power forward minutes, and Brook Lopez and Andray Blatche have split nearly every minute the Nets have had at center this year. Indeed, playing Teletovic next to Lopez might prove problematic, particularly on the glass. But it’s puzzling that there’s no room for Teletovic, a gunner that can space the floor, next to Evans, Humphries, or Blatche, primarily interior players with very high rebound rates early.
Teletovic’s shot hasn’t fallen much yet — he’s shooting just 33% from the field and 23% from deep — but he’s shot so few shots that his percentage is almost irrelevant. For a bench player the Nets gave a three-year commitment to this offseason (only Reggie Evans got one similar), you’d expect him to find a spot in this rotation. After ten games, he hasn’t.