After two games, the Brooklyn Nets have the worst defense in the NBA, allowing 111.9 points per 100 possessions, and there’s a good chance it’ll get worse tonight against the defending champion Miami Heat. Here’s why that should encourage you.
Last year in New Jersey was a defensive hellscape. Shelden Williams and Johan Petro played the majority of anchoring duties, two players that landed on last year’s “25 Worst Players in the NBA” list by Complex (one of them winning the “grand” prize). and a wing rotation of MarShon Brooks, Anthony Morrow, and DeShawn Stevenson, three defenders who were bad at best and the NBA’s cellar at worst. Worse, these three often played out of position, especially before the Geralds (Wallace and Green) joined the team.
The Brooklyn Nets are not last year’s collection of rag-tag nobodies playing out their NBA contracts. This current collection of Nets reserves would’ve started many games on last year’s Nets team. Andray Blatche has had some terrible moments defensively already, but he’s not Johan Petro. Starting shooting guard Joe Johnson is a massive defensive upgrade, as is Reggie Evans off the bench. C.J. Watson, stylistically, is everything Sundiata Gaines should’ve been off the bench. They’re imperfect, but they’re not waiting for the season to end. Last season was a different story.
The lack of talent was a significant issue last season, but even more troubling was the lack of a discernible system. The 2011-12 New Jersey Nets played a brand of defense that could best be described as okay-everybody-watch-the-guy-who-has-the-ball-oh-what’s-he-doing-wait-what’s-happening-who-has-the-ball-now-oh-look-a-field-goal. (Or, as we call it in “the biz,” the OEWTGWHTBOWHDWWHWHTBNOLAFG. I don’t want to confuse you guys too much with the technical terms. To pronounce this correctly, use the guttural sound that comes from stabbing yourself in the temple.) The Nets had the worst of both worlds: bad individual defensive players, without a properly executed system.
This is no longer the case. Through two games, we can have a reasonable idea of the types of rotations Coach Avery Johnson wants his players to execute, rotations he seemingly didn’t care about last season. Brook Lopez has made a career out of laughable pick-and-roll defense, but those chuckles came from his effort positioning himself to protect the lane. Now, Lopez is hedging hard on those coverages, cutting off lanes at the source. With few exceptions, point guards are not getting around screens and darting to the basket as Lopez backpedals anymore. That’s night and day from the past two seasons.
There are two trade-offs here. The first comes, as I talked about earlier this week, when Lopez hesitates or stutter-steps up top, leaving an open lane for his man to cut to the basket. The second comes from the rotations behind Lopez; once he’s caught up top, if his man quickly darts into the lane, the team has to react accordingly. These are both more significant issues when the Nets guard is trying to get around the screen by going above the screener, leaving him only able to cover the ballhandler.
These are just a couple of the boring defensive problems that the Nets are going to face. The difference is that now, as opposed to watching the destruction unfold from the sidelines, the Nets are dealing with them.
As someone who watches this game obsessively, it’s sometimes annoying to acknowledge the all-important status of lady luck. Every possession has to mean something, every bucket either a validation of a player’s valor or a condemnation of their character.
But over two games, the Nets have allowed teams to shoot 30-63 from between 5-19 feet — a midrange area that’s prone to significant random variance even over the course of a full season, much less two games. Currently, they rank third-worst defending from 5-9 feet, fourth-worst from 10-14 feet, and fifth-worst defending from 15-19 feet. That sounds bad, but it’s so early in the season that a couple of bad bounces in any of those areas and they’re approaching the opposite side of the list. Mid-range shots are often the hardest to control defensively, but they’re also some of the lower-percentage shots teams can take.
Put it this way: if the shooting from 5-19 feet discourages you, than the defense at the rim — just 54.7% shooting allowed these past two games, eighth in the NBA and a number that would have ranked second in the NBA last season — should encourage you. And defense at the rim is easier to control.
I know there’s a lot of new Nets fans who may look at the team’s defensive numbers after two games and want to curse them back to Newark. But know this: last year was much, much worse. Even with the struggles, it’s crucial to know that the struggles are coming from a desire to better a system, not from a lack of one. It will take time. I am confident that, even though it may not be top-10 by season’s end, it will get better.