Let’s look at a team that a lot of pundits were picking against before the start of the regular season. A lot of the star power they had acquired over the years had been lost due to injury, free agency and plain-old circumstance. In order to win, they were going to have to lean heavily on youth and career role players to play like stars. They were going to have to play smart, fundamentally sound basketball to beat their opponents because they just simply did not have the roster talent to overcome inefficient play.
If any of these plotlines sound familiar to Nets fans, that’s not a coincidence. Unfortunately, the team I am describing in the above paragraph is not the New Jersey Nets, who are currently toiling at 0-4 with nary a “W” in sight based on the upcoming schedule, but rather the Houston Rockets, who have jumped out to a 3-1 record to start the season, including two road victories in Utah and Golden State, despite not having Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady or Ron Artest on their active roster this season.
Yes, in basketball, a talented roster generally wins the most games. There’s no reason to believe that teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Magic, Cavs, Spurs or Nuggets won’t be the elite teams in the NBA come playoff time. But just because an organization is not blessed with the Lakers’ roster, doesn’t mean they’re destined to play games where they commit more turnovers than field goals, or they allow a team missing two of their star players to score 123 points in regulation.
Yes, it’s very early and the Houston bubble can burst as quickly as its inflated, but look at what their roster is doing right now. PG Aaron Brooks, who’s only been in the league for two years, is averaging 21 points and 8.5 assists, on 50 percent shooting, after averaging 11.2 points and 3 assists on 40 percent shooting in his sophomore campaign. Trevor Ariza, a career role-player who just never really got a chance to start in his previous stops in LA, Orlando and New York, is averaging 21.3 points in the early-going, including a mind-numbing 52 percent beyond the arc.
Looking at their team statistics versus the rest of the league, there’s nothing that really stands out. Their 10th in offensive efficiency averaging 108.4 points per 100 possessions, and they’re 14th in defensive efficiency, allowing 104 points per 100 possessions. They’re near the bottom in rebound rate (the Nets are the very bottom), their true shooting percentage of 56 percent is good for 11th overall, and their turnover rate is middle of the pack for the league.
So why are the Rockets off to such a good start and the Nets can’t seem to get out of their own way? Ask Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm:
You cannot outwork Houston right now. You just can’t. You can bust your ass all you want, they’re going to work harder, be smarter, make every single small play that you need. Teams with potential and no focus always wonder where those little plays are. The answer, as I tweeted last night, is that the Rockets have stolen all of those plays from your team and are keeping them for themselves. Shane Battier was +36 against a predicted playoff team last night. They have no star power! This isn’t supposed to happen! Even if they were to put together a fight and a few wins against overlooking teams or on back to backs, they weren’t supposed to come out and look like a team that could beat anyone, anywhere, any time. This squad has gone “Major League.” As in, “Well, I guess there’s only one thing left. Win the whole f*ckin’ thing.”
Interestingly enough, the day of the season opener, Brook Lopez talked about being that hardworking, lunch pail team that needed to get “scrappy” to win.
I can tell you a few things that don’t embody scrappy play. Letting the ball get ahead of all five players off a missed foul shot. Or not recognizing when the opposing team’s three-point specialist has the ball beyond the arc and his defender is being screened off him. Fans have every reason to question how hard the Nets are working, and how smart they are playing, when the players they root for are openly questioning each other’s heart and toughness.
It’s easy to make excuses for the Nets right now. They’re sporting the youngest starting 5 in the league after trading away their best player in the offseason, and their current best player is on the shelf and hasn’t been healthy since the first preseason game. Yi has now joined Devin Harris in the injury ward. But also consider that they’ve had two double digit second half leads, including one game where the opposing team shot 37 percent, and still lost. They went into Washington who was missing Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler and let up 123 points in a four quarter game.
Just claiming “the Nets suck,” and washing your hands of it, is only so effective. Especially when there’s a team like the Houston Rockets out there that’s proving you don’t need to have a star to win games in the NBA. You just need to play good basketball. A concept the Nets have yet to grasp this season.