By the final game of an NBA season, a team’s hope is that there’s stability: a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and that the team’s strategy enacts that sense.
But after two losses by a combined 50 points leaves them without control of their own playoff destiny, the Brooklyn Nets can’t seem to figure themselves out.
Deron Williams wasn’t shy about some of his team’s issues Monday night. “We’ve struggled against the really solid defensive teams where they load up, and we haven’t moved the ball,” Williams said. The Nets finished with a season-low 12 assists against the Bulls, losing 113-86.
“You can’t just play one pick-and-roll and shot against teams like this. That’s what they want you to do. You’ve got to try to spread them out, try to get the ball to the other side and play second, third options. Make them guard for a full shot clock, and we didn’t do that a lot. We just came down and fired shots, and didn’t pass out of double-teams. Every one of us, myself included, we were all selfish tonight. So for us to win, we can’t play like that.”
Some of the selfishness stems from the team’s two-point guard lineup of Williams and Jarrett Jack, a combination that has struggled to mesh all season. Nets coach Lionel Hollins tried out the look early and often this season, and he has been asked about numerous times throughout his first year in Brooklyn. It is also a combination that has not worked:
- In the team’s 11-3 stretch between March 14th and April 6th that brought them back into contention, Williams and Jack played a total of 35 minutes together, or 2.5 minutes per game. In the four games since, Hollins has played the two for a total of 44 minutes together, or 11 minutes per game. The Nets have lost three of the games, including a 96-73 loss to the Bucks and the 27-point blowout loss to the Bulls, the latter in which the Jack-Williams pairing was a -13 in 13 minutes.
- The team has performed better when Jack and Williams each run the show separately than when the two play together.
- As a team, the Nets have an assist ratio of 16.5, meaning they average 16.5 assists per every 100 possessions. With Williams & Jack on the floor together, the team averages 15.6 assists per 100 possessions. The team averages fewer assists per possession with two point guards on the floor.
- Opponents have outscored the Nets by 222 points this season. With Jarrett Jack on the floor, opponents have outscored the Nets by 298 points.
Jack’s issues this season have been well-documented here and elsewhere: he struggles to make sharp decisions in the team’s bread-and-butter pick-and-roll sets, has a low assist-to-turnover ratio, takes a lion’s share of his shot attempts from the inefficient mid-range area, and his three-point percentage above the break is the second-worst in the NBA, behind only Lance Stephenson.[note]Minimum 80 attempts.[/note]
It’s a continuing problem: the Nets have to play Jack some, because he is the team’s only other point guard. But there is no reasonable analysis that can conclude that Jarrett Jack should play 25 minutes in the team’s most important game of the season, nor is there one that would say that more than half of those minutes should be with Deron Williams on the floor. The team tends to stagnate into isolation plays with the two together, partially because it’s not clear who’s running the show: the talented creator but inconsistent shooter in Williams, or the confident but mistake-prone Jack.
Alan Anderson is out with a sprained ankle, which opens more minutes at the off-guard next to Williams, but the Nets have talented rookies in Bojan Bogdanovic and Markel Brown at the two-guard spot to fill the gap.
The Jack-Williams pairing wasn’t the team’s only issue Monday night — it’s impossible to pinpoint just one in a blowout — but it is one that has been pervasive throughout the season. There doesn’t seem to be a fix in sight, if only because the number of minutes the two play together suggest that it isn’t seen as a problem.
At 37-44, the Nets could still make the playoffs. Their “magic number” sits at two with one game remaining, meaning the combination of “Nets wins” and “Pacers or[note]Not “and”.[/note] Heat losses” needs to be at least two. But they no longer control their own destiny, and that’s partially because they’ve played a nightmare combination throughout multiple games. If where they are isn’t where they could be, they gave up that control a long time ago.