This occasional series touches on the latest in the Nets on-court product, plus bonus notes on the state of the Nets.
With the Brooklyn Nets boasting a 4-2 record against feeble competition two weeks ago, Joe Johnson was fed up. He didn’t think his team had played anywhere near the way they should’ve in the first six games, culminating in a funky lineup with Johnson playing power forward so they could close out a win against the likely lottery-bound Orlando Magic.
Hoping to light a fire under his teammates, or something, Johnson lit into the team for “selfishness” before they headed off on the road trip against three tough Western Conference opponents. He challenged his team to improve on their poor start, and win against a legitimate contender before trumpeting their success.
Oops. The Nets got swept on the road trip and have won just one game in the last two weeks, dropping from 4-2 to 5-8 and 17th in the NBA points per possession since Johnson made his comments.
Did he have a point?
Selfishness isn’t the right word, but there’s something to be said about the threat of passers. The Nets flourished on the offensive end last year partly because they were able to spread the floor with a unique combination of three-point shooting and general inverted weirdness, but also because all five members of their starting lineup — Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett — were all above-average passers for their positions, harnessing their ability to spread the floor with the ability to create for others.
Now, Livingston and Pierce, who combined for 5.6 assists per game and a 17.3 assist rate (meaning assists per 100 possessions used) are gone, replaced with Bojan Bogdanovic and Brook Lopez, two fine scorers but unwilling passers at best.
The chart below compares the assist rate of each player the primary Nets starting 5 last season to this year. It illustrates an incomplete story, but a strong one: the Nets took a lineup of five passers and cut it to three.
Numbers c/o Basketball-Reference
To their credit, part of that is the system. Bogdanovic and Lopez only really get the ball when they see an option to score; Bogdanovic on open spot-up looks & cuts to the basket, and Lopez any time he gets the ball within 15 feet. Both have flourished in some games and floundered in others; Bogdanovic seems to be allergic to anything except the scent that’s pumped into Barclays Center, while Lopez just teeters in and out of effectiveness depending on who he’s matched up with.
But that’s not always a good thing. Here’s a damning Lopez possession from this season:
The team as a whole couldn’t be more transparent about their plan if Hollins walked over to Steve Kerr and screamed “WE ARE GIVING THE BALL TO LOPEZ AND NO ONE ELSE IS DOING A THING!!” Everyone stands around, save for a feeble cut by Bogdanovic at the last second, and because it’s abundantly clear that Lopez isn’t passing the ball, Draymond Green leaves Kevin Garnett and blocks Lopez’s already-double-teamed shot. It’s an embarrassing possession all around: Lopez looks uncomfortable tossing a shot at the rim, and his teammates get out of his way and screech to a grinding halt when he catches the ball.
That’s not to say Lopez hasn’t shown off his touch on a few occasions this season. It’s still there, if in spurts. But regardless of their strengths, the fact remains: the Nets switched out two plus passers for two minus ones, and it’s easier to gameplan for an offense that has fewer options.
Bogdanovic comes to the team with lower expectations than Lopez, and he presumably has some wits about him as a creator, but he needs time to adjust to the NBA game. Meanwhile, Hollins has already mandated that Lopez improve in the non-scoring facets of the game; if he doesn’t and continues to struggle, it might be hard just to keep him in the lineup.
Around the Nets
The Plumlee Problem
After a successful stint as
Captain America backup center for the United States Men’s National Basketball Team, Plumlee entered the year with the goals of expanding his away-from-the-basket game, under the watchful and approving eye of his coach, who publicly insisted Plumlee develop beyond his role last season. He has done exactly that, and it has ruined him.
Not just bumps in the road en route to success — Plumlee can barely stay on the floor, both because of foul trouble and because of his poor play. Plumlee’s shooting has plummeted, from 65.9 percent last year to an unwatchable 41 percent (taking out his two at-the-buzzer heaves from beyond halfcourt) this season.
Plumlee flourished as a runner/dunker last season precisely because he had no other above-average NBA skills, and more importantly, he didn’t pretend to. He only took ten shots outside of the paint in his entire rookie season, and every one was either in garbage time or a late desperation heave.
For what it’s worth, Plumlee has improved as a rebounder thus far this year despite my skepticism, averaging a big 12.9 rebounds per 36 minutes on the floor in the first 13 games. But he still has issues just staying on the floor at all: he’s averaging 5.1 fouls per 36 minutes, and early foul trouble has kicked him off the floor on multiple occasions this year.
The Nets should count themselves lucky that they picked up seven-footer Jerome Jordan in training camp; Jordan has largely played Plumlee’s role last season this year with great effectiveness and, as of this writing, leapfrogged Plumlee on the depth chart. But Jordan is a non-guaranteed player who didn’t make waves three years ago with the New York Knicks. Can they rely on him to last? And if they can, what does that say for Plumlee, who the team had such high hopes for after an excellent rookie year?
Some thoughts on Andrei Kirilenko
In theory, Kirilenko provides a huge boost off the bench. He’s a long, rangy wing defender with near-impeccable timing and a keen understanding of space on both sides of the floor. Listening to him talk about defensive timing and how he learned the game last year was a blast, even though he’d only just played a few games with the team at that time because of back spasms he’d called the worst of his career.
But the game isn’t played in theory: Kirilenko, after suffering back spasms again early in preseason, has struggled noticeably in his 36 minutes, missing all five of his shots and looking lost on the floor. As one league exec who has followed Kirilenko’s situation noted to me last week, it’s not like Kirilenko is a young player looking to make his name in the league. It’s possible the motivation to succeed on a floundering team just isn’t there for a backup who’s already made nine figures in NBA salary in his career.
Kirilenko has talked about ending his career sometime in the next two years, and his wife has spoken about the two returning to Russia so that he can finish his career where it started, in Moscow with club CSKA. I’m not a betting man, but if you asked me to put my money somewhere, that’s what I’d guess comes next for him.
The Nets have thrown out a strange wrinkle in a normal pick-and-roll play with Johnson & Plumlee a few times this season: Johnson has posted up on the low block and Plumlee has set a ball screen for him, effectively making this a post-and-roll.
I’m not sure if other teams have done things like this before — Hollins probably did something similar in Memphis with Rudy Gay — but I don’t recall the Nets ever doing anything like this. It’s had little success in its infancy, but it’s weird, and weird is always good. ALL HAIL THE POST-AND-ROLL!
Jubilated Nets Fan is back in the spotlight. He’s been around the Nets ever since then, attending a number of games, so he’s not necessarily “back,” per se. But we remember his greatest hit.