The Rotation Situation

A combination of injuries and inconsistency up and down the Nets roster has made coach Lawrence Frank noticeably coy about declaring his likely rotation for opening day, which is less than two weeks away.

The Star-Ledger’s Dave D’Alessandro recently asked Frank about his plans for the rotation, and Frank expelled a lot of verbiage, but little tangible information:

“First and foremost, we have to get everyone to understand exactly what we have to embody as a team and as individuals, what each man must contribute in order for us to have a chance to win, get everyone to recognize that there’s no substitute for a good work ethic and believing in each other, continue to prioritize defense and being unselfish at the other end, sharpening the saw that you had created in the prior 13 practices, and you want to establish the rotation that you’ll go into the season with,” the Nets coach said.

Long story short: “Let’s just say there are still jobs up for grabs,”Frank said.

A lot of this is understandable. Keyon Dooling hasn’t seen any game action this preseason as he recovers from hip surgery. Devin Harris and Courtney Lee have been in and out of the infirmary. Jarvis Hayes, who seemed headed towards a starting spot at the three, has been battling shin splints and a rising Chris Douglas-Roberts has probably been the team’s most consistent performer in October. Cagey veterans Eduardo Najera and Tony Battie are battling assorted aches and pains.

Provided everyone is in good health, the starting lineup for opening day is shaping up to be Harris, Lee, CDR, Yi Jianlian and Brook Lopez. Of those five, only CDR is a real surprise to me. It’s very clear that Douglas-Roberts has worked hard this off-season and he’s certainly playing well enough to start on this roster, but I still think it’s a major mistake. It’s true the team needs to find as much offense as they can with Vince Carter no longer on the roster, but inserting CDR’s scoring punch into the starting lineup may be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. With CDR in the starting lineup, the bench is left with three guys who could potentially put the ball in the hoop: Hayes, Bobby Simmons, and, when healthy, Keyon Dooling. All three are primarily jump shooters who take more than 76 percent of their shots away from the basket, according to 82games. We know we can’t expect much offensive versatility from the frontcourt reserves. Sean Williams’ only real offensive talent is on inside shots and putback dunks. Ditto for Boone. Najera was a decent jump shooter in Denver but hasn’t been healthy enough to establish anything during his Nets tenure. Terrence Williams is still inexperienced and is a very streaky shooter. Rafer Alston, the back-up point, is another jump shooter – another inconsistent one at that.

CDR features a unique offensive skillset that would present a different look for opposing defenses in the second unit. Not a great jump shooter, CDR can still sink an open mid-range jumper when left open, or put the ball on the floor, get inside the paint and finish there, or draw a foul. His presence in the second unit would prevent defenses from keying on the perimeter. As we saw Friday night against the Knicks when Bobby Simmons went 0-8 from the field, if the jump shooters go cold, the offense will completely stagnate without another option who can do different things on the court.

It’s also worth noting that CDR’s usage rate will surely go down if he’s spending most of his court time with Devin Harris, Brook Lopez and Courtney Lee. The offense is likely going to flow through Harris and Lopez on most sets, and Lee is becoming an excellent third option, who can hit the outside jumper, but also put the ball on the floor and finish. CDR’s talents will likely go underused in the starting lineup.

As for the rest of the rotation, Frank seems committed to Alston as the backup point, and TWill as a reserve guard/forward. I can’t quibble with either choices though I do hope Frank uses Terrence more as a point forward like he did Friday against the Knicks rather than a true-blue point guard, like he did Tuesday against Boston.

Bobby Simmons as a backup PF is just a terrible idea. Putting aside his contract, Simmons actually had a halfway decent season last year, setting up in the corner and hitting open threes as defenses collapsed on Devin Harris and Vince Carter. Frank toyed around with using him at the four last year and it really wasn’t successful. He played about four percent of his minutes at the four, and opposing PFs had a PER of 18.1 while Simmons put up a PER of 14.3 for a differential of -3.7. I would much rather see Najera get some minutes there if he’s healthy, because he’ll at least provide some defense and still has the ability to sneak into the corner for a three.

The backup center situation is a hard one and I actually sympathize with Frank a great deal here. Josh Boone seems to have regressed so much since his respectable 2007-08 campaign, and he just seems completely demoralized by the fact that he’s been replaced by Brook Lopez in the starting rotation. Meanwhile, he’s shown very little improvement this preseason. He still can’t hit those short range jumpers with any consistency and he’s also having problems finishing around the hoop. Sean Williams is, by all accounts, a loose canon, and needs to be given a very short-leash, but if I’m Frank, I’d experiment with Swat and give him some more playing time the next two preseason games to see what he does. On Friday night against the Knicks, he looked focused, disrupting shots on defense and staying in the right place on offense. I really think Swat has considerably more upside than Boone, which may never be reached. But if Frank is in the mood to experiment, why not go with potential?

The fact is, the Nets have a more versatile bench than I think most people give them credit for. But that versatility is contingent on players being used properly to give opposing defenses different looks. Is Frank creative enough to employ a rotation in this fashion? For now, he’s still not saying.