This could be a truly historic season for the New Jersey Nets, and not in a good way. After starting the year with 18 consecutive losses, the Nets have only won four games this season and are on pace to finish with fewer than ten wins for the season. While many anticipated a rebuilding year for the Nets, no one expected this. How bad can (will) it get? Will this New Jersey team make history?
The worst record in league history belongs to the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers-- a team that is admittedly before my time. They finished at 9-73. Other more recent meltdowns include the 1992-93 and 1993-94 Dallas Mavericks, who finished at 11-71 and 12-70 (respectively), the 1997-98 Denver Nuggets (finished 11-71), and the 2004-05 Atlanta Hawks (finished 13-69). Only the Philadelphia and first Dallas team on this list had just four wins after fifty games--is this a portent of things to come?
The central issue with this Nets team is, quite simply, they are less than the sum of their parts. They have a few pieces who could be starters on championship-caliber teams (Brook Lopez and Courtney Lee). They have guys who could be solid contributors for a playoff team (Devin Harris and Yi Jianlian come to mind). Finally, they have some role players who on the right team could be integral to a team’s success (Chris Douglas-Roberts, Kris Humphries, Terrence Williams, and Keyon Dooling, to name a few). However, this group does not fit together on the court.
Lopez is without a doubt one of the better young centers in the league. Lopez is far above average with his back to the basket, and has added a mid-range jump shot to his arsenal on a near-consistent basis. He rebounds well for his size (both in and out of area) and, while he is not quick laterally, he has been serviceable as an individual defender. Averaging 19 points on 50.4% shooting to go with nine rebounds and two blocks per game, Lopez is a valuable asset who could definitely start for any championship contender not featuring Dwight Howard (and watching him challenge Andrew Bynum for a starting slot in Los Angeles would be a treat). Lee has not shot the ball the way he did in Orlando (not having multiple scoring threats at every other position does that to you), but he still has proven to be a valuable piece to a championship-caliber puzzle in the past. His numbers have also improved considerably since the middle of December, while still not reaching the levels they were at in Orlando.
Harris has experienced a slowdown since last season as well. Last year, he made the Mavericks look a little foolish for letting him go. Now that he is one of the focal points of opponents' game-planning, he has not been as effective. His overall numbers are down from last year, and it seems to have affected his demeanor on the court. Harris has not been as effective finding open teammates or making team-oriented plays. His leadership has also been a question mark; he has either refused to take the reins or is unable to do so. Yi has been an interesting work in progress. There are nights when he looks like a real world-beater and other nights when he struggles to accomplish much of substance. As Nets fans will undoubtedly remember, the best and worst in Yi was already in a New Jersey uniform, and his name was Keith Van Horn. Still, his flashes show enough to think he has some value.
The rest is a hodgepodge of talent. Douglas-Roberts has trouble doing much beyond drive to the basket, and when his unconventional shots aren’t falling, he does not provide much. Kris Humphries has been a breath of fresh air in terms of intensity for the Nets, and his effort is welcome at the IZOD Center. He is a piece they can keep through the rebuilding process and make use of in a limited role. Williams has had some trouble adapting his considerable talent to the NBA game. Only time will tell whether this is a rookie phenomenon or a long-term issue, but he is still “good” enough to be on the court. Dooling has been at least solid in backup duties to Harris. While he will never be a team’s primary lead guard, he can give consistent bench minutes to any number of teams in the league.
This roster should not be on pace to win just seven (7?!?!) games this year. The individual pieces are not that bad when you put them together on paper. However, the Nets are definitely less than the sum of their parts. The central issue is how they fit together. Their pieces don’t fit any particular gameplan as a whole, and each player has too narrow a skill set to be placed in a broader team context together (with the exception of Lopez, who could fit in anywhere). How is this manifested on the court? I see three specific areas: On-court leadership, defensive deficiencies, and offensive focus.
The leadership void can be seen throughout games as the Nets drift through long segments of nearly every game without any real intensity or focus. However, it is most readily apparent in the closing minutes of tightly contested games. In a pair of recent losses to the Detroit Pistons and one against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Nets were within one possession, were tied or even had a lead with less than three minutes to go. In each game, they were unable to get over the hump, convert a critical offensive play, or get a stop when they needed it. Throughout the stretch run, they did not look like a cohesive unit: they were simply fractured, and no one on the floor was ever in a position to pull them together and lead them to the win. Some of this has to fall on head coach Kiki Vandeweghe, but ultimately when there is no veteran leadership on a team, it falls on the shoulders of the point guard. Harris has to take his team by the collar and direct the action. If he is unwilling or unable, someone else has to do the job--and the Nets seem to have plenty of guys who pass the buck. If they can find some leadership following the All-Star break, expect a few close wins to follow instead of heartbreaking losses.
The defensive problems New Jersey has are apparent to even a casual observer. There is almost no ball pressure, the help-side rotations are slow if they happen at all and transition defense is largely about making sure players retreat. To put it bluntly, the Nets play like a bad high school JV team on the defensive end. Whether this is a function of different approaches and teaching styles between former coach Lawrence Frank and Vandeweghe, the lack of experienced personnel, or some combination thereof, the Nets are pretty poor defensively.
Most teams have a standard way of attacking ballscreen actions---some will hedge hard and recover, some will switch, some will string it out, etc.--but the Nets play the screen differently every time. This means that the other three players not involved in the action have no idea what to expect, and it puts pressure on them when the offensive team manages to penetrate past the initial two defenders. This is just one example of many. Throughout their games, the Nets approach each situation with such lack of precision that an overall summary of their gameplan would be very difficult to put on paper. The last 10 games they have shown some improvement in this regard, but their post-All Star effort must be better for them to make real strides.
The final major issue for the Nets is their offensive focus. What exactly is it? Frank was the kind of coach who let his players play. With a group this young in need of micromanagement, Frank was not the best fit. Vandeweghe is not exactly a specific taskmaster either, and so they have shown little improvement. Who is the go-to guy for the Nets? Is it Lopez? Harris? Do they have a bread and butter play? They run sets for a variety of players--is that their philosophy? If it is, it can work (see the Spurs, who at least in the past, ran sets for all of their studs, even if you knew Tim Duncan was getting the ball when it mattered), but there is no evidence this reality is anything more than an extension of the hands-off approach of Vandeweghe. In the NBA, the players must take responsibility when they are given the ability to control their own fate, however. Whether it traces back to lack of on-court leadership or the inability of young players to recognize their opportunities, the Nets have not demonstrated a truly comprehensive and focused offensive gameplan.
The question remains, can New Jersey outrun history? To answer that requires a few assumptions. The first is that it at least seems the Nets are playing better basketball now than they were in December. They are involved in more close games against better teams than they were before, and the blowout losses are becoming more and more infrequent. The second is that some teams play with less enthusiasm in the second half of the season (either because the playoffs are unlikely or because they are a lock), and the Nets might be able to pick up wins there. Playing in the Eastern Conference definitely helps – nearly every team after the “Big Four” (Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks) is vulnerable, and there are some poor teams on the remaining schedule for New Jersey. Games against the Wizards, Pacers, Pistons, Knicks, and 76ers should be competitive, and a games with the Kings from the West could also be a candidate for a win.
In the end, it indeed seems likely the Nets will reach at least nine wins on the season, if not ten or eleven. Other teams struggled just as much early on but picked up wins in the second half of the season and outperformed their projections. New Jersey is likely in the same boat. How many more the Nets win and what kind of position they put themselves in for years to come depends on some of the factors mentioned above. New Jersey may not want to win too many, since a dose of John Wall could go a long way to helping the team next year and in the future. Final prediction? 10 wins for the Nets--and the chance to narrowly avoid league history.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Anthony by clicking here or click here to see Anthony's other articles.