The Nets returned home Monday after a five-game road trip, but the confines of Barclays Center weren’t all that friendly. The visiting Pacers absolutely bludgeoned Brooklyn 115-86, taking over the game with a 20-2 second-quarter run and never looking back. It was the Nets’ fourth loss in five games.
That Brooklyn’s offense would struggle to score with superstar point guard Kyrie Irving sidelined by a right shoulder impingement and rising star Caris LeVert on the shelf following thumb surgery isn’t necessarily shocking. That the Nets would allow a similarly shorthanded Pacers team—playing not only without its own All-Star guard, the still-rehabbing Victor Oladipo, but also early-season star Malcolm Brogdon, plus rotation guards Jeremy Lamb and T.J. McConnell—to score 41 points in the second quarter without much perceptible resistance was a bit troubling to head coach Kenny Atkinson, though.
“We totally weren’t there tonight,” Atkinson told reporters after the loss. “Below-average teams are inconsistent, and that’s what we are right now.”
It’s hard to quibble with Atkinson’s frank assessment of his squad at the moment. Through 13 games, the Nets rank 16th out of 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession and 21st in points allowed per possession, according to Cleaning the Glass, whose stats strip out stuff like numbers accumulated in garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves. On the whole, Brooklyn has been outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions, tied for the 10th-worst mark in the league; “below average” might actually be a bit kind. This, to put it mildly, is not what the Nets had in mind when they swung for the fences this summer.
Signing Irving, Kevin Durant, and DeAndre Jordan in free agency sent a signal to the rest of the NBA: After spending four years painstakingly climbing out of the hole the prior regime had dug with the disastrous Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade, the Nets were ready to make a major leap toward title contention. Sure, that leap would have to wait a year, after Durant had fully recovered from surgery to repair his ruptured right Achilles tendon. In the meantime, though, the Nets would craft the infrastructure of a winner without him, building on last season’s playoff run by swapping All-Star point guards. Out went D’Angelo Russell, the jewel of Brooklyn’s rebuild and a testament to its culture of development; in came Irving, a better, more decorated, and more experienced player, the kind of megawatt talent you add when you’re looking to level up from Surprise Postseason Entrant to Serious Marquee Franchise.
The early returns on that individual swap have been largely positive. Irving has fit pretty neatly into Russell’s slot in Brooklyn’s ballhandling hierarchy. He’s using a slightly higher share of the Nets’ offensive possessions than Russell did, but doing so more efficiently, thanks in large part to the combination of getting to the line more and posting a microscopic turnover rate. Before injuring his shoulder last Tuesday against the Jazz, Irving was averaging 30 points, 7.2 assists, and 5.6 rebounds per game with a 53.5 effective field goal percentage. The only players ever to hit those marks for a full season? Michael Jordan and James Harden.
Despite Irving’s dazzling offensive work, though, the Nets have scuffled out of the gate. They’ve lost overtime nail-biters to the Wolves and Grizzlies. They’ve built, and then blown, big leads against the Jazz and Nuggets. They’ve been pummeled by the Suns and Pacers, vacillating between offensive powerhouse and defensive punch line, even within games; as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann notes, Brooklyn’s been excellent in first halves and dismal after intermission, often falling apart on defense as the game progresses.
From the early-season report by ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan about the challenges of fitting established stars into the Nets’ burgeoning culture and Brooklyn’s brass being concerned about Irving’s “mood swings,” to that clip of Kyrie, shall we say, forcefully directing teammate Dzanan Musa into position on defense, something about this unveiling has just seemed a few degrees off. So what are these Nets, and where are they going?
To some extent, Brooklyn’s been sort of the East Coast answer to the Trail Blazers. Both teams entered the season knowing a critical frontcourt piece (Durant in Brooklyn, Jusuf Nurkic in Portland) would spend much, if not all, of the season watching from the sidelines. Both have seen their flexibility and firepower take early-season hits; Brooklyn lost Wilson Chandler for 25 games to a PED suspension and LeVert for four to six weeks to ligament damage in his right thumb, while Portland will be without Zach Collins for four months after shoulder surgery. Both teams own disappointing records, with Portland sitting outside the Western playoff bracket at 5-9, and Brooklyn just barely in the East’s no. 8 spot at 5-8.
And to try to stay afloat amid early-season struggles, both teams have relied heavily on their All-NBA point guards to consistently generate scoring chances. (The per-game stat lines for Irving and Damian Lillard are stunningly similar.). So, too, is the terminal velocity with which their teams’ offenses crater when they’re not on the floor. It’s not as catastrophic as the 16.3 points per 100 possessions nosedive that Portland’s offense suffers whenever Dame hits the bench, but Brooklyn scores 9.9 more points-per-100 in Irving’s minutes, going from a level of offensive efficiency that would rank second in the NBA with him in the game to one that would place dead last with him sitting.
That, interestingly enough, is one crucial difference between last season’s Nets and this year’s model: Rather than completely imploding when Russell took a seat, Brooklyn’s offense ticked up a notch. Another: Isolations account for 9.2 percent of the Nets’ total offensive possessions this season, according to Synergy Sports—a higher share than any team besides the Harden-led Rockets in 2018-19. A third: Brooklyn, which ranked eighth in the NBA last season last season with an average of 309 passes per game, ranks just 27th this season, at 253.3 per contest. In the last two games, which Irving missed to manage his shoulder ailment? That went up to 290.5.
It doesn’t seem like that’s because Irving’s been a significantly more ball-dominant presence than Russell; he’s averaging only about three more touches per game than Russell did last season and logging almost exactly the same average time of possession. What bears watching, though, is something Atkinson spoke about before the season: “the fear, when you bring in a great player, that people are going to defer too much.”
At first blush, it doesn’t seem like the other Nets are receding in response to Irving’s brilliance. LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen are all averaging more shot attempts per 36 minutes than they were last season, and newcomers like Taurean Prince and Garrett Temple haven’t been shy about putting it up when they get the rock. But willingness to let it fly isn’t necessarily the same as confidence and comfort when you’re doing it. It feels in the early going like the Nets are still figuring out how to get back to the rhythm they found last season in their new normal alongside an offensive machine like Irving.
Making matters worse, the Nets continue to struggle on the other side of the ball, too, as they have throughout Atkinson’s tenure. Brooklyn’s defensive shot profile still looks like what an analytically inclined coach like Atkinson would want: The Nets rank among the league’s top seven teams in limiting field goal attempts both at the rim and from beyond the arc, while forcing opponents into midrange looks more frequently than all but three other teams. And yet, after finishing a perfectly average 15th in points allowed per possession last season, Brooklyn once again is in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency, as it was in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
The addition of Jordan, a two-time All-Defensive Team selection, was supposed to help the Nets lock down the lane and prevent burlier big men from bullying Brooklyn inside, something reedy shot-swatter Jarrett Allen had struggled with through his two pro seasons. But while Jordan is turning in his highest block percentage in four seasons, and opponents are shooting far less frequently at the rim when Jordan’s in the game, they’re also scoring like gangbusters in his minutes, taking advantage of his decreased mobility, lacking quickness, and unwillingness to venture outside the paint to blitz Brooklyn to the tune of 114.4 points-per-100 when he’s on the court. Add in the fact that the Nets’ supposed low-block enforcer has also been trucked in the post by Domantas Sabonis twice in three weeks, and it’s hard to see what the 31-year-old might offer to live up to the four-year, $40 million investment the Nets made to bring him in alongside Durant and Irving. (Well, besides friendship, that is.)
Another factor contributing to the Nets’ defensive woes thus far: Opponents are shooting a higher percentage against them from 3-point range than they did last year, when they had the third-best opponent 3-point percentage in the league. Since 3-point defense is a famously noisy stat that doesn’t necessarily stay consistent throughout the season, that offers some cause for optimism. If the Nets continue to do a good job limiting up-close looks, and their opponents cool off from downtown—opponents are shooting 37 percent against coverage graded by NBA.com as “tight” or “very tight,” the third-highest percentage in the league—then their defense should start to trend up, right?
The glass-half-empty take: Just waiting for regression might not really do all that much. Despite the hot start on tightly contested tries, opponents haven’t exactly been unsustainably scorching against Brooklyn overall; there’s hardly any difference between the effective field goal percentage the Nets are giving up and the eFG% they’d be expected to give up based on the location and context of the shooting plays, according to pbpstats.com’s shot quality model. Brooklyn is conceding two more 3-point attempts per 100 possessions than last season, the eighth-biggest year-over-year jump of any team this season, owns the NBA’s eighth-worst defensive rebounding percentage, and forces turnovers at the league’s lowest rate. If you can’t end possessions, opponents are going to get more bites at the apple, and on a long enough timeline, that’s going to come back to bite you, even if you generally give up “the right kinds of shots.”
It’s possible that all the Nets really need is time—to get Irving and LeVert healthy, to get Chandler into the frontcourt fold, to get all the holdover pieces acclimated to playing with the new arrivals, and to get everybody on the same page with what Atkinson’s asking for on both ends of the floor. Some 15 percent of the way through the season, though, it’s worth considering that this is just who this season’s Nets are—a team with a singular talent capable of shining white hot on any given night, one who can bend games and everyone around him to his will, for better or for worse; and one that, at best, might not be much better than its predecessor. You wonder whether that will cause grumbling and discomfort during the long wait for KD … and, if it does, whether Atkinson might start feeling serious heat for the first time in his Brooklyn tenure.
To some degree, everything about this Nets season is really just a placeholder for and precursor to the way things will look once Durant takes the court. Even so, you’d imagine the powers that be would prefer a prettier prologue than Kyrie and Co. have written so far; you can get away with “below average” for only so long before people start asking some uncomfortable questions.
Statistics current through Monday’s games.