After the wins against two of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference (Charlotte and Philadelphia), the Brooklyn Nets are back to within striking distance of .500. When you look at names on the Nets roster -- Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, etc -- there seems like there should be more to this team than we’re currently seeing. Age and injuries have robbed those names of their peak effectiveness, likely dooming Brooklyn to an early playoff exit, but tenuously hanging onto the last playoff spot in a watered down conference seems like an underachievement.
The Memphis teams coached by Lionel Hollins were above all things feisty and unrelenting (though that was helped by the presence of Tony Allen and Zach Randolph). They may not have had the talent to win a playoff series, but those Grizzlies would give their opponents hell. This Nets team, on the other hand, seems destined to be steamrolled by one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference come mid-April.
So is this middling squad what Brooklyn really is? Or can they find a panacea -- via trades or internal adjustments -- to regain their competitive footing?
Any dive into solutions for the Nets requires a quick look at their core problems. So let’s hit the big ones.
Outside of Mason Plumlee, this roster has exactly zero rotation regulars that could be described as even an “above-average” athlete for their position, by NBA standards of course. Particularly problematic is the backcourt combination of Williams, Johnson and rookie Bojan Bogdanovic. Of all three-man lineups that have played at least 250 minutes for Brooklyn, that trio posted a defensive rating of 106.7, the worst mark on the team, per NBA.com’s stats site. When Johnson, at 33 years old, is the de facto “stopper” of that group, it’s not hard to see why that’s the case. The frontcourt isn’t much better as Plumlee, whose awareness has yet to match his physical ability, is joined by a 38-year-old Garnett, the massive but immobile Lopez and Euro import, Mirza Teletovic.
Especially when watching live, you can see the impact long, athletic players have on NBA games. Sound positional defenders certainly have their place, but having long-limbed, agents of chaos is a must if you want to make opposing offenses uncomfortable. Surviving without any isn’t impossible (just as having them doesn’t guarantee success), but it certainly raises the level of difficulty.
Brooklyn currently ranks 19th in the league in 3-point percentage. And that number is helped by Johnson’s recent 6-of-11 stretch from deep against the Bobcats and Sixers. The Nets also rank just 20th in overall attempts, according to RealGM’s database. For a team that employs several players whose career averages hover well above league-average, both marks are disappointing.
The low percentage can be traced back to a number of culprits. Teletovic is shooting just 33.7 percent, four percentage points below his career mark, on over five attempts per game. Jarrett Jack, whose career 3-point percentage is 35.3, is 3-of-23 this season. Bogdanovic, billed as a lights-out shooter, also struggled to adjust to NBA line and is converting just 34.5 percent of his 3’s -- though he’s been coming around of late.
As I explored last year, the injury to Lopez allowed the Nets to both fit together and find a more cohesive identity offensively. With Lopez back, Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston gone and a few new faces like Jack and Bogdanovic in the fold, Brooklyn just does things under Hollins. Other than playing slow and posting Lopez (when he’s playing), there’s no real clear sense of direction, which is probably why the team is ranked 23rd in offensive rating.
The other problem is that Hollins prefers bigs that can post up, but only Lopez really fits that mold. Plumlee is at his best as a dive-man in pick-and-rolls, and Teletovic and Garnett (sadly) are most effective as floor-spacers. Posting wings, like Johnson, also gets tricky when you have two bigs -- like Lopez and Garnett -- who can’t pull defenders out to the 3-point line. The spacing gets too tricky. On top of all this, it’s been hard to make out what type of player Williams is exactly right now. He barely posts up (more on that later) and lacks the explosion and ability to be the same dynamic threat to attack the rim that he was early on in his career. It all adds up to a slightly muddled hierarchy on the offensive end.
The Fix - Internal Solutions
1. The Rotation
The number one priority for Hollins should be to find an athletic presence to put into the starting lineup. Recently, Hollins has chosen to go with Sergey Karasev in lieu of Bogdanovic in an effort to shake up the starting backcourt. But swapping those two doesn’t dramatically upgrade the Nets in any meaningful way. With the trade of Jorge Gutierrez to Philly, the only real option available to Hollins is Markel Brown, a long, athletic, undersized two-guard lacking a reputation as a defender. Brown was far more focused on the offensive end of the floor in college, but with strong veterans in the locker room (especially Garnett), Hollins might be well served to give the former Oklahoma State product an extended look and see if Brown can grow into the role of a high-energy defender.
Brown is only listed at 6’3”, but has a 6’8” wing span and might be able to guard all three backcourt positions, depending on the personnel. Being able to have Brown concentrate his energy on tracking an opponents best offensive threat while hiding Johnson and/or Williams on a less threatening player could help boost the production of both. The problem for the Nets is that Brown is far from a polished offensive player and in particular seems to be far away from threatening opponents from 3.
The Nets could also consider reconfiguring their starting frontcourt as well. Cory Jefferson definitely fits the athlete mold, but when Garnett, Lopez, Plumlee and Teletovic are all healthy, there’s just not a place for the rookie from Arizona -- though Jefferson is natural pick to fill out the frontcourt rotation when the team is dealing with injuries or rest situations. So when dealing with their full complement of players, the Nets could try something a little drastic -- move Lopez to the bench.
Not only would this move help create a built-in minutes limitations for a player that has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but it would help alleviate the “touches” problem plaguing the current starting lineup. Hollins could start Plumlee in Lopez’s place, pairing him with Garnett, Brown, Johnson and Williams and creating a starting unit that should be much more competitive defensively. They’d have to change their approach offensively (we’ll get to that in a second) but the Nets should be much improved defensively.
2. The Offense
Swapping Plumlee and Lopez would be a way to trigger another huge need for the Nets -- shooting more 3’s. While trying to grow Plumlee’s game offensively is admirable and best for his long-term value, it’s not a good fit for an older team to win now. Plumlee is at his best rolling to the basket out of pick-and-rolls -- a good way to create open shots from 3 for a team struggling to generate them. Letting Johnson, Williams, and even Brown, engage in pick-and-roll heavy sets would be a great way to suck in the defense and open up more opportunities to bomb away from deep. It would also allow the Nets to find more post ups for both Johnson and Williams when the starters play together, since banishing Lopez to the role of offensive rebounder wouldn’t suit his skill set like it does Plumlee.
The bench unit, one that has struggled due to the lack of consist threat to breakdown defenses, could then play through Lopez in the post. Bogdanovic and Teletovic could then station themselves on the arc, bombing away from 3 as Lopez attacks second-unit bigs. Defensively, this group would be vulnerable, but the beauty of playing them against other reserves is there is a less likely chance they can be exposed in a major way. Plus in the games Garnett misses, Teletovic can slide into the starting lineup and Jefferson can pair with Lopez off the bench and use his athleticism and activity to muck up opponent possessions.
It’s hard to gauge what the Nets could do on the trade market because the value of Lopez, Williams and Johnson are all rather obscure. Johnson has value to teams on the edge of title contention as a veteran scorer that can push them to a new level. The problem, as always, is his massive contract. Very few contending teams can match up salaries in order to swing a deal for Johnson, meaning it’s very unlikely he departs Brooklyn. Williams is probably more moveable, but he’s been far from the problem for the Nets. It seems like a trade including Williams is likely just a lateral “shake up” type deal that just switches up parts before ultimately leaving Brooklyn where they are now.
That leaves Lopez. It’s hard a team willing to risk his injury history that resides in the Western Conference -- where the Nets would likely prefer to send him. Oklahoma City makes sense, but any combination of unproven youth and Kendrick Perkins’ expiring deal doesn’t seem like great value for a big like Lopez, unless the Nets view his departure as addition by subtraction.