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How good are the Nets right now? What can they do to get better? Looking at the numbers

The Nets are back! – and have lost two of three games to the Timberwolves, Knicks, and Grizzlies. Ugh. I think that, especially with small sample sizes, people tend to focus more on record than on play. For example, let’s say that Kyrie hits the circus shot in Brooklyn and Jae Crowder bricks the three. Sure, the Nets are living the 3-0 dream and chasing an undefeated season, but I would argue that they would still have the same problems.

How good are the Nets right now?

It’s pretty easy to win basketball games—just be better at scoring points than your opponent, stupid! You probably won’t get any pushback on that, but lots more when it comes to how we measure a team’s strength. Should we only care about a team’s two or three best players? Their crunch-time lineup? Roster 1-10? Win-loss record? How many more or less points per game they score than their opponents? How many more or less points per 100 possessions they score than their opponents?

All of the above have merit and are by no means exclusive to one another. I personally like to look at net rating as a quick and dirty measure of how good a team is, as it filters out the variability of close wins or losses as well as different paces of play. I think there’s a clear correlation between winning and net rating. Each of the last ten NBA champions have been top eight in net rating. Nine out of ten have been top six. Eight of ten have been top four. Seven have been top three. The average net rating of the last ten champions is 7.92. That’s not a magic number—but what I hope I’ve shown is that net rating is a fair, if rough, predictor of success.

Now let’s turn to the Nets. The raw per-game stats paint a picture of extremes: first in scoring (124.0) and third-worst in points allowed (123.3). Based on these numbers, it would be easy to conclude that the Nets are fielding a nuclear offense and a comatose defense. I would argue that these numbers are misleading, and point to the Nets efficiency numbers instead. With a 108.1 offensive rating, the Nets still possess a good offense—eighth best in the league—but not the most efficient. Similarly, the Nets’ 106.9 defensive rating is only seventeenth in the league, not third-worst. The disparity between raw and efficiency stats can probably be accounted for by the Nets’ pace of play (5th fastest), as well as their two overtime games adding an addition ten minutes of scoring both for them and their opponents. Brooklyn’s 1.2 net rating (16th) confirms a less-extreme version of the eye test: whether you think the Nets need to score more points (who are you?) or tighten up on defense (much more reasonable), they haven’t played better than average thus far.

We’ve established that, by efficiency, the Nets are good but not great on offense, and mediocre but not awful on defense. Where do we go from here? How can the Nets get better?

Offense

I think the Nets’ potential offensive improvements can be summarized in one cheesy phrase: charity is for us, not them. There’s nothing fancy about this: make your free-throws and don’t turn the ball over. Despite attempting the third-most free-throws per game with 32.3, the Nets are only making 70.1%, sixth-worst. The average team tends to make 77% of their free-throws. Compared to our hypothetical average team, the Nets are leaving 2.2 points on the table (24.87 vs. 22.64). Make your free-throws, guys! On the other hand, the Nets are turning the ball over 2.5% more often than their opponents. In raw numbers, this translates to the Nets’ opponents having 2.7 more possessions (based on the turnover battle, not accounting for offensive rebounding) than them. If the Nets cut their turnovers down to their opponents’ level, they’d save 2.88 points per game. (Calculated by multiplying the Nets’ points-allowed per possession, 1.069, by the number of extra possessions the opponent receives because of the Nets ‘surplus’ turnovers).

I think there’s good reason to believe that the Nets can make these admittedly simple fixes. Kenny Atkinson’s Nets have improved in turnover percentage in each of the last three years going from 16.7% in his first year on the job to 14.6% last year. The uncommonly high turnover rate can be attributed in part to a lack of continuity, lack of focus (way too many travels), poor decision making (please don’t throw DeAndre Jordan so many lobs you guys), and maybe even that #chinarust. With regards to free-throw shooting, it should get better. Taurean Prince, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen have all shot way below their career averages. It’s only been three games—it’s really unlikely that the Nets will continue to shoot 70%.

If the Nets started hitting their free throws at a league-average rate, and posted a neutral turnover-differential, they’d be up 5.08 points per game. I’m not well-versed enough in NBA statistics to tell you what that would look like in terms of the Nets’ offensive rating, but I hope that those numbers still help demonstrate the point I’m trying to make—which is that the Nets offense is probably slightly better than it’s looked so far.

Defense

Matt Brooks wrote a great article about the Nets (fixable!) defensive woes, so I won’t dwell too much on the team statistics. I think that the Nets have a clear offensive-minded roster-building approach which loads up on gifted dribble-drivers and shooters while sacrificing individual defensive ability, relying more on team-defense and mobile, shot-blocking bigs than a team-wide defensive focus.

I have one suggestion to improve the defense: play DeAndre Jordan less. Way less.

Disclaimer: we are only three games into the new season and DJ has been on two All-Defensive and three All-NBA teams. Now that that’s out of the way…yikes. Let me hit you with some stats. With DeAndre Jordan on the floor, the Nets have a 104.9 offensive rating and 115.0 defensive rating. In essence, the Nets are 10 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions when DJ is on the floor. Not great! I think that passes the eye-test. DJ is almost a black hole on offense, save for his limited high-post passing and mediocre rim-rolling skills. On defense…double yikes. DJ looks like a statue, laterally slow and unwilling to make rotations out of the paint. Not loving that, to be honest. Let’s talk about why Jarrett Allen should be playing instead, even if he does not have DJ’s pedigree.

When Jarrett Allen is on the court, the Nets have a 114.1 offensive rating and 105.2 defensive rating. They outscore their opponents by 9 points per 100 possessions. With the eye-test once more, I think that Jarrett Allen’s mobility enables him to contest more shots than DJ, get down the floor faster, and jump higher for lobs. I think that Jarrett Allen catches a lot more criticism because he doesn’t have the pedigree that DeAndre Jordan does, and the ways in which he helps the team aren’t always as flashy.

One last point on stats—a big stat that jumped out at me was that the Nets turn the ball over 5% more often when DeAndre Jordan is on the court. I think this is easily attributable to the roughly six million lobs Spencer Dinwiddie threw into space in the season opener. Maybe this number comes down over time.

While Jarrett Allen is already playing more minutes than DJ (roughly 27 to 21, after factoring out overtime minutes), I’d like to see him play even more, and perhaps see the Nets look at Nic Claxton, or even some small-ball lineups with Taurean Prince or Rodions Kurucs at center. That being said, there is probably some amount of politicking going on here. Kyrie and KD didn’t just want to team up with one another—they wanted to team up with DeAndre Jordan. Here’s to hoping he plays better.

Thank you for reading. Let’s go Nets!