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NUMBERS GAME: Stats show Nets in a bad, bad place

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

During Evan Roberts’ recent postgame podcast, the WFAN radio host let off some pointed statements regarding the Brooklyn Nets. It’s an awesome listen, but his closing remarks were perhaps the most important of all.

“Where is this season going? You want me to give you a prediction? The only prediction I can offer you is Kyrie Irving isn’t playing until him and Kevin Durant walk on that court in October. And until then, I’m worried about this team in this moment. And right now, they suck.”

He’s not wrong. The Brooklyn Nets, winners of the Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant sweepstakes, do, in fact, suck. Considerably. How exactly did we get here?

This summer, I, along with many others, viewed the Nets as a surefire playoff team. The math was simple; Sean Marks took the successful 2019 grouping, upgraded its strongest position substantially (respects due to D’Angelo Russell), and brought in younger — and ideally better — role players to replace the 2019 incumbents. Out went DeMarre Carroll, in came Taurean Prince. Jared Dudley evolved into Wilson Chandler. Treveon Graham was replaced by a better version of himself in David Nwaba. Even Ed Davis, a fan favorite last season, lost his spot in favor of former All-Star DeAndre Jordan. Not to mention, the many young homegrown holdovers — Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs and Caris LeVert — would all be one year older and, again, in an idealistic world, one year better.

I had the Nets pegged for 45 wins. To many, this was viewed as a meager prediction. Two games into the preseason and I was already second-guessing myself. “Had I been too tempered in my evaluations? Was this a top-notch Eastern Conference team even without KD?”

Rather than reviewing the many arcs of the season, let’s skip ahead to right freakin’ now. The Nets have been without Kyrie Irving since November 14th. Early returns were initially positive, but now, the team has lost its luster without the homegrown star dancing on the grey collage of the Barclays hardwood. As of today, they’re on a league-worst seven-game losing streak, and head into Friday hosting an uber-scrappy Miami 3-seed.

A simple look at the NBA’s per 100 possession leaderboard paints a pretty clear picture of who the Nets are at this point in time. Let’s start with the positives since, um, there won’t be many more of those after this here paragraph. In their last eight games, the Nets are allowing a seventh-best 105.9 points per 100 possessions. Brooklyn is defending spot-up shooters at a top-five rate and are sixth in deterring transition scoring. Systematically speaking (on defense, at least), Atkinson’s drop-back scheme is working wholeheartedly; allowing shots from the midrange has proved to be a prudent solution to the Nets’ early-season defensive issues. Brooklyn is giving up the most “floater-range” shots in the league, yet opponents are only connecting on 39.5 percent of those shots. Midrange numbers are just as friendly; opponents take 15 on average — the most in the league — yet are successful on only 39.7 percent of them.

And sure, Brooklyn suffers from some troubling defensive numbers. Brooklyn’s 30th-ranked pick-and-roll ball-handling defense remains stuck in purgatory in the league’s basement. Not to mention, they’re allowing the eighth-most “wide-open” three-pointers in the league, with opponents taking advantage 37.7 percent of the time. Never a great team at creating turnovers, the Nets have been the second-worst team at generating deflections over this recent two-week span.

But overall – get your dad-jokes ready – the D is in place; it’s where it needs to be.

Alas, it’s time to put away the pompoms, streamers, parade balloons and party hats. It’s about to get ugly, reaaaaal ugly. To help you maintain your cool and avoid hostility, perhaps it’s time to go outside and take the pup on a walk. Maybe grab a beverage from the fridge. I mean, shoot, have you tried smoking? Do something, anything, to alleviate the incoming inevitable stress.

Because the Nets offense, well, let’s just say it’s wandered off into uncharted sea floor waters; 97.5 points per 100 possessions isn’t just bad, it’s downright impressive given how fast the team is racing up and down the floor (fourth-fastest pace in the league). I mean, seriously, what the hell is this?

Even with Caris LeVert back, Brooklyn’s offense appears perpetually stripped barren of capable ball-handlers. Synergy ranks the Nets as the 25th-best half-court offense alongside the likes of the New York Knicks, the Golden State Warriors, the horrific Atlanta Hawks, the Orlando Magic and the creator-less mess that is the Chicago Bulls.

Brooklyn’s scoring in the half-court – which is predicated on manufacturing drives and threes on an assembly line – is flawed from the inside-out. This isn’t a light fire risk; it’s a blazing inferno that’s on the edges of torching Brooklyn’s season to ashes. Synergy stats rank the Nets as the third-worst jump shooting team. They’re somehow missing 68.7 percent of their shots above the break, dead-last in the league.

As for drives… good news! The team is squeezing out the second-most downhill attempts in the league!… but only scoring on 43 percent of them, fifth-worst in the association. But wait! Brooklyn is number one in at-rim attempts! Yet again, apologies for the fool’s gold; they’re actually 27th in accuracy. Which, you know, kind of defeats the purpose of cozying up with those sexy, persuasive analytics.

Kenny Atkinson’s offense isn’t particularly overwhelming in terms of sophistication. Brooklyn runs a great deal of pick-and-roll (third in the league in frequency; 24th in points per possession. Yuck!) and quite a bit of isolation. 7.3 percent of the Nets total possessions are decided by mano-a-mano face-offs, yet Brooklyn’s efficiency ranks within the 28th percentile — a bottom-nine statistic. Going from Kyrie Irving’s one-on-one brilliance to… whatever it is that Theo Pinson does… is like enjoying a glass of McCallan 25 — neat, no rocks needed — and then washing it down with bottom-shelf whiskey.

One of the biggest early-season talking points from national pundits was Kyrie Irving’s affect on the Nets’ pristine culture. For the most part, these TV tirades didn’t necessary stem from friction within the locker room. No, these air-strikes of criticism tackled the product on the floor. 10 games into the 2020 season, and Brooklyn’s patented style of ball-hopping nirvana had fallen off into a wasteland of quicksand and sludge. Suddenly, Brooklyn was starring a bottom-three passing rate (252 passes per game) square in the face. Critics were quick, no, instantaneous in pointing fingers at Kyrie. Fast forward two months and, well, things haven’t really changed. A reminder: Irving hasn’t suited up since November 14th. Since that time, the Nets are averaging… oh… just 279.7 passes per game — fifth-fewest league-wide.

Yeah, it might be time to squash that “Kyrie’s a ball-hog” narrative with a Kevin Durant-sized foot.

So, if Kyrie isn’t the man whose name deserves tarnishing (sorry, Boston), who is?

Pinning the blame game on just one target is well outside my scope of comfortability, especially with 4/5s of Brooklyn’s starting lineup trapped within merciless slumps.

After enjoying himself a truly magnificent December, four games into 2020, and it appears Spencer Dinwiddie is crashing down to Earth. A regression to the mean was almost inevitable, but 18 points per game (from 27 in December) on 37.9/20 splits is one hell of a rude awakening. There’s no other way to put this: The dude just looks… gassed. Versus the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dinwiddie netted a whopping 0 points on 0-of-4 shooting at half. All four attempts came from well outside the arc, and the potential All-Star appeared irresolute about zooming downhill.

By circumstance, his pick-and-roll partner (Jarrett Allen) has also seen his modest numbers take a slight tumble. With his lob-tossing companion settling for jumpers instead of piercing into the paint, Allen — a player dependent upon others for offense — has watched helplessly as his freebie dunk attempts have vanished into the afterlife. See for yourself…

Jarrett Allen before December 21st: 12.3 points, 10.6 total rebounds; 3.6 offensive rebounds, 7.3 shots per game, 66.2 percent from the field.

Jarrett Allen after December 21st: 8.1 points, 6.9 total rebounds, two offensive rebounds, five shots per game, 55 percent from the field.

But alas, to cap all this off, we must touch on Taurean Prince and Garrett Temple, the pair of 3-and-D Power Rangers obtained to take Brooklyn over the top. Funny enough, both players suffer from frighteningly similar issues: inconsistent shooting and astonishingly questionable shot selection.

Both Temple and Prince showcase undying belief in their pull-up shooting. That resolve has, thus far, been rather misplaced. Per Second Spectrum, Temple has made just 18 of his 76 total pull-up threes (23.7 percent). Moving closer to the basket barely alters his pull-up fate: 13-for-39 from 2-point range is nothing to write home about.

Prince’s pull-up numbers are just as dismal and damning. He’s 16-for-59 (27.1 percent) when shooting off the dribble from three. However, Temple and Prince gain some separation when it comes to pull-up twos. Sadly, we’re not talking efficiency (as Prince shoots just 34 percent). We’re talking volume. Gross, disgusting volume.

The one-legged off-the-dribble fade-away pull-up off glass has become the staple of Prince’s offense when attacking off a closeout. If that shot sounds ugly, trust me, it is. Even a mix of post-Achilles Kobe Bryant and early-career Dion Waiters would find some pause in hoisting such egregious shot attempts.

Prince’s fascination with icky midrangers is actively hurting his team. 30 percent accuracy from midrange and 34.9 percent from floater range certainly won’t get the job done, yet these two types of shots make up almost 20 percent of his total profile. It’s a big reason he’s a 14th-percentile offensive player – “below average” according to Synergy stats.

To put a bow on this section before we move on, let me leave you with this: In a category he ranks fourth in (in terms of frequency for the Nets), Prince is shooting a team-worst 23.4 percent after taking 3-to-6 dribbles. Temple, meanwhile, lands at spot number five (with 1.6 attempts per game). Yet, he too is connecting on a despondent 28.6 percent.

I mentioned inconsistent shooting beforehand, so let’s quickly review. If you have children, for their sake, cover those innocent eyes. Since December 17, Garrett Temple is shooting 23.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. He’s second on the Nets in this category, and for good reason; opponents are leaving him wiiiiiide open, daring him to shoot.

As you can tell, not the worst of strategies. Canning 28.8 percent of his “open” threes and 32.7 percent of his “wide-open” outside looks doesn’t exactly spark fear in opponents’ eyes.

Taurean Prince’s off-ball numbers? Not much better: 30.9 percent on a team-leading 5.5 catch-and-shoot threes is (oh boy)... not particularly thrilling. (Neither is 26.3 percent on 52 total “open” threes since December 1st, but who’s asking?)

Let’s make one thing clear: My goal is not to pile upon Taurean Prince and Garrett Temple endlessly (though, it’s probably too late now). Their struggles are just unfortunate casualties from a greater macrocosm; the Nets are bleeding out, and Brooklyn’s role players have been thrust into unsavory positions. For Temple, this meant performing as the team’s de-facto secondary point guard with Caris LeVert on the mend… and ultimately floundering within role as fifth-percentile pick-and-roll ball-handler (per Synergy). That criminal misuse has tanked any and all effectiveness for the poor 33-year-old Swiss Army knife. As a result, in their last eight games, the Nets are currently 11.7 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Temple sits.

Prince, meanwhile, continues to get pummeled as a vastly-undersized small-ball starting four. While his post defense has been admirable, Prince is posting guard-like contested rebounding percentages on both offense and defense. Yes, his struggles are real, but he isn’t the only one to blame.

Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson built a brand predicated upon analytics and future-forward thinking. Lightning-quick pace, three-pointers in bunches and small-ball extravaganza have become the way of life in Net-land. However, with the stars on the mend, we’re seeing the other end of this double-edged sword. Without any on-court stylistic adjustments, plus an everlasting influx of inconsequential G-League signees that never seem to move the needle, Brooklyn’s key role-playing acquisitions have become increasingly squandered and exacerbated; it’s flat-out unfair. Cracks are forming in the foundation and the mental fortitude of this once-exciting Brooklyn team is currently dying at the stake.

There is a bit of cruel irony in all of this; the numbers bear the cold hard truth about this analytically inclined team…

Evan Roberts was right and the math is fairly simple: the Brooklyn Nets suck, but do they understand why?