The Nets' season has generated so much fan frustration that it's hard to keep things in perspective. Despite a devastating run of injuries, they're in good position to make the playoffs (currently 5 to 8 games ahead of the Wizards, Bulls, Hornets, and Pistons) and even to avoid a first-round match-up with the Bucks (2 games ahead of Orlando for 7th--and 0.3 points better as measured by SRS). And for all the well-deserved nostalgia regarding last year's gritty team, this team is just two games behind where last year's team was at the All Star break. It may actually be Kenny Atkinson's best coaching performance, all things considered.
Some frustrated fans like to say that every player on the team has regressed this season. Obviously, that's an exaggeration. But to see just how much of an exaggeration, it's helpful to make a systematic comparison, player by player, of real plus-minus ratings from this season and last season. As it turns out, there are a lot more improvements than regressions.
Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie has been a full point better on the offensive end than he was last season, despite not shooting as well. More importantly, he has been an only-modestly-below-average defender. Fans forget how bad Dinwiddie was defensively last season. By getting back to his 2017-18 defensive level while also upping his offensive game, he's performing like a top-15 point guard. 2019-20: +2.16 RPM (+2.61 ORPM, -0.45 DRPM, 1654 MP); 2018-19: -1.68 RPM (+1.53 ORPM, -3.21 DRPM, 1914 MP).
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. "Improvement" is relative in TLC's case. He was one of the very worst-rated players in the league last season. He's still bad this season, but much less bad on both sides of the ball. If he eventually becomes an average NBA player he might be Sean Marks's most remarkable find. 2019-20: -2.33 RPM (-1.93 ORPM, -0.39 DRPM, 423 MP); 2018-19: -5.26 RPM (-3.25 ORPM, -2.01 RPM, 669 MP).
Taurean Prince. Another case of relative improvement. Despite his shooting slump, Prince rates as a slight plus offensively. And his defense, which was atrocious last season, has been much less bad. For the first time in his career, he looks like an average NBA player. Maybe not worth a first-round draft choice--unless he continues to improve--but not as bad as many Nets fans seem to think. 2019-20: -0.07 RPM (+0.37 ORPM, -0.44 DRPM, 1573 MP); 2018-19: -2.71 RPM (-0.57 ORPM, -2.14 DRMP, 1552 MP).
Rodion Kurucs. Fans who think Kurucs has played well enough to get minutes aren't wrong. Despite a rocky start to the season, he's slightly positive on both ends--which wasn't the case last season. I don't pretend to know whether he remains in the doghouse due to some disciplinary issue, his legal problems, or what. 2019-20: +0.73 RPM (+0.28 ORPM, +0.45 DRPM, 424 minutes); 2018-19: -1.50 RPM (-1.21 ORPM, -0.29 DRPM, 1294 MP).
Theo Pinson. A big asterisk here due to limited minutes in both seasons; but given all the confident judgments among fans that Pinson will never make it in the NBA, it seems worth noting that he's already rating as average, mostly due to tenacious defense (and despite his terrible shooting). 2019-20: +0.02 RPM (-0.77 ORPM, +0.79 DRPM, 342 MP); 2018-19: -2.07 RPM (-2.47 ORPM, +0.40 DRPM, 211 MP).
Joe Harris. Harris's 3-point percentage has come down from the stratosphere, but he's balanced that a bit by managing to get more shots. And his defense, which had been a big weakness throughout his career, is suddenly looking like a significant plus. If that improvement is real, it makes him a top-100 player in the league. 2019-20: +1.77 RPM (+0.47 ORPM, +1.29 DRPM, 1634 MP); 2018-19: -0.15 RPM (+1.50 ORPM, -1.65 DRPM, 2293 MP).
Jarrett Allen. There's a belief among some Nets fans that young players automatically improve. They don't. But Allen has, both offensively and defensively. He's an extremely efficient scorer and an elite rim-protector and rebounder. Rather than harping on what he doesn't do, maybe people should notice that he's a top-15 NBA center at the age of 21. The sky's the limit. 2019-20: +2.00 RPM (+0.40 ORPM, +1.61 DRPM, 1410 MP); 2018-19: +0.46 RPM (-0.79 ORPM, +1.25 DRPM, 2096 MP).
Honorable mention: David Nwaba. Nwaba is no longer with the team, but in his brief spell as a Net he had a splendid run, especially defensively--his +2.07 defensive real plus-minus rating ranks in the top 40 in the league and top-15 among guards. Here's hoping he comes back strong next season, whether in Brooklyn or elsewhere. 2019-20: +2.56 RPM (+0.49 ORPM, +2.07 DRPM, 268 MP); 2018-19: -0.37 RPM (-0.91 ORPM, +0.54 DRPM, 984 MP).
No significant change
Caris LeVert. We all keep waiting for LeVert to put it all together, but it hasn't happened yet--at least, not for more than a few weeks at a time. Indeed, he has not been even an average overall player in any of his four seasons. His scoring is up a bit this season, and his 3-point percentage is higher than it's ever been; but his 2-point percentage, assists, and rebounds are all down, and his subpar defense does not seem to be improving. 2019-20: -0.68 RPM (+0.49 ORPM, -1.17 DRPM, 763 MP); 2018-19: -0.46 RPM (-0.03 ORPM, -0.43 DRPM, 1063 MP).
Wilson Chandler. Chandler has not been a plus player in several years, either defensively or--especially--offensively. Since coming back from suspension, he's played to form. Not sure whether the Nets were hoping for a rebirth, or just wanted a reassuring veteran presence. 2019-20: -2.50 RPM (-1.86 ORPM, -0.64 DRPM, 517 MP); 2018-19: -2.23 RPM (-1.38 ORPM, -0.85 DRPM, 1177 MP).
Garrett Temple. Temple has improved defensively and regressed offensively over the past few years, and if anything that's been true again this season. A terrific guy to have in the locker room, by all accounts, but a liability playing 28 minutes per game. Maybe less so beside Irving and Durant. 2019-20: -1.11 RPM (-2.31 ORPM, +1.20 DRPM, 1353 MP); 2018-19: -0.59 RPM (-1.47 ORPM, +0.88 DRPM, 2040 MP).
Andre Jordan. Jordan has been nothing special on the offensive end this season; but that's been true for the past couple years. Where his performance has really fallen off is defensively--from +3.44 in 2016-17, +1.32 in 2017-18, and +3.11 last season to a mediocre +0.38 this season. But that's up from -1.40 early in the season, so perhaps he is rounding into form. He is still an excellent rebounder and super-efficient scorer. 2019-20: -0.47 RPM (-0.86 ORPM, +0.38 DRPM, 958 MP); 2018-19: +1.49 RPM (-1.62 ORPM, +3.11 DRPM, 2047 MP).
Kyrie Irving. Irving's injuries and lack of playing time don't seem to have had any negative effect on his offensive game. His +4.12 offensive real plus-minus rating (slightly better than last season's) is 10th in the entire league. But his defensive rating has been terrible. (Not Trae Young terrible, but terrible nonetheless.) Getting him fully and effectively integrated into the team's defense is one of the main tasks for the rest of the regular season. 2019-20: +1.42 RPM (+4.12 ORPM, -2.70 DRPM, 658 MP); 2018-19: +4.23 RPM (+3.77 ORPM, +0.46 DRPM, 2214 MP).
But if so many players have improved, why is the team not better? One obvious factor is minutes. Two of the Nets' five best players, Nwaba and Irving, have missed most of the season. Throw in whatever is going on with Kurucs, and the six best players (based on current plus-minus ratings) have played just 47% of the team's total minutes.
Less obviously, some of the players who have shown significant improvement have still been quite bad. Marks deservedly gets a lot of benefit of the doubt on roster moves, but his additions this season (beyond the "big three") were never confidence-inspiring. Prince is a nice system fit, but his RPM rating last season was a dreadful -2.71; even with substantial improvement this season, he has been just average. TLC, a late pickup, has gone from abysmal last season (-5.26!) to just dreadful this season (-2.33).
Among the veteran acquisitions, neither Temple nor Chandler had garnered a single positive RPM rating in the past several seasons--and Iman Shumpert's last good season was 2014-15. Anyone who was counting on these guys to be major contributors was likely to be disappointed. Of course, having almost $80 million invested in Durant, Irving, and Jordan limits what even the most brilliant GM can do--and reduces the margin of error when injuries happen.
Look at the bright side. Three of the Nets' key pieces--Dinwiddie, Allen, and Harris--are having excellent seasons. Irving has been brilliant offensively despite missing most of the season. Prince has improved significantly, and if his shooting gets back to where it was last season he will be a real contributor. Rookie Nicolas Claxton has shown some promise. Oh, and then there's that KD guy ...