Well, sigh, there you have it. That glimmering light at the end of the tunnel fueled by the illustrious, omnipresent seven-foot basketball enigma and his mesmerizing ball-handling brother in arms? It’s all but been extinguished.
In a matter of just mere 36 hours, after Wanda Durant swatted away the hopes of Brooklyn’s itching fanbase during her TODAY show appearance, KD himself added insult to injury in an interview with Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks.
“The best thing for me is to continue the rehab, get as strong as I can and focus on next season,” Durant told Rooks.
That, combined with, well, this…
Nets general manager Sean Marks announced Kyrie Irving will have arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder and will be out for the rest of the regular season.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) February 20, 2020
...led us all to the same conclusion: The Brooklyn Nets 2019-2020 season is effectively over.
Now, this isn’t to say that the Nets can’t extend their season into the final two weeks of April for a playoff series. As it stands, Brooklyn sits firmly in the Eastern Conference’s 7-spot with a two-game lead over the Orlando Magic and a five-game lead over the Washington Wizards. While falling below Orlando and its third-easiest remaining schedule is at least within the realm of possibility, Washington is a different story: Tankathon rates the Wiz’s remaining schedule as the fourth-toughest league-wide.
Brooklyn is, essentially, in a bit of a holding pattern, unable to make a run in the playoffs, unable to slip into the lottery. Plus, the intrinsic value of a late lottery pick from a weaker draft is unlikely to outweigh that sweet, sweet playoff revenue in the eyes of ownership.
More than likely, the Nets will play their vets down the stretch (DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple, etc.), win enough games to maintain a stronghold over the 7-spot, and perhaps win a game – maybe two – against any one of Miami, Boston or Toronto. The fate for these Nets is in the cards without a way to stack the decks; this uninspiring destiny of mediocrity is near impossible to escape.
Still, to avoid sitting around twiddling our thumbs and hopelessly awaiting the start of next season, let’s instead turn our attention toward something different. Join me as I hop into this spacecraft – painted green for hope – to travel at hyper-speed into a universe of overt irrationality.
Let’s see these Nets play the kids down the stretch. After all, we could use something to get excited about with 29 games and a dreary playoff run still in sight.
Now to be clear, the pickings are fairly slim; only six players on Brooklyn’s active roster are 24 years old or younger: Theo Pinson, Rodions Kurucs, Timothe-Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jarrett Allen, Dzanan Musa and Nicolas Claxton. TLC and Jarrett Allen are playing real minutes on a playoff team, and although that’s enticing long-term, it also makes them known commodities; between now and the end of the season, it’s unlikely that either Allen or Luwawu-Cabarrot grow substantially beyond their current roles. They’re set. So, that leaves Pinson, Musa, Kurucs and Claxton as the remaining “mystery box” entities.
Being the eldest yet least accomplished of the bunch makes Theo Pinson the easiest to expel. Of course, it doesn’t help that among players who have averaged 5 shots or more per game, only eight guards in NBA history have posted a worse true shooting percentage than Pinson’s 37.6 percent, per BBall Reference. Basically, he’s taking a whole mess of shots and making very few of them.
That leaves us with Nic, Rodi and Dzanan as the young’uns worthy of developmental minutes during Brooklyn’s final 29 games. The remaining optimism surrounding Musa is mostly derived from a couple of qualitative measurables rather than actual tangible success. Namely, his age (20) and size for his position (6-foot-9) can still draw light “oohs” and “ahhs” from select groups of Brooklynites.
Season averages of 4.2 points, 0.9 assists, two rebounds, 36 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from deep certainly damper those feelings. He’s done an admirable job cutting down those 27-foot bombs that notoriously earned him a spot on Zach Lowe’s “ten things” column, hoisting only nine “deep” (25-feet or more) threes since the start to the new year. A more reasonable shot chart has greatly emboldened some of Musa’s efficiencies: 46.3 percent from the field and 40 percent from three since January 1 is at least somewhat enticing no matter how you spin it. Still, that hasn’t stopped Musa from falling victim to a storm of nine DNP-CD’s in his last 11 games.
Most of this is about the rise of TLC, the latest 3-and-D needle in the haystack find by Sean Marks, as well as some top-notch offensive production from the finally healthy Caris LeVert. Should 33-year-old Garrett Temple require some time to rest up for the postseason, I wouldn’t mind seeing if Musa’s strong start to the New Year was legitimate or just a bit of statistical noise.
Nic Claxton is in a similarly precarious situation, stuck in the pecking order behind Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan. Increasing Allen’s comfort on both ends of the floor is paramount for the Nets going forward. So it’d be silly to cut the 21-year-old’s minutes at this learning point of the 2020 season (particularly when his putative replacement is a year younger).
DeAndre Jordan, meanwhile, has been recently resurgent. Not to mention, advanced numbers absolutely love him: Jordan’s second on the team in defensive efficiency according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR ratings and he’s an “excellent” 84th-percentile (or better) defender in deterring post-ups and pick-and-roll bigs, per Synergy.
Still, Jordan is on the wrong side of 30, so keeping him fresh for future playoff runs during his final years of productivity is awfully important. With this in mind, perhaps it’s best to finally give the rook a shot, minutes here, minutes there. There’s a good chance Brooklyn stumbled upon a prolific offensive rebounder in round two of last year’s draft, as Claxton has grabbed 78.9 percent of his contested offensive rebounding opportunities and has averaged a prolific 1.5 points per possession on put-backs, per Synergy. As an example, here’s Claxton smashing a second-chance dunk over the heads of two near-7-foot giants, Dragan Bender and Giannis Antetokoumpo:
He’s also showcased signs of protecting the rim with diligence. Opponents are shooting just 46.7 percent from six-feet or closer to the basket – sixth-best among all NBA players who have contested 2.5 shots or more, per NBA stats (behind the likes of Robin and Brook Lopez, Giannis Antetokoumpo, Ivaca Zubac and Norvel Pelle). On offense, he’s done his part in thundering down the lane to keep spacing afloat as a 52nd percentile roller, per Synergy.
Until his jump-shot comes along, it’s best to utilize Claxton as an uber-athletic X-factor center. Playing Claxton at the 4 has mostly been an experiment gone haywire ... at least so far. The Nets have allowed 15.9 more points than they’ve scored when Claxton and DeAndre Jordan share the floor. The Claxton and Jarrett Allen pairing has been even more detrimental: a -16.7 two-man net-rating, yikes. All of which, by the way, makes complete and utter sense; next to rim-bound centers like Jordan and Allen, Claxton is without his precious driving lanes and is typically guarded by quicker, smarter players, making it far more difficult to do things like this…
…and that’s an experience I, personally, would hate to lose out on.
This leads us to the most glaring rotational omission of all: Rodi. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Kurucs has quietly had himself an outstanding year since resurrecting his career following an early-season slump. He’s been shooting the cuff off the ball since the turn of the decade (46.3 percent from three) and over the course of the season, he’s one of the NBA’s seven best catch-and-shoot 3-point specialists according to percentage (47.9 percent!). After connecting on just 31.5 percent of his distance shots as a rook, seeing the kid knock down threes off ball movement with regularity has been a bit of a godsend to us Kurucs Truthers...
Kurucs broke out last season as an enticing two-way prospect. This year, he’s only improved upon his most discernable skills. As an overall defender, he’s seen his Synergy rating jump significantly from the 41st percentile to the 74th percentile. Furthermore, he’s improved at smothering lead pick-and-roll ball-handlers (from 6th percentile PnR defender to a much, much improved 56th percentile) and he’s more staunch as a deterrent in isolation situations (41st percentile in 2019; 68th percentile in 2020).
And then, of course, there’s Kurucs trademarked back-cuts. After averaging a decent 1.24 points per possession off cuts a season ago, Kurucs’ PPP has jumped to 1.36 in 2019-2020. He’s diversifying the way he initiates his backdoor cuts, rising from the wing as if he’s about to shoot a spot-up three before backtracking into the paint (as it turns out, shooting 46 percent from deep puts the defense in a frenzy, folks)…
Or just flat-out tip-toeing behind the defense like a springy puma hunting for easy dunks and layups…
By turning 3-point shooting – his biggest weakness – into a strength, and by improving upon his most prominent skills (defense and cutting), it’s no surprise at all that the Nets are extensively better with Kurucs in the rotation. Since January 1, among players who have racked up 100 minutes or more, the Nets are a notable 1.7 points per 100 possessions better when Rodi’s on the hardwood – second to only Joe Harris and his +5.4 on-court net-rating.
Say it with me, “WHY THE BED-STUY ISN’T THIS GUY PLAYING?!?!?!”
Whew. Glad I got out.