It’s easy to feel like history is repeating itself.
The Nets are 0-3 since Kevin Durant sprained his right MCL with losses to the 22-23 Oklahoma City Thunder and the 14-31 San Antonio Spurs. Their record last season after Durant, yes, sprained his MCL? ... 2-1... which then gave way to an 11-game losing streak that ultimately led to James Harden asking for a trade and Brooklyn later flaming out in a first-round sweep at the hand of the Boston Celtics.
It was assumed that because the Nets upgraded their roster this offseason, the Nets could better withstand the loss of their MVP-caliber megastar. Plus, with Kyrie Irving reinstated full-time, free of COVID-19 mandate restrictions, and with no looming drama of a discontented Harden asking out, the Nets’ situation was much improved.
“Well, last year was it was just kind of a toxic environment,” said center Nic Claxton on Tuesday. “Didn’t know if everybody wanted to be here at the time this year. There’s no divide between everybody that’s out there. We’re gonna figure it out.”
Despite the slow start, there’s little reason to abandon all hope for the Durant-less Nets. But Brooklyn must restructure how it plays and tinker with its philosophies. The real test now comes for Jacque Vaughn, who by all accounts has passed every challenge thrown his way this NBA season.
For starters, Brooklyn’s half-court offense needs some new seasoning. With Durant healthy, the Nets ranked third in half-court offense efficiency behind only Dallas and Boston. Now, Brooklyn’s halfcourt offense has dipped all the way to dead last in the entire NBA during the three-game losing streak.
Much of Brooklyn’s uninspired halfcourt possessions have looked the same: without pace, purposeless, and disjointed. The ball rarely breaks the 3-point line as the Nets pitter-patter-pass along the perimeter like a college offense. Anytime you end up with a Yuta Watanabe long two-pointer or a Seth Curry isolation on a slew of pump-fakes late in the shot clock, you haven’t done your job as an offense.
The playbook needs to be reworked, at least slightly. For example, there’s too much reliance on ‘Chicago’ action, which involves a player streaking off a pindown screen into a dribble-handoff. It’s resulted in an incredibly predictable offense.
Simple plays, like this one I broke down on my Twitter account, are a great antidote to predictability.
BREAKDOWN (sound on!! ):— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) January 17, 2023
The Nets are going to need to get creative with their offense with Kevin Durant sidelined. This third quarter possession was a great example of that.
(Via @NowOnAirr) pic.twitter.com/h379h9qPH5
Even something as simple as forcing defenders to navigate a second screen, which the Nets do here while running a ‘double stagger’ for Patty Mills, can breathe similar air into this offense that’s lost at sea.
On a macro level, though, there’s a bigger problem at play. The Nets have lost the key ingredient to what made their offense sparkle: Kevin Durant’s midrange shooting, who paced the league with a ridiculous 57.1% accuracy in the in-between zone. The Nets as a team have gone from nailing the midrange shot at historical accuracy (50.6%) to ranking within the bottom half of the league at just 40% with their star on the mend.
Jacque Vaughn spoke on this predicament after Brooklyn’s 109-98 loss to the Boston Celtics, stating that Brooklyn must eschew some of these midrange shots for 3-pointers. And while that may be true, you can argue it’s even more important that the Nets increase their paint touches.
Just 28.6% of Brooklyn’s total shots came at the rim with Durant healthy. Since then? 28.7%. Their shot diet, at least inside the paint, has largely gone unchanged. That’s a problem.
Getting to the rim warps defenses and forces scrambling rotations, which can open up avenues for 3-point buckets. It’s quite similar to what having a healthy Durant does for Brooklyn’s offense, who draws crowds of two, sometimes three defenders to give the Nets advantages from deep.
Take, for example, the possession below. Yes, Brooklyn ends up with a 3-pointer like Vaughn has been asking for, but it’s the process that is rotten. The ball touches six Brooklyn hands yet doesn’t go further than one foot behind the three-point line, leading to a contested three with 16 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The defense isn’t forced to rotate, move, or even think.
The two plays below also result in threes, but the road to getting there is much kinder. Both are set up by Royce O’Neale, who does an excellent job keeping his dribble alive and knifing all the way into the painted area to force help rotations from Lu Dort and Derrick White. He then whizzed skip passes to wide-open shooters on the other side of the floor.
Good things happen when offensive players get inside the 3-point line; even better things occur if those players touch the paint.
Of course, it’s a problem when Royce O’Neale is one of your most consistent drivers.
That brings us to Kyrie Irving. Irving has not fared well with his brother-in-arms on the sidelines, averaging just 19.5 points on 36.4% from the field and 22.2% from three. Oddly enough, it’s his aggressiveness that has left a lot to be desired. He’s been far too content with deferring to others, giving up the ball to stand to the side and watch his teammates attempt to create for themselves.
Below, Irving completely passes up a driving lane with his defender, Kendrich Williams, behind him and instead resets at the top of the key. The end result is an O’Neale post-up, which is not exactly the type of shot you’re looking for if you’re Jacque Vaughn. In the second clip, the Nets run ‘HORNS’ that flows into ‘Chicago’ action, and that initially gives the Nets the edge when Irving’s defender, Dort, gets caught on a screen. But Kyrie relinquishes that advantage by barfing up a 21-footer with only rookie big man Jaylin Williams standing between him and the rim.
Irving’s been remarkable when he’s assertive. He’s shooting 63.6% on drives in the two games he’s played without Durant, which is better than the 59.9% he’s shot in the downhill setting over the course of the full season. It all comes down to mindset for Irving. Better looks, thanks to Brookyn’s improved spacing, are certainly there for the taking.
Then there’s Ben Simmons, the oh-so-popular punching bag during the three-game skid. Simmons isn’t without his faults, which we’ll touch on momentarily, but the Nets have been a combined +13 with him on the floor in that same stretch.
Transition offense has been just about the only way that Brooklyn has mustered up points without Durant, and Simmons has been a major driver of this. The +2.3 points the Nets generate in transition with Simmons on the floor ranks second to only Durant over the course of the full season.
His ability to grab rebounds and start the break by himself is a unique skill for this group, especially with Durant out. Simmons zipped diagonal dimes to open shooters and laced hit-ahead passes against Boston on January 12, a major reason the Nets scored 7.6 points per 100 possessions in transition, good for the 84th percentile (their halfcourt offense, meanwhile, generated a decrepit 23rd percentile ranking).
Still, Simmons has too many moments of uncertainty or just downright head-scratching decision-making. In that same game against Boston, Simmons famously finished with 0 points on just three total shots. After the game, Vaughn pushed back on the notion that the Nets need more in the scoring department from their de-facto second-star.
“Not going to ask him to score any more than he has. I think he loves facilitating, that’s good for our group. Can he get Joe Harris another three? Can he get Seth another two threes? Can he get Yuta another corner trey ball to make up for the difference without changing the way he plays? So nothing’s added on his plate also,” said Vaughn. “We’ve talked about him playing with force, that continues throughout the course of the game. So no added scoring for him that I’ve asked him of.”
I think it’s fair to say that Simmons is not a natural scorer and so asking him to do something he’s not particularly skilled at with more frequency is a difficult conversation. But certain plays, like the ones below, are just unacceptable.
In the first clip, Simmons sets a screen for Irving, rolls, and then passes up a layup against a retreating Luke Kornet. Speaking of that, Simmons has resisted rolling hard to the basket after setting screens all season long. In the second clip, Simmons sets the screen for Seth Curry and then pops (???) to the top of the arc as a career 14.3% long-range marksman. Roll to the rim, dude!
Or take this play. Someone, please, anyone. Explain the thought process here. Simmons pushes the ball up the floor, picks up his dribble, and then pawns it off to... wait, what? Nic Claxton? Only to then stand at the elbow and get in the way of Claxton’s roll after the handoff? Huh?!
Simmons’ flaws are only magnified when he’s the only star on the floor. Brooklyn has scored just 98.3 points per 100 possessions when Simmons plays without Irving and Durant this season, an offensive rating that’s as bad as the one put up by the Philadelphia 76ers that went 10-72 in the 2015-16 season.
Pairing him with more natural scorers is a good way to survive the minutes that Simmons plays without Irving these next few weeks. T.J. Warren and Curry are Brooklyn’s second and third-best shot creators after Irving, and though it’s an extremely limited sample, lineups with Simmons, Curry, and Warren sharing the floor without Irving and Durant have generated a 112.7 offensive rating (don’t ask about the defense, though) in 31 minutes of play. Again, that sample is probably too small to make much of, but it’s at least something to keep an eye on as Brooklyn does its best to keep its head above water without KD.
Second-year microwave scorer, Cam Thomas, could also be worth a look either in lineups with Simmons or just on his own. Thomas got his first bit of non-garbage time NBA action in more than a month against the Spurs on Tuesday and immediately filled it up with 15 points on 6-of-12 from the field. We know what his flaws are—creation for others, defense, and floor-spacing—but his one NBA-level skill, scoring in isolation, is needed more than ever.
If the Nets can clean up some things on offense, they’ll be in okay shape while trudging ahead without Durant. Their staunch defense has largely remained unharmed thanks to the Herculean effort from Nic Claxton. The Nets ranked 9th in defensive efficiency before Durant went down. Since then? They rank 6th. Comparatively, the Nets were just 29th on defense during the 21 games that Durant missed last season.
It’s their offense, which ranks 30th since Durant got hurt last week, that is the problem. Even reaching league-average efficiency would do wonders for this team.