With one-fifth of the season done, the Nets are a .500 team. While some fans have no patience for mediocrity, it seems like a modest cause for celebration, all things considered.
Last year at this time, with the superstar era limping to an ignominious conclusion, a similar record (7-9 after 16 games) was a cause for woe. But expectations are different this season. The team is retooling. (Hard to call it “rebuilding” when the top eight guys in minutes per game were all here last season.) With a formidable early schedule (8th-toughest in the league by one standard, second by another), many observers expected an ugly start. Factor in several key players missing significant time with injuries, and there could have been, well, Bulls vibes by now. Instead, there are some good reasons for tempered optimism.
If the Nets’ goal this season is to be competitive, they’ve done that so far. Their only double-digit losses have been to the two best teams in the league (as measured by SRS ratings), the Celtics and Sixers. Their other five losses have been by a total of 19 points, to teams with a combined record of 49-34. They’ve beaten every opponent with a losing record (Hornets, Bulls, Clippers, Wizards, Bulls). And they’ve capitalized on fortunate timing when they’ve met good teams playing short-handed (Magic, Heat).
Some fans want to blame the coach for every close loss, but that’s unrealistic. Jacque Vaughn is not going to prevent Luka Doncic from making a game-winning one-handed 25-point bank shot with a hand in his face. Despite not having a Doncic-level superstar to rely on, the Nets have hung in games impressively. Indeed, they’ve scored 1.21 points per possession in fourth quarters and overtime while allowing just 1.15. (Overall, they’re scoring 1.16 and allowing 1.15.)
The Nets were expected to be offensively challenged this season, but they’ve been excellent on that end, averaging over 115 points per game. Their per-possession offensive rating is 9th in the league, while their defense is just 22nd. The scoring has been balanced, with three players (Thomas, Walker, and Bridges) averaging at least 30 points per 100 possessions and five more averaging at least 20.
The offense has not only been scoring, it’s also been fun to watch. The Nets are 5th in the league in fast break points, 5th in three-point attempts, and 4th in three-point accuracy. They’re sharing the ball well, 12th in assists per possession. And they’ve had relatively few long offensive dry spells—just 10 quarters (out of 64) in which they’ve scored less than 24 points.
Last season’s Nets were 29th in rebounding percentage, and 27th after the trade deadline makeover. So far this season, they’re 10th. Not bad for a team that still gives up size most nights. Day’Ron Sharpe has been great on the boards (when he can stay out of foul trouble). His 16.0 offensive rebounding percentage trails only Mitchell Robinson and Andre Drummond among guys who have played significant minutes this season. Ben Simmons has been the team’s second-best rebounder (when he’s on the court), and newcomer Trendon Watford has also made a difference.
After logging a DNP in his first game as a Net, Lonnie Walker is making a strong early-season case for sixth man of the year. He’s been a terrific microwave scorer, 22nd in the league in points per possession and doing it with impressive efficiency (.640 true-shooting, better than all but a handful of top scorers). His +2.1 Estimated Plus-Minus rating (a combination of individual statistics and adjusted plus-minus data) suggests that he might be the Nets’ most effective player so far on a per-possession basis.
Mikal Bridges (+2.0 EPM) has been the team’s most valuable player overall, a two-way force and leader (by a lot) in minutes played. He seemed to get off to a slow start after a busy summer with the US team, but he’s rounding into form. In the last six games he’s averaged 34.6 points per 100 possessions (close to last season’s remarkable 37.5) on .639 true-shooting (much better than last season’s .587). He’s also rebounding and assisting more than he did last season.
Nic Claxton (+1.7 EPM) has missed time due to injury, but when he’s played, he’s been a defensive bulwark—perhaps the only bright spot in a mostly lackluster defense. The lineup of Dinwiddie, Bridges, Johnson, Finney-Smith, and Claxton—starters last season and again recently with Ben Simmons and Cam Thomas out—has given up just 100.7 points per 100 possessions while scoring 121.5.
Like Claxton, Cam Johnson (+1.3 EPM) has been plagued by early-season injuries, but he’s coming on strong. In the last six games he’s averaged 26.6 points per 100 possessions on blistering .667 true-shooting. And like his “twin,” Bridges, he’s rebounding and assisting more than he did last season. Those concerns about him being overpaid may be overblown.
Spencer Dinwiddie (+1.3 EPM) sometimes gets denigrated by fans as “not a starting point guard,” but when he is on his game the offense thrives. With 10 assists and just 2.8 turnovers per 100 possessions, he has been a very efficient distributor. And while his shooting is still not all one could hope for from a lead guard, his offensive versatility and willingness to take big shots make him a good fit on a team with lots of holes.
Cam Thomas (+0.8 EPM) has missed the last eight games, but he is still hanging on to 10th place in the league with 38.1 points scored per 100 possessions—just ahead of Jayson Tatum, Anthony Edwards, LeBron James, and Donovan Mitchell. The just-turned-22-year-old’s overall game has taken a big step forward. Last season, his phenomenal scoring was more than negated by terrible defense. This season he seems more engaged on the defensive end and less often lost. While his defensive EPM rating is still negative, it is now respectable enough to make him a significant net plus overall.
Yes, a glass half full is also half empty. This team has plenty of weaknesses and uncertainties. But those are for another day. For now, they’re delivering what they promised—they’re competitive (not contending), fun to watch, with likeable players and some rising young talent. It’s a long season, but so far, so good.