Sixteen games into the season, the Nets’ glass was half full. Their record was just 8-8, but they were playing hard, had a top 10 offense, and were in every game. Sixteen games later, the vibe is a good deal less positive. The record in those 16 games is 7-9, not much different despite a tough western road trip. But a controversial surrender to the Bucks and a tough loss to the lowly Wizards have impatient fans clamoring to fire Jacque Vaughn and trade every player in sight. What’s happened, and why?
A simple comparison of team stats (per 100 possessions) from these two 16-game stretches provides some surprising perspective on the slump. The Nets’ offense has actually improved, though not as fast as the rest of the league. They’ve made substantial improvements in scoring in the paint, second-chance points, and offensive rebounding, putting them in the top ten in each of those categories over the past month. They’ve also been among the league’s best teams in limiting turnovers and opponents’ points off turnovers, thanks in significant part to Spencer Dinwiddie’s sterling 4.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The most important regression in the past month, offensively, is that the Nets are taking fewer threes and making fewer. The resulting fall-off in true-shooting, from .585 to .561, may look small, but it corresponds to a drop from 10th in the league in the first month of the season to a dismal 27th in the past 16 games. Many observers expected the Nets to be a poor shooting team this season, so it is tempting to interpret the drop as reflecting regression to the mean. It also reflects the long absence of Lonnie Walker IV, who was shooting a gaudy 46.3% from three (and true-shooting 63.3%) before missing the past 14 games with a nagging hamstring strain.
On the defensive end, the Nets are giving up a few more points per 100 possessions than they had earlier in the season. However, that change mostly reflects a league-wide uptick in scoring, and their defensive ranking has only slipped from 22nd to 23rd. While that is still puzzlingly bad given their defensive personnel, a look beneath the surface suggests that the defense may actually be starting to gel.
The Nets’ most glaring issue on the defensive end in the past month is a mirror image of their shooting struggles. Their opponents have shot over 40% from three, dropping their 3-point defense from 8th in the league (35.0%) to 29th (40.6%). That drop-off has been mitigated by a significant decline in 3-point shots (from 39.5 to 34.9 per 100 possessions). Still, the difference in shooting from deep has cost almost six points per game, more than wiping out defensive improvement in other areas, including second-chance points and points off turnovers.
Some fans will want to attribute the atrocious 3-point defense to faulty schemes on the part of the coaching staff or insufficient effort on the part of the players. However, the truth of the matter is that 3-point defense is notoriously random. While teams with better shooters tend to produce consistently higher 3-point percentages over the course of a season, defensive 3-point percentages fluctuate wildly, partly due to the varying quality of opposing shooters but largely due to pure luck from game to game. While the bad news is that the Nets should not expect to hold opponents to 35.0% from three for the rest of the season, the good news is that they should not expect them to shoot 40.6%, either. Simply splitting that difference should make the Nets a few points better defensively.
Judging by Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) ratings, several Nets have improved their defense to varying degrees over the past month, including Day’Ron Sharpe, Dennis Smith Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale, Cam Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Mikal Bridges. However, only Sharpe and (to a lesser extent) O’Neale have significantly improved offensive EPM ratings.
Alas, Sharpe’s dramatic improvements on both sides of the ball have been offset by Cam Thomas’s equally dramatic regression. In the first eight games of the season, Thomas scored a lofty 38.1 points per 100 possessions with a respectable 57.9 true-shooting percentage. His defense was far from stellar, but substantially better than it had been in his first two NBA seasons. Like many fans, I concluded that “The just-turned-22-year-old’s overall game has taken a big step forward.” However, Thomas’s performance since returning from an ankle sprain has been a reminder that progress is not always linear. In his past 15 games his scoring average has dipped to 33.2 points per 100 possessions due to a miserable 52.7 true-shooting percentage. His defense seems to have regressed as well; his defensive EPM rating has fallen from −1.1 to −3.2, among the worst in the league.
Thomas fans want blame for the team’s recent struggles to be distributed broadly; but no other Net has experienced a comparable decline in performance over the past month. Nic Claxton’s offensive production has slipped from 22.6 points per 100 possessions (on 67.1% true-shooting) to 19.5 (on 62.5% true-shooting), and his offensive EPM rating has fallen from +0.7 to +0.1. However, his rebounding has improved (from 15.2 to 17.6 per 100 possessions) and his defensive rating has held steady.
Mikal Bridges has been in a less pronounced offensive slump; his scoring has declined from 30.2 points per 100 possessions (on 58.2 true-shooting) to 29.4 (on 55.8 true-shooting), and his rebounds and assists are also down (from 8.2 and 5.4 per 100 possessions to 6.7 and 5.0). However, the resulting decline in his offensive EPM rating has been mitigated by an improvement in defense, and he remains among the best all-around players on the team.
The Nets have a tough stretch of games coming up, and things may get worse before they get better. Nonetheless, the reports of their death are “greatly exaggerated” (as Mark Twain didn’t quite say). While their defense remains surprisingly ineffective, that is largely a reflection of opponents’ recent good luck shooting threes, which is unlikely to persist. Meanwhile, their offense has improved significantly in some important respects over the past month—scoring in the paint, second-chance points, offensive rebounding, and turnovers. The real question on that side of the ball is whether their hot early-season shooting was a mirage. If Lonnie Walker IV returns to anything like his pre-injury level and Thomas, Claxton, and Bridges boost their sagging shooting efficiency, the Nets offense should once again be surprisingly good. If not, well, then they will be who we thought they were.