As the season winds to a close I will be reviewing the teams that can legitimately challenge for the title. I will focus on 9 teams, 5 from the West and 4 from the East, and will break down what makes them dangerous, what can be used against them, and how far they can be expected to go. I break the seal on the Eastern Conference with a look at the Brooklyn Nets.
This has been an up and down season for the Nets. Head coach Avery Johnson was let go early on following a string of losses that could be attributed largely to the absence of Brook Lopez and the lethargy of Deron Williams. A .500 team with Johnson leading the charge, Brooklyn has managed a 30-18 record with coaching retread P.J. Carlesimo at the helm.
Thanks in part to the mid-season coaching change and in part to the old-school strategies of Carlesimo and Avery Johnson, the Nets have the potential to play a lot of spectacularly boring basketball. They play at the league’s second slowest pace, the offense lacks creativity, and the defense is straightforward.
Let’s start with the offense. There is a lot of individual talent on the roster, starting with Williams and Lopez. Veteran wings Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson have certainly seen better days, but they are also still capable players (for the most part, we’ll get there), career backup Reggie Evans has hustled his way into the starting five, and amnesty pickup Andray Blatche has provided excellent value as a low-cost backup center.
Almost all of the team’s sets, especially those run by the starters, are hyper-traditional. The main components are post-ups, isolations and pick and rolls, and there isn’t a whole lot of complexity to the motion or passing. A normal possession will begin with Williams bringing the ball up, followed by one of three actions: a straight isolation where everyone clears out and Williams goes one-on-one, an entry pass or clear out for another player to iso, either on the wing or by way of a post-up, or a Lopez-Williams pick and roll at the top of the key.
The numerous post-ups can come from anywhere too – it’s not uncommon to see four of the starters (the exception generally being Evans) get at least one post up in the opening minutes of a game. The isolations aren’t much different, as it seems that Brooklyn’s idea of getting everyone involved is to allow them a couple of one-on-one opportunities and then go back to the two man game between Lopez and Williams.
Unfortunately this leaves Wallace and Johnson spotting up on the wings more often than not, and both players have seen a pretty stiff drop off in their production as a result. While they were each expected to experience some decline due to their age, standing around the three-point line is not doing them any favors. Wallace especially struggles in this setup because he is such a bad jump shooter, hitting less than 30% of his 3’s despite taking 2.5 per game.
The offense would benefit from having a greater variety of pick and rolls, with an emphasis on the wings setting picks. A Williams-Johnson 1-2 pick and roll is an action that Atlanta found success with once upon a time, using Mike Bibby in Williams’ place. Johnson is also a capable ball handler out of the pick and roll, and using him in this capacity would allow for a slew of perimeter screening action to confuse the defense.
When the starters hit the bench there is a little more activity on offense, but it’s not because of any beautiful ball movement or crisp cutting, it’s more players bouncing their way from point A to point B. In the end Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson do a reasonable enough Lopez/Williams impression that the basic sets are largely the same.
Across the board the offense is average or below average. They turn the ball over all the time, don’t pass a ton, have an average true shooting percentage, and don’t get to the line often. However, Brooklyn’s offense is top-10 in efficiency. How? Offensive rebounding. Lopez has been solid on the offensive glass, posting a rebound rate that is right in the middle of all centers, but it’s rebounding specialist Evans that makes the difference.
Evans has pushed his way into the starting lineup due to the coaching staff’s distaste for Kris Humphries and Evans’ own ability to complement Lopez. Whereas Lopez struggles to post strong rebounding numbers despite his size, Evans has made an entire career out of crashing the boards, and all those second shots that he generates help prop up an offense that would be in the 15-20 range in efficiency with only an average offensive rebound rate.
Another area where Evans helps cover Lopez’s weaknesses is on defense, where Evans can do a decent job covering pick and rolls and is strong enough to provide solid post defense against some bigger players. Unfortunately this doesn’t do enough to paper over the lackluster defense played by everyone else.
The bench is a fairly moribund unit defensively on a player by player basis, and the starters are all either slacking on this end, past their prime, or just generally slow. This is another area in which the diminishing athleticism of Wallace becomes apparent. Ostensibly the best defender on the team, he has lost enough athleticism that he can’t challenge opposing players the way he once did and is not nearly as dynamic on the weak side, where he once feasted and managed a number of impressive blocks. He will still swat one into the stands from time to time, but unless he’s given a chance to load up beforehand, the result is more likely to be a bucket for the other team. Years of being “Crash” have taken their toll.
Lopez is another problem. He will block shots, and he does a solid job if allowed to hang back near the basket, but if he gets pulled out on a pick and roll or by a center who can shoot, he tends to linger in the middle of the floor. This gives him the dubious ability to watch quick guards run past him or shots fly over his head, rather than trapping the ball handler, showing hard and retreating to his man, or employing any of a number of other useful strategies.
Take it all together, and “contender” may be a bit strong for this squad, but a 1st round series win is definitely likely (unless a surprisingly fresh Derrick Rose joins the mix). Unfortunately falling in the 4-5 bracket means a date with Miami in the 2nd round, and no one in the East can survive that this year, so a brutal 2nd round series awaits the Nets. Miami is susceptible – or at least more susceptible – to teams that can move the ball around and match their athleticism defensively, neither of which describes the Nets. Given that, a trip to the 2nd round could be a bloodbath.