Nets Struggles Continue Ahead of Matchup with Top-Seeded Bulls
Thursday marks one month since the Brooklyn Nets announced they would bring back Kyrie Irving on a part-time basis. The return of the 7-time All-Star was supposed to inject some life into the Nets during the dog days of the regular season.
That has been anything but the case.
Brooklyn has dropped five of its last seven. The two wins were a 19-point comeback over a depleted Pacers squad and an overtime victory over the 15-23 Spurs. The Nets now sit two games back of the Bulls for the top spot in the East.
The rut itself is not the major issue for Brooklyn. Many championship teams have gone through lulls in the regular season. It’s that the team has looked uninspired and lacked effort in the majority of these games.
A Jan. 7th home blowout loss against Milwaukee exemplified Brooklyn’s struggles against top-tier teams. The Nets never held a lead, frequently being out-hustled to 50/50 balls and pushed around on the glass. The loss brought Brooklyn to 0-7 against teams more than five games over .500.
Effort has been Brooklyn’s top issue during the stretch, but roster flaws are evident as Head Coach Steve Nash continues to experiment with rotations. Joe Harris’ absence has played a major role in these struggles. The sharpshooter has been out since November 14th with an ankle injury. The drop off in Brooklyn’s three-point shooting without him has been astounding:
With Harris - 39.3% (1st in NBA)
Without Harris - 31.8% (28th in the NBA)
Patty Mills' brilliance masked Harris' absence for a long stretch. However, the Aussie has struggled mightily in his last five games, shooting just 7-32 (21.9%) from deep. Mills' struggles have exposed a serious flaw in Brooklyn's roster construction:
Outside of Kevin Durant, Brooklyn does not have a proven shooter on the wing or in the frontcourt.
Rather, they have several defensive non-shooters in DeAndre Bembry, James Johnson, Bruce Brown, David Duke Jr. and Blake Griffin. These players offer different intangibles, but they all allow opponents to double Harden and Durant without fear of outside shooting. This greatly increases their offensive burden and injury risk as the minutes pile up.
Nash started Duke Jr., an undrafted rookie out of Providence, in several games during the stretch. This is likely due to his defensive capabilities. The head coach’s comments earlier in the week point to a defensive philosophy.
“We’re a defensive team,” Nash said. “We win with our defense.”
This is simply not true. Brooklyn is an offensive team in every sense of the word. They have arguably the top offensive player of all time in Durant, a former scoring champion in James Harden, and one of the most skilled guards ever in Irving.
That's the identity they need to lean on.
Despite this, Nash has employed a defensive strategy, often playing Duke and/or Bembry alongside Nic Claxton. The results have been horrendous. The spacing is terrible, often forcing Durant to carry the entire load, a major problem in his 14th season.
The Nets rank 26th in three’s attempted per game and 28th in three’s made per game. This is a crime for a team that has Kevin Durant and James Harden.
Brooklyn needs to return to a 4-out offense to regain its offensive identity. Surround Durant, Harden, and/or Irving with catch and shoot threats while they operate. The Nets most successful minutes came in the second half of their comeback win in Indiana with this lineup:
Harden - Irving - Mills - Durant - Bembry
The first thing you'll notice is that this lineup includes Brooklyn's Big 3. It was the only game this season that has been the case, which is the number 1, 2, 3 and 4 problems with this team. Brooklyn was +24 in minutes with the big 3 on the floor in the win.
When all three are playing, the offense is unstoppable. Brooklyn's offensive rating with Durant, Harden and Irving on the floor is 130 points per 100 possessions. No offense in NBA history has come close to eclipsing that mark. The 2019-2020 Dallas Mavericks offensive rating of 116.70 is the highest in NBA history.
The problem? The big three has only played 16 games together. And unless New York's Covid-19 vaccine mandate changes, Irving will continue to be unavailable for home games.
The next thing you'll notice about the lineup is it features four shooters. Without Irving, Mills is the only shooter surrounding Harden and Durant for home games. Harris' return will go a long way, but Brooklyn would be wise to add another shooter or two ahead of the trade deadline to maximize their playmaking.
Harden would benefit particularly from a 4-out offense. The former MVP's struggles have prevented Brooklyn from reaching its ceiling. The guard is averaging 22.4 PPG, his lowest since 2012, on 41.2% shooting from the field, the lowest since his rookie season, and 33.1% shooting from three, the lowest of his career.
Last year, Jeff Green played a key role as a shooter in the frontcourt. The vet shot 41.2% from deep, benefiting greatly from the playmaking of Brooklyn's stars. The Nets have been unable to replicate that production at the forward position. This void has allowed defenses to close driving lanes and blitz Harden on screens, limiting his impact.
The Nets will have an opportunity to prove themselves as contenders tonight against the conference-leading Chicago Bulls. Billy Donovan's squad has won 10 of its last 11. Four of Brooklyn's next seven opponents are under .500 and five of those games are on the road.
If Brooklyn hopes to keep pace with Chicago for the top seed, a win tonight would be a big start. A heightened sense of urgency, from Nash and Brooklyn's stars, should reflect that.