It's been an ugly few weeks in Brooklyn. The Nets dropping 10 of their first 14 games while ranking 22nd in overall offensive efficiency, averaging just 101.9 points per 100 possessions, is a disappointment any way you slice it. But this was a team with Finals aspirations.
Everyone knew defense would be a challenge heading into the season, but the Nets had hoped to hang their hats on an elite offense. They've been struggling with injuries and the resulting lack of continuity to their rotations, but their offensive rating seems inexcusably low given the talent on the roster.
Now it's reached the point that, even when they (rarely) win, it feels like they still ought to lose. Paul Pierce voiced his frustrations to the Associated Press (via ESPN) after the Nets' narrow 102-100 win over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday:
"That last three minutes was almost a disaster. Fortunately we built such a big lead. If it was any closer, we would have lost tonight."
One of the major problems has been a lack of flow and movement, both of players and the ball. They rank 24th in the league in assists per 100 possessions, and according to mySynergySports (subscription required), 32.2 percent of their offensive possessions are being used in isolations, post-ups or by the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll.
They rank in the top 10 in scoring efficiency on all three of those possessions types, but those three offensive outcomes are, in general, much less efficient scoring options than outcomes like spot-up jumpers, cutters, shots off screens and transition opportunities.
The other problem with those possession types is it really restricts the outcome to the player with the ball. The Nets have not done a good job of spacing the floor or creating weakside movement to further stretch the defense and their offensive talent is often wasted, standing around and watching other players work.
There has just been very little cohesive effort to put all those talented offensive players into positions where they support, complement and elevate each other.
Here, the Timberwolves are using a defensive strategy called ICE to swallow a Joe Johnson side pick-and-roll. ICE involves having the ball-handler's defender put their body between the screener and the ball, forcing the ball-handler to drive baseline into the screener's defender. It works especially well here because the screener, Reggie Evans, is such a non-factor offensively.
But as you can see in the photo, the Nets' horrific spacing really exacerbates the problem. Paul Pierce is slowly trailing the play allowing his man, Corey Brewer, to drop down and bump Evans without consequence. Kevin Garnett is also diving to the rim for some reason.
This lets Kevin Love cut off passing angles to him and be in position to take Evans as Brewer rotates back to Pierce. Shaun Livingston looks like he may be preparing to make a baseline cut, but there are so many defenders between him and the ball that he's completely out of the play.
Here's another example of the Nets killing themselves with spacing when a side pick-and-roll gets ICE'd.
Johnson is again getting swallowed up on the sideline, and Garnett, the screener, isn't in a position to help him. Alan Anderson is going down to the corner to set a pin-down screen for Pierce, but in this situation it's a ludicrously useless action. Eric Bledsoe is completely ignoring Anderson, ready to help on Johnson or Garnett, and in position to handle Pierce should he pop free.
Meanwhile Pierce's defender, Gerald Green, could simply switch and stay with Anderson in the corner or slide into the lane to help on penetration since there would be literally no angle to get the ball back to the corner. The Nets have used a lot of movement to create no openings for themselves.
We can see some of the same problems in the setup for this Brook Lopez post-up.
The Nets are moving everyone to the weak side, giving Lopez space to work. But the spacing on the weak side allows the Suns to essentially keep three additional defenders in the paint without sacrificing anything. Pinning an entire offensive possession on the one-on-one scoring abilities of Lopez in the post is generally a good proposition, but in the aggregate it works out to an enormous waste of the talents of the other four players on the floor.
The thing is, the Nets' individual talent is good enough that it should be able to keep the offense afloat while new head coach Jason Kidd works out some of these issues of creativity and flexibility. But while Johnson, Brook Lopez and Deron Williams have all been playing well, to varying degrees, newcomers Pierce and Garnett have been struggling mightily.
As you can see in the clips below, the Nets offense is actually creating some reasonably open shots for Garnett. He just hasn't been knocking them down.
Now, none of those are gimmes, but they are the shots that have been featured prominently, and rather successfully, in Garnett's offensive repertoire for years. The one interesting thing I did notice is that several of those shots seem to be just a step inside the three-point line, the very outer edges of Garnett's range. I wonder if that small difference of just one or two feet is stretching his accuracy.
Pierce's struggles, on the other hand, have really been centered around the pick-and-roll. According to mySynergySports, he's scoring an average of just 0.76 points per pick-and-roll possession, down from 0.90 last season. When you watch him, it's clear that he's having a really difficult time creating separation as he turns the corner on screens.
It's amazing how out of control he looks on many of those possessions.
Compensating for declining athleticism has been part of the Paul Pierce basketball experience for years, but so far this season, things seem to have hit a tipping point. He's always been incredibly successful at coaxing difficult shots into falling, but this season, he hasn't been leaping as high or moving as quickly and the defense is just a little bit closer than they used to be.
Since the Nets' offensive problems seem to be linked to a mix of issues with system, player performance and injuries, it's difficult to tell the degree to which it's fixable. Obviously if everyone was healthy and Garnett was making mid-range jumpers, things would look a lot better.
But if the Nets have realistic hopes of not just turning this around, but making a deep playoff push, just relying on the margins of their individual talent isn't going to cut it.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats