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As the Brooklyn Nets get set to play the Boston Celtics on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), they sit in first place in the Eastern Conference at 13-5. But these Nets are a different team than the one that finished 48-24 last season.
The good news is that the Nets have the league’s eighth ranked defense after ranking in the bottom 10 last season. There are reasons to be skeptical:
• A big part of the improvement is the league’s third biggest drop in opponent 3-point percentage. According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Nets haven’t contested a higher percentage of their opponents’ 3s than they did last season.
• So far, 18.5% of their opponent possessions — the league’s second-highest opponent rate — have been in transition. That’s up from 15.1% (13th lowest) last season, and that (+3.4%) is the league’s biggest jump by a wide margin.
There are also reasons to believe in the defensive improvement:
• A few of the team’s worst defenders from last season aren’t with the team this year.
• The Nets have seen a big reduction in how much they’re switching screens, and “drop” coverage appears to be a better fit for their bigs. Though their opponents are getting more shots at the rim (more on that below), they’ve seen the league’s 10th biggest drop in opponent field goal percentage in the paint.
The Nets’ defense has seen the league’s fourth-biggest drop in points allowed per 100 possessions (-8.4). On the other end of the floor, the Nets’ offense has seen the league’s fifth biggest drop in points scored per 100 possessions.
Biggest drop, points scored per 100 possessions
Offense is down almost everywhere. The league average has dropped from 111.7 to 107.2 points scored per 100 possessions, with only two teams — Golden State and Miami — having seen a jump from last season. But even adjusting for the league average, the Nets’ drop (-4.5 per 100) is pretty dramatic. Last season, they had the most efficient offense in NBA history. This season, their offense ranks behind that of the Sacramento Kings.
A look at where their points have come from reveals that the Nets’ offensive drop-off is almost entirely about their inability to score at the rim.
Nets scoring by area, last two seasons
|Area||%PTS||Per 100||%PTS||Per 100||Per 100|
%PTS = Percentage of total points scored
Per 100 = Points per 100 possessions
The Nets weren’t the most dominant team at the rim last season, but they were better than average both in regard to the percentage of their shots that came in the restricted area and their field goal percentage on those shots. This season, they’re the only team that ranks in the bottom five in both.
Nets shooting in the restricted area, last two seasons
%FGA = Percentage of total field goal attempts
Some notes on where the Nets’ at-the-rim scoring has gone:
1. Jordan and Green aren’t walking through that door
Last season, the Nets had five players with more than 100 field goals in the restricted area. Three of the five — DeAndre Jordan (183), Kyrie Irving (154) and Jeff Green (115) — aren’t with the team this year.
Jordan had his issues on the other end of the floor and didn’t play a single minute in the postseason, but he was a guy who could go up and catch a lob. He had 137 dunks last season, 96 more than any other Nets player. Brooklyn has gone from fourth in dunks per game last season (5.0) to 28th this season (2.7).
Though Nicolas Claxton didn’t average nearly as many dunks per 36 minutes (2.5) as Jordan (4.0), he is a better lob threat than anybody else on the Nets’ roster. But Claxton has missed the last 15 games, dealing with an undisclosed illness since the first week of the season.
It’s nice to have bigs that can space the floor, but guys that can catch and finish lobs are critical too, both for those lobs that they catch and the open shots that they can create when weak-side defenders are forced to sink into the paint. James Harden may be the most effective alley-oop passer in the game and last season, he led the league with 2.6 assists per game on dunks. This season, he’s averaged half that number (1.3).
2. Less North-South
The Nets miss Irving’s ability to get to the rim off the dribble. His 12.2 drives per game ranked second on the Nets last season and his 56.2% shooting on drives was the seventh best mark among 69 players with at least 200 field goal attempts.
Patty Mills has been terrific as Irving’s (much cheaper) replacement in the Nets’ backcourt, shooting 48.6% from 3-point range. But he isn’t a north-south attacker; He’s averaged just 2.3 drives per game and only 13 (8%) of his 166 field goal attempts have come in the restricted area. That’s the third lowest rate among 184 players with at least 100 field goal attempts.
Along with the absences of Irving and lob threats, returning Nets players have also seen drops in the percentage of their shots that have come from the restricted area:
• Bruce Brown: From 57% to 46%
• Kevin Durant: From 16% to 14% (160th among 184 players with 100+ FGA)
• Blake Griffin: From 46% to 38%
• James Harden: From 28% to 21%
• Joe Harris: From 19% to 14% (158th)
3. No second chances
The Nets weren’t a great offensive rebounding team last season, but they’ve seen the league’s biggest drop (by another wide margin) in offensive rebounding percentage, falling to 30th (20.4% and far behind the 29th-ranked Suns) this season. As a result, their second-chance points per 100 possessions have dropped from 12.2 to 9.2.
Not all second-chance points come in the restricted area, but the percentage that do (48%) is much higher than that of points scored prior to an offensive rebound (28%).
4. On fire from the outside
Given their struggles in both getting to the rim and finishing there, one (who didn’t know any better) might wonder how the Nets rank third in effective field goal percentage (54.1%). The answer, of course, is Durant (and LaMarcus Aldridge and Harris and Mills).
Over the last 24 years, the highest mid-range field goal percentage belonged to last season’s Phoenix Suns, who shot 47.4% between the paint and the 3-point line. League-wide mid-range field goal percentage has dropped from 41.5% last season to 40.5% this season, but the Nets are crushing that mark from the Suns, shooting 50.4% from mid-range.
Among 30 players with at least 50 attempts from mid-range, Aldridge (61.4%) and Durant (56.6%) rank first and second in success rate. Durant’s mark isn’t that much better than his previous career best, 55.1% in 2018-19. But that 55.1% is the best mark for any player with at least 200 mid-range attempts in the last 24 years, so Aldridge’s 61.4% is ridiculous … and likely unsustainable.
The Nets also lead the league in 3-point percentage (37.6%), with Mills and Harris (46.6%) ranking first and second among 155 players with at least 50 attempts and Durant at 41.8%. This number is much more sustainable. Through Tuesday, every team in the league has shot worse from 3-point range than it did last season, when the Nets ranked second at 39.2%.
5. Nothing easy
The outside shooting is great, but the Nets are really depending on jump shots right now. And with their defense allowing more shots at the rim this season, they’ve been outscored by 11.6 points per game in the restricted area. That’s more than double the discrepancy of any other team, with Dallas’ -5.2 per game being the second biggest.
And that’s a big discrepancy to make up for from elsewhere on the floor every night. The Nets have been able to do it enough so far, but you have to wonder what happens if Durant and Aldridge are no longer shooting a combined 59% from mid-range or if their opponents start shooting better from beyond the arc.
Coach Steve Nash knows that, without Irving, the Nets have to generate shots at the rim in new ways.
“We can’t just walk down the court, space the floor, and go,” he said last week. “It’s just not the same. It’s that gravity that Kyrie would bring in, not to mention his talent. You take a big cog out of it. We have to find different ways to do that.
“I think it’s through our willingness to share, to trust, to move it, play early, get to our second and third action if necessary, without hesitation, and to be relentless with our willingness to make the defense work, change positions, make decisions on the fly. That’ll be our way of getting into the paint more often.”
Alas, the Nets rank dead last in player movement, averaging just 10.5 miles traveled (from the five players on the floor) per 24 minutes of possession, via Second Spectrum tracking. And they rank 23rd in ball movement at 312 passes per 24 minutes of possession.
The Nets’ first layup in their win in Cleveland on Monday came via quick movement from Mills, flaring out of a “pistol” action and forcing Jarrett Allen to react …
But the Nets obviously aren’t the Warriors in regard to ball and player movement. And in a way, it’s the gift and the curse of *Durant. He’s arguably the best player in the league, but you’ll find yourselves watching him do his thing and, because he’s one of the best shooters ever, he’s happy to pull up from 15 feet instead of getting all the way to the basket.
(*Of course, in Durant’s last season with the Warriors, they ranked first in ball movement and third in player movement, which is exactly where they rank this season.)
As noted in Monday’s Power Rankings, the Nets have taken care of business against bad (and bad shooting) teams. That’s a welcome change from last season, but as they head to Boston, they’re 2-5 against the other 15 teams that currently have winning records. (Both wins — over Philadelphia and Washington — came in the first seven days of the season.)
The Celtics are 10-8 and they’ve had the league’s best defense as they’ve won eight of their last 11 games. Only 25% of their opponents’ shots, the league’s second lowest opponent rate, have come in the restricted area. So it probably won’t be any easier for the Nets to get shots at the rim on Wednesday than it has been thus far.
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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