As Kyrie Irving's injury persists, everything about the Nets' 2019-20 season remains in a holding pattern
Fifteen games into a season that was always transitional, Brooklyn is just trying to get by
NEW YORK -- The Brooklyn Nets will be Kyrie Irving on their "three-game road trip" -- visiting Manhattan should not count as part of a "road trip," but that's neither here nor there -- against the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. Irving has missed their last four games, including their 116-97 blowout win against the similarly banged-up Sacramento Kings on Friday, with a right shoulder impingement.
As a result of Irving's absence and Caris LeVert's hand injury, Brooklyn is in a holding pattern. The Nets will be more than 20 percent of the way through the season when they visit Irving's old team on Wednesday, but what have we really learned about them?
What's the big-picture view of the season so far?
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson likes to say "to be determined" when he is discussing just about anything with a relatively small sample size. He used the phrase on Friday when talking about their defense and said they are "still building our foundation on both sides of the ball."
Before Irving injured his shoulder against the Utah Jazz in a 119-114 loss last Tuesday, they were sixth in offensive rating and scoring 110.1 points per 100 possessions, a significant jump from last season, in which they finished 19th. Entering that game, Irving was averaging 30 points, 7.2 assists and 5.2 rebounds with a 59.3 true shooting percentage. He seemed to be in his element as soon as he got on the court with his new team, and it was difficult to argue that giving him the freedom he was looking for on offense was going poorly.
The Nets were and are having a rough time defensively, though. The game before their star point guard got injured, they had their worst defensive performance of the season, giving up 131 points per 100 possessions in a 138-112 loss to the Phoenix Suns. For all of Irving's brilliance, Brooklyn has a minus-1.4 net rating with him on the court, which is identical to the team's overall net rating on the season. The Nets rank 18th in defense, allowing 108.5 points per 100 possessions, a slight dip from last year. It has improved lately, but that might have more to do with their recent opponents -- before smacking the Kings sans De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley, they shut down the Hornets, who are 24th in offensive rating -- than any real progress.
With Irving, who initially tried to play through the injury but reconvened with the medical staff after Brooklyn sunk to 4-7 with a 101-93 loss in Denver on Nov. 14, Brooklyn was essentially a high-powered offensive team that could not count on getting stops consistently. The Nets are now 7-8 and seventh in the East, but their offense has predictably dropped to 16th in the league.
What is Brooklyn's identity?
Even though the vibe of the team changed dramatically after the summer of Sean Marks' dreams, in some ways the Nets were always going to feel similar to recent iterations of the team. From the beginning of the Marks-Atkinson era, their plan was to play the kind of style that wins games in the modern NBA, even if they didn't have the proper personnel. That way, if they ever had the personnel, they would not have to change everything. The if has now been replaced by a when, but with Kevin Durant sidelined, everything they do this season is provisional. The absence of Irving and LeVert, however, has taken that to an extreme.
In four games without Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie has averaged 23.8 points and 6.8 assists with a 59.7 percent true shooting percentage. "Vintage Spencer," Atkinson said, as the guard has done this sort of thing before when Brooklyn has needed him to run the whole show. When Kings coach Luke Walton described the Nets' attack, I was struck by how similar it sounded to stuff opposing coaches have said about them for the last few years.
"They have spacing," Walton said. "They got a dynamic pick-and-roll game. So they have two bigs that are constantly rolling and putting pressure on that rim. Dinwiddie is a very talented point guard with good size, so he can see those shooters when the defense is in, helping on the bigs. So we gotta first and foremost keep 'em out of transition, then handle the pick-and-roll game as well as we can, and then be ready to make multiple efforts when they kick it out to their shooters. And close out under control and not let them start that little drive-and-kick game that they've gotten so good at."
Just like last season, Brooklyn is the only team that scores more than 30 points per game on drives. On the other end, it prefers to keep centers Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan close to the rim, dropping on pick-and-rolls and completely ignoring non-shooting bigs who float around the perimeter. The Nets' defensive philosophy mirrors their offensive one -- they allow the "right" kind of shots, protecting the paint and running shooters off the 3-point line.
So what's the problem with the defense then?
The Nets have forced turnovers less frequently than any team in the league, and in a broader sense haven't been able to make opposing teams uncomfortable. I have actually been impressed by the perimeter defense of Dinwiddie, Garrett Temple and reserve Theo Pinson lately, but in general, it is not uncommon to see opposing ballhandlers walk into in-rhythm midrange jumpers and floaters, which, even if they come from "inefficient" areas, should still be contested.
Unless you are always fielding lineups of defensive geniuses who can switch 1 through 5, you have to make compromises. Brooklyn has always had a conservative scheme under Atkinson, but the drawbacks that can come with that have been more pronounced this season. The roster lacks a real small ball 5 on the roster, which limits its versatility. Atkinson wants more activity on the perimeter and thinks that teams that don't force turnovers and get out in transition are "behind the 8-ball," but he does not plan to make big structural changes. The recent addition of Iman Shumpert points to a desire for more aggressive individual defense, too.
"I like our process," Atkinson said. "I like our defensive shot profile. I like our transition defense. There's a lot fo good parts to it. I do think we're still trying to figure out our personnel. Obviously, with the injuries, it's changed a little bit. I didn't want to kind of fly off the handle, all of a sudden we're going to change everything. But we talked about it: 'Hey, how can we create more turnovers, what are some things we can do?' I think we've implemented some things. I think we've changed some things, even from last year. Have we seen the fruits of our labor yet? No."
As with everything else to do with the Nets, they are trying to focus on the challenges directly in front of them. They hope this will pay off later.
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