If Defense Wins Championships, the Brooklyn Nets Are in Trouble
Credit: Getty Images. Pictured (L-R): James Harden #13, Kevin Durant #7, Kyrie Irving #2.
Entering this season, the Brooklyn Nets were a sure fire bet to be one of the best teams in the league. With the return of Kevin Durant to a team with Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, it’s wasn’t surprising that betting markets had the Nets second on the odds board to the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA Finals.
Sensing an opportunity so seize on their championship window, the Nets traded for LeVert, Allen, Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs for disgruntled former MVP James Harden, which, on the surface, seemed to push them into the super team tier.
From the Boston Celtics (Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett) to the Miami Heat (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) to the Golden State Warriors (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant), stars teaming up for the goal of winning a Championship has become the norm in the NBA.
But this team has been built unlike any other throughout the history of the league. Unlike the Celtics, Heat and Warriors, the Nets lack balance with all three stars being perimeter players.
There’s no Garnett, Bosh or Green to do the dirty work and protect the rim. There’s also no role playing defensive wing like Tony Allen or Andre Iguodala to help stymy opposing perimeter players. With a third of the season already in the books, the cracks are starting to show.
So can the Nets actually win an NBA championship with no defense?
How Good is this Brooklyn Team?
The Nets are primarily winning games by scoring a whopping 122.6 points per 100 possessions since the James Harden trade — that would be the best in NBA history by 6.7 points per 100 possession if it holds over a full season.
This may be the greatest collection of isolation scorers we’ve ever seen on one NBA roster. Durant and Harden have six scoring titles between them, and Irving has the most electrifying crossover in the league and the ability to get his own shot whenever he wants.
Despite having a historically potent offense, the Nets are equally as bad on defense allowing 119.9 points per 100 possessions, which would also be the worst in NBA history over a full season. According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Nets rank last in second chance points, allowing 14.9 per 100 possessions, which likely stems from their 19th-ranked Defensive Rebounding percentage (73.1%).
In the nine games since the trade, the Nets have a 6-3 record with a +2.7 Net Rating. However, they’ve played the Magic, Bucks, Cavaliers, Heat, Hawks, Thunder and Wizards with only the Bucks and Hawks are above .500 this season.
Their recent loss against the Wizards was particularly concerning as the Nets gave up 149 points in regulation to the worst team in the NBA.
The loss marked their sixth loss this season against a team with a losing record. In losses against the Wizards (2x), Cavaliers (2x), Thunder and Hornets, the Nets have given up 149, 123, 125, 147, 129 and 103. This isn’t exactly a Murderer’s Row of opposing offenses either.
Outside of the Wizards none of these teams rank inside of the top 15 on offense.
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The DeAndre Jordan Problem
The Harden trade cost the Nets their best interior defender. Replacing Allen’s minutes with DeAndre Jordan has been particularly problematic because he is no longer the rim running monster or defensive presence he used to be in his Clippers years.
In 21 minutes per game, Jordan is averaging just 6.6 points with 6.9 rebounds per game, a far cry from his years in Lob City. The Nets are -4.1 points per 100 possessions with Jordan on the floor this season and the defensive end of the floor is where his presence is truly hurting this team.
ESPN’s Real Plus Minus paints a solid picture of the impact as it provides us a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions while taking into account teammates and opponents. Allen is +0.18 in Defensive Real Plus Minus and -0.35 in Real Plus Minus while DeAndre Jordan is -0.90 in DRPM and -2.68 in RPM.
According to the NBA’s defensive player tracking, Allen is allowing opposing players to shoot just 52.6% on field goals defended at rim when he’s the closest defender on attempts inside five feet while DeAndre Jordan is allowing a whopping 63.9% which is well below the NBA average for centers.
For context, defensive player of the year candidate Myles Turner is allowing 42.5%, Joel Embiid is allowing 53.4%, rookie James Wiseman is allowing 56.0%, Nikola Jokic who isn’t known for his rim protection is allowing 61.7%.
DeAndre Jordan isn’t at the level of Enes Kanter who’s allowing 70.9% at the rim, but he’s close enough and with perimeter players like Irving and Harden who aren’t known for their defense.
The last line of defense is integral for the Nets to provide any resistance and without it, the Nets are allowing 48.7 points per 100 possession in the paint to opposing offenses — fifth-worst among NBA teams.
The drop scheme that the Nets are playing in pick-and-roll has been food for opposing teams that know they can get open jump shots anytime they want.
Take a look at this wide open mid range jump shot Dillon Brooks gets with Jordan not stepping up to contest:
On this possession Jordan doubles in the post leaving Al Horford open from behind the arc. Horford finished the game 4-of-6 from 3-point range as Jordan constantly sat in the paint, leaving him wide open on the perimeter.
Durant and Irving are good friends with Jordan, which is a big reason why he came to Brooklyn, but it’s clear that he’s their biggest liability on defense at this point.
The Nets recently acquired defensive oriented players in Norvel Pelle and Iman Shumpert to help bolster the defense, but it’s unlikely that these two signings will drastically improve the state of this defense. Shumpert hasn’t played since his 13-game stretch with the Nets in 2019 while Pelle comes off a season in which he played 24 games with the 76ers.
Pelle was one of of the more dominant defensive bigs in the G-league, averaging 11.1 points, 8.6 boards and 3.1 blocks while earning NBA G League All-Defensive Team honors.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer much offensively for the Nets, so they’ll likely be waiting on second year center Nicolas Claxton who is out with a right knee injury.
It will be interesting to see if the Nets can acquire a competent defensive big in the buyout or trade market to reduce Jordan’s minutes. But the options aren’t great.
Playing Too Much in the Clutch
A telling statistic about the state of the Nets’ defense is that they currently lead the league in clutch games with 14. (Clutch time is defined as games that come down to the last five minutes with the point differential within five points).
The Nets have played 22 games this season, which means 63% of their games have come down to clutch time. The Nets are just 8-6 in these games, have a 113.3 Offensive Rating, a 115.0 Defensive Rating and a -1.7 Net Rating.
The analytics match what we’ve seen on the floor: this team is incapable of making stops down the stretch and relies on offensive firepower to close games.
Their game against the Bucks featured 11 ties, 20 lead changes and eventually came down to Durant making a 3-pointer after a Harden offensive rebound with Khris Middleton missing a potential game winning shot at the buzzer.
While the Nets got away with the victory, they’re facing an uphill battle since these games won’t always go their way given the state of their defense.
With their top-heavy roster and propensity to get dragged into playing in clutch time, their stars are taking on a tremendous load.
Harden is averaging 39.9 minutes per game and Durant is averaging 36.8 minutes per game in his first season after his Achilles injury. Irving, who also has a lengthy injury history, is playing 35.7 minutes per game as well. All three have had to logged 40-plus minutes at some point this season in order to secure wins over teams that are not championship contenders.
Although we’ve seen load management for the Nets’ three stars, there’s a chance this team wears down come playoff time (Harden’s history almost guarantees this) as they will need to play heavy minutes to sustain this team.
The Problem With the Big 3
Durant, Harden and Irving have played four games together against the Cavs, Heat (2x) and Hawks. In 124 minutes on the court together, the Nets have an 117.4 Offensive Rating, a 117.2 Defensive Rating and a +0.2 Net Rating.
Since we have such a small sample size of these three playing together it’s important to post the numbers for each game, which provides some context for each opponent:
- Cleveland Cavaliers Game 1 (1/20/2021)
36 mins | ORtg: 126.3 | DRtg: 122.4 | Net Rating: 3.9
- Miami Heat Game 1 (1/23/2021)
27 mins | ORtg: 125.0 | DRtg: 118.6| Net Rating: 6.4
- Miami Heat Game 2 (1/25/2021)
26 mins | ORtg: 101.9 | DRtg: 94.3 | Net Rating: 7.5
- Atlanta Hawks (1/27/2021)
35 mins | ORtg: 113.0 | DRtg: 127.9 | Net Rating: -14.9
The starting lineup featuring Irving-Harden-Harris-Durant-Jordan has an 117.8 Offensive Rating, a 109.2 Defensive Rating and +8.6 Net Rating. The starting lineup replacing for Jeff Green for Jordan has a Net Rating of +17.5 in 48 minutes with a Defensive Rating of 106.1, by far the best lineup involving their three stars.
But they are so dependent on those three that removing one or two of them from the lineup at any point of the game impacts their performance dramatically.
It’s possible this team could be better in the playoffs when their stars can comfortably play even heavier minutes and we’re seeing fewer minutes from Reggie Perry and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot who make the Nets -11.6 and -8.7 points per 100 possessions worse with them on the floor.
However, given the top heaviness of this roster, wear and tear will always be a concern.
Does Defense Historically Win Championships?
Given the Nets championship aspirations, I did some digging to find out if there was a historical precedent for a team with such porous defense winning a championship.
You’d be hard pressed to find a team with a defense as bad as the Nets that has made the playoffs let alone the NBA Finals.
Among the 50 worst defenses in NBA history, just four teams have made the playoffs and only the 1982 Nuggets had a positive Net Rating:
Predictably, all four were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Of course, the Nets are in another stratosphere offensively, and typically teams with a defense this bad don’t have positive Net Ratings, so it’s clear that even with a bottom tier defense, this team is still a contender.
Among the 45 champions since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976, the average Offensive ranking of those champions is 5.6 and the average Defensive ranking is 5.2. The average Offensive Ranking of a the Finals runner up is 7.1 and the average Defensive Ranking is 7.9.
That said, typically you need to have a top five offense and defense to win a Championship and a top 10 offense and defense to make the finals.
Like everything in sports, there’s always an exception to the rule.
Only three teams since the merger have won the championship despite having a defense that was ranked lower than 10th in Defensive Rating in the regular season: 2018 Golden State Warriors, 2001 Los Angeles Lakers and 1995 Houston Rockets. All three teams had won the title the previous season and played below their actual ability in the following regular season.
The Warriors and Lakers were the epitome of teams that could flip the switch and play at a high level on command. The 1995 Rockets on the other hand, were far from their true form in the regular season due to injuries. But they all raised their respective ceilings in the playoffs.
Take a look at how these teams performed in the playoffs vs. their regular season numbers:
Thirteen teams have made the Finals despite not having a top 10 defense, five of them came in the last six seasons — Warriors (2019), Cavaliers (2018, 2017, 2015) and Miami Heat (2014) — during the era of super teams.
The best historical comparison for this Nets team is the 2017 Cavaliers, who scored 120.3 points per 100 possessions, by far the best playoff offense of all time.
They swept the Pacers and Raptors then defeated the Celtics in five games before succumbing to a Warriors team that was arguably the greatest NBA team of all time. When you consider the firepower of James, Irving and Kevin Love, plus the depth of shooters on their roster, the 2017 Cavs have a case as the best team not to win a championship.
Unlike the Cavs, the Nets will be facing a stronger Eastern Conference. They won’t be playing the post Frank Vogel Pacers, Kyle Lowry/DeMar Derozan or the Isaiah Thomas led Celtics.
The East is a lot stronger and the Nets will have to go through an experienced 76ers and Bucks team in order to make the Finals.
Betting the Nets Title Futures
All things considered, the Nets have the top-end talent to win a championship with Durant, Harden and Irving, but I’m not seeing any value on betting on them in the futures market.
The Nets are currently +390 to win the NBA title and +155 to win the Eastern Conference, which denotes that they have a 20% chance to win the title and a 39% chance of winning the East. I’m not sure that’s the case.
This is a top heavy roster that depends on outscoring the competition while the defense consistently struggles to make stops. The Nets are fighting an uphill battle.
Although there have been 13 teams to make the Finals without a top-10 defense, the level of competition in the East makes this a proposition that I’ll gladly pass on.
I’d look to other teams for value when playing futures (whether division, conference or otherwise), particularly the 76ers who are 15-6 and have the interior presence in Joel Embiid to make life hell for the Nets.