Moore: Is It Time to Buy Low Brooklyn Nets Championship Futures?

Moore: Is It Time to Buy Low Brooklyn Nets Championship Futures? article feature image
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Mike Stobe/Getty Images. Pictured: Steve Nash (left) and Kevin Durant.

The Brooklyn Nets are fine.

I don’t mean that as in, “There’s nothing to worry about, their relatively slow start will work out.” I mean that like, “They won’t self-destruct and are still good enough to be good enough in the standings eventually.” That’s it.

Brooklyn enters Wednesday at 4-3 with wins over the Philadelphia 76ers (without Ben Simmons of course), the Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. That’s not a bad resume, nor are their losses to the upstart Charlotte Hornets, the full-strength Milwaukee Bucks or the truck-sticking-everyone Miami Heat.

Brooklyn has the eighth-best adjusted Net Rating in the NBA, per DunksAndThrees.com. Not bad by any means, but also not great.

What’s interesting is that the Nets are currently 22nd in adjusted Offensive Rating and sixth in adjusted Defensive Rating. For a team with Kevin Durant and James Harden alongside players like Joe Harris and Blake Griffin, you would expect the offense to be great and the defense to be suspect.

We have a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty situation: The Nets’ offense should improve as they naturally head toward being the kind of scoring machine they’ve proven to be, but the idea of this as a top-10 defense is a stretch.

Most notably, Brooklyn’s frontcourt faces major issues defensively. After losing Jeff Green, this is the Nets’ frontcourt defensive rotation outside of Durant:

  • Blake Griffin
  • Nic Claxton
  • Bruce Brown
  • LaMarcus Aldridge
  • James Johnson
  • Paul Millsap

Claxton has the worst Defensive Rating of any of those players despite being the most versatile and capable defender outside of Brown. So it should be encouraging that the Nets’ questionable defenders haven’t struggled.

However, on layups so far this season, opponents are shooting below Expected FG% based on location and contest level, per Second Spectrum. Brooklyn’s differential between actual and expected FG% on layups is second-worst in the league.

That’s likely to regress, just as the Nets’ fifth-lowest percentage on their own layups is likely to improve.

Griffin plays an essential role in all this. Brooklyn is basically, at this point, all in on Griffin as its starting center.

They tried Claxton to start the year, but he has been basically nuked in his minutes starting with the loss to the Bucks in the opener. Griffin, on the other hand, competes when he’s on the floor.

Watch him make multiple efforts here:

The problem is that Griffin offers great resistance against players like Josh Jackson and average-level opponents, and very little vs. top-end players. His impact increases and decreases based on the opposition.

I’m not going to share the mauling Giannis Antetokounmpo unleashed in the opener, but here’s the ease with which Domantas Sabonis can attack him.

The Nets switch everything; it’s easier and requires less movement for their players with tons of miles on them (that is to say, all of them). Brooklyn is 17th among all teams in defensive efficiency when switching, 18th in all other categories.

As the season goes on and minutes pile up, though, switching becomes more exhausting. Injuries will tick away at technique.

The Nets will likely become the team we’ve thought they would be in preseason: a defensively vulnerable team that can simply outscore most opponents based on their talent advantage.

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The Harden Question

Here’s the most obvious example I can give of Harden’s struggles: He’s shooting 44% on layups this season. He’s 5-of-19 on runners and in the 34th percentile, shooting 41%, out of the pick-and-roll.

It has been a disaster.

The new ball, the foul changes — everything has worked against Harden, which is why Durant has felt more like a one-man show than ever with Irving out.

The fouls have been an issue. This is a pretty basic example of the kind of call he’s used to getting. He beats the defender to the middle, brings his left arm up into the chest of a retreating defender.

 

No call.

This is where the difference in officiating, not the rule changes, have hurt Harden. This isn’t captured in the changes to hooking the arm or pump fakes. This is just a change in who gets the benefit of the doubt.

Harden has drawn tons of calls through the fakes and hooking the defender’s arm — these were the calls he used to get constantly. He’s a master of lulling defenders to sleep and then bursting into their bodies to draw contact.

If they’re not giving him that call, then Harden has to actually attempt to make the shot. On top of that problem, he’s not jumping as high as he used to, either because of fatigue from so many miles through the years or lack of conditioning in the early part of the season.

Harden will likely adapt, however, and the calls will as well. The Nets will put up a big number once that happens. Their team construct is built around two superstars and they have one right now. They’re still over .500 because the bottom and most of the middle of the league simply can’t hang with them.

The Issue

So they haven’t started off great and yet there are all these signs they’re going to be awesome once again. Is it time to buy the dip?

No, for two reasons.

One, there’s no dip. The Nets are still +250 to win the NBA title.

“Of course the odds haven’t changed,” you say, “the season just started!” What if I told you that by the end of next week we’re through 15% of the season? That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s an example of how quickly the season moves.

By Thanksgiving, the Nets will have played nearly a quarter of their schedule, and 42% by Christmas.

Yet the Nets are still the heavy favorite to win. So you’re not getting better value at this number.

Second, the Nets aren’t going to change who they are. Their trade options are limited. Their big pickup opportunity comes in getting Irving back if New York lifts its COVID vaccine mandate, a move that A. was already factored into their preseason line, which is the same as it is now, and B. doesn’t help their defense at all.

Brooklyn is still attempting to win a title based on three superstars scoring a lot and their switching defense being enough to hold opponents to a reasonable scoring range. But Antetokounmpo looks somehow like an even more dominant beast right now, the Sixers, regardless of how the Simmons situation shakes out, still have Joel Embiid down low (at least for now), and every threat in the East has a frontcourt threat — Nikola Vucevic, Bam Adebayo, Julius Randle, or Clint Capela — who can pressure their defensive weak point at center.

Maybe Day’Ron Sharpe emerges as the answer. Maybe James Johnson manages to hold his rotation spot the whole season for the first time in a long time. Maybe the Nets add a veteran center in a buyout.

But as of right now, Brooklyn looks like the same team they were in preseason with the same price: a car with a glittering paint job, an impressive engine and nice upholstery — but when it runs, you can hear a clunking sound.

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