The Brooklyn Nets are deeper in their rotation than they were a season ago and light years deeper than two years ago. But the big problem remains the same.
First the good news: The Brooklyn Nets retooled offense looked solid for the most part Monday night as the team got its first win of the preseason, a 110-108 overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena.
But as the Nets learned repeatedly last year as they struggled to close out close games. Brooklyn was 12-15 last season in games decided by five points or less and 5-7 when the margin was three points or fewer.
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Coach Kenny Atkinson’s answer to lacking star power has been to install an egalitarian system that emphasizes spacing and motion to create opportunities from the 3-point line and for drivers and rollers to get to the rim.
For 43-45 minutes a game, that system can make things more equal, allowing a lesser-talented team to hang with an opponent with more sparkly talent at its disposal.
Atkinson saw first-hand how good a team can be, even with those restrictions. He was an assistant coach for an Atlanta Hawks club in 2014-15 that won 60 games despite not having anyone on the squad average even 17 points per game.
But that team ultimately fell short of a title, losing in four straight games to the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that had LeBron James — the guy who would have the ball in his hands in key situations. They knew it, the Hawks knew it, the popcorn vendors knew it and it didn’t matter.
NBA teams function best when they have that guy, their closer, who can keep things from splitting at the seams when the pressure is at its highest.
Much is made about the Pistons’ championship-caliber clubs from the last decade, but that team still had a closer — Chauncey Billups was the guy calling the shots in the late-game pressure situations.
Even in the win Monday night, the Nets nearly gave the game away because of their inability to get good looks as the game clock wound down.
In the final five minutes of regulation in Detroit Monday — with no end-of-the-bench or G League guys on the floor, Brooklyn’s possessions went this way:
- Blocked shot
- Transition layup after a steal by Treveon Graham
- Missed 3-pointer with shot clock expiring
- 21-foot jumper by D’Angelo Russell
- Layup off Caris LeVert drive
- Shot clock violation (a 3-point attempt by Russell missed the rim as the clock expired)
- Floater in the lane off a Russell drive
- Pull-up 3-pointer by Russell
- Missed desperation 3 by Russell from 35 feet away despite having 7.2 seconds and a frontcourt inbounds play to set things up.
So that’s 11 points, four turnovers and a blocked shot to show for 16 possessions. A points-per-possession rate of 0.68 is problematic when trying to close out an opponent.
The Nets then outscored Detroit 8-2 in the first 1:48 of the overtime period to take a 110-104 lead.
Here’s how they closed it out in the final three minutes:
- Missed layup
- Missed 3-pointer late in the clock
- Missed step-back jumper as the clock was expiring
- Shot clock violation
Let’s do the PPP math on that time span — nothin’, divided by nothin’, carry the nothin’ … yep, nothin’.
Brooklyn held on because of some solid defense and one particularly bad decision by Pistons center Andre Drummond, he got a steal and morphed into a 6-foot-11, 280-pound point guard.
He charged down the court and into the lane and — shockingly — couldn’t stop himself before committing an offensive foul.
It never hurts to get lucky,
D’Angelo Russell shows signs of having that “closer” mentality, but also can drift into a mode where he appears to be playing hesitantly.
Caris LeVert shows the same signs, but as a ball-handler in late-game situations shows an alarming tendency to leap before deciding what to do next.
Of Brooklyn’s five turnovers in the late-game period, three were by LeVert — all in situations where he got stuck with the ball in the air and was forced to try a low-percentage pass before gravity turned the play into a traveling violation.
There is a lot to be excited about as a Nets fan. General manager Sean Marks has a ton of cap space next summer, even as he’s vastly improved the talent level on the current roster.
Brooklyn also goes into next offseason with two first-round picks — their own, for the first time since 2013, and the pick belonging to the Denver Nuggets, provided it’s not in the top 12.
The Nets will be better in 2018-19 than they were in 2017-18. But without someone stepping up to be that late-game closer, someone to direct the traffic and either set up or take the shots, Brooklyn won’t be much better — certainly not enough to realistically contend for a playoff spot.
Having a pick (and possibly two) in the lottery isn’t a worst-case scenario for the Nets. And it appears that’s what Brooklyn is destined for in the absence of a player that can properly manage the offense in crunch time.