The injuries this season to Josh Boone, Eduardo Najera and now Stromile Swift have taken some of the pressure off, but with Boone ready to go and Najera back soon the Nets are reaching the point where they’re going to have to start making some decisions about playing time in the front court. Some of the available players can play multiple positions which helps, but with arguably 9 guys available to fill 3 starting slots and perhaps at most 3 regularly used backups, something is going to have to give. Let’s take a look at the staff on hand and see if any useful lineups jump out:
Note: PER from basketball-reference.com (average is 15). WP48 only available through last year and only for time with the Nets, thus no numbers for rookies (average is 0.100), adj. +/- from basketballvalue.com, where I’m using last year’s numbers to get a reasonable sample since we’re only a quarter of the way through this season- thus, again, no numbers for rookies. Salary data from Hoopshype.
3rd season, 24 years old, contracted through 09/10 at $2m per. Career PER 14.9, this year 16.4; WP48 1.66; -4.14 last year.
Profile: The team’s second best shotblocker (1.43/game this year, a career high) though not a great overall defender (-3.2 points per 100 possessions last year relative to the team), Boone’s been an offensive boost throughout his career by running the pick and roll well and being a very good offensive rebounder- in a tiny sample size he’s actually the top center in the league this year in offensive rebound rate (ORR) at 17.9, and was a 3.9% team positive last year in that category. His downside is that he’s one of the worst free throw shooters you’ll ever see and has a shooting range of “dunk, hopefully”. Listed at only 6’10 and 237, he may yet find himself at power forward over the long term.
Rookie, 20, contracted through 09/10 at $2.5m per, team options rising to $3m next two years. 15.2 PER.
Profile: considered an offensively skilled semi-project entering the year, I would contend he’s fulfilled and in some respects surpassed expectations, especially on defense. His TS% of .527 places him 34th among centers, which isn’t bad at all for a 20 year old rookie in his first 20 games. He’s 21st in ORR among centers and 17th in overall rebound rate (RR), and he’s the team’s leading shotblocker as well at 1.8 per game. He’s still badly turnover prone but at 7’0 and 260 and already a productive player at age 20, he’s clearly the team’s center for the foreseeable future barring injury.
2nd season, “21”, contracted through 09/10 at $3m per, team option at $4m subsequently. Career PER 11.8, 13.5 this year; WP48 0.035; -6.14 last year in Milwaukee.
Profile: The change from last year to this year in his skills is probably going to save his career as someone getting real minutes and keep him around as a role player and specialist. From a guy who shot very few 3s and made less than 30%, he’s become a guy who shoots 3 a game and is hitting 44%. He’s one of the worst defenders at the 4 you’ll see, has low basketball IQ, can’t really rebound (59th in ORR among 4s, 39th in RR), and despite being a very good athlete for a 7 footer he’s not much of a finisher (.419 on close shots this year), but that shot makes him a useful part of the Nets’ offense which requires range shooters, especially bigs, to function. He may, in some circumstances, be able to play the 3 given his athleticism and the way his speed and quickness excels his strength. More on that below.
2nd season, 22, contracted through 09/10 at $1.6m per, team option subsequently at $2.5m. Career PER 12.7, this year 4.2; WP48 0.070; -5.07.
Profile: it’s getting ugly now for Williams, who’s been mixed up a lot recently in reports of discontent. He’s been riveted to the bench this season playing 172 minutes in 15 games- as compared to 180 for Josh Boone in only 7 games. His TS% has cratered to 40%, his rebound rates are down, blocks down, usage rates down, turnovers up, and he still can’t remember plays or rotate well for anything except weak-side blocks. He lacks the offensive go-to move or skill which someone like Yi has, and as a result he’s fallen far down the depth chart. I don’t know if he’s going to make it; if he does, it probably won’t be in Jersey.
Rookie, 20, contracted through 09/10 at $1.3m per, team options rising to $2.3m next two years. 14.8 PER.
Profile: Very similar to Yi so far, he’s hitting 44% of his 3s, is 34th in RR and 49th in ORR, and appears to be a fluid natural athlete though not a leaper or flyer. At 6’10 and 240 he’s probably a pure 4, as he’s both stronger and slower than Yi.
9th season, 29, $6.2m in final year of contract. 16.2 career PER, 7.0 this year; WP48 0.017; -5.32.
Profile: he is what he is, an athletic leaper and decent shotblocker and rebounder who can give you passable minutes at the 4 or the 5. His contract expires after this year and he almost certainly won’t be resigned, and that set of circumstances probably means he should get emergency minutes only when everyone else is healthy.
9th Season, 32, contracted through 11/12 at values declining from $3.4m to $2.6m. Career PER 12.7, this year -3.; WP48 -0.337; +9.25 last year in Denver.
Profile: I tend to think of Najera as an insurance policy and assistant coach at this point, a hard worker and experienced player who can help teach the many other young bigs how to Play The Right Way and slot in for minutes here and there as another big who apparently, after last year’s 53-147, 36% performance, can hit the three in the Nets’ system. Not a candidate to start, but a solid reserve.
7th season, 28, contracted through 09/10 at roughly $10.5m a year (seriously). Career PER 13.5, this year 9.9; WP48 oddly not available; -1.14 last year with Milwaukee.
Profile: in his third straight year of PER decline not counting the entire year he missed due to injury, he’s having a weird shooting season where his FG% is south of 40 but he may be having his best ever range shooting year averaging 1.5/3.5 for 42% on the season. His rebounding is ordinary at best (36th in RR among SFs, 27th in ORR), and as a defender he’s ok-ish, a net positive last year in Milwaukee and a net negative so far this year according to 82games.com.
6th season, 27, contracted through 09/10 at $2m per. Career PER 11.0, this year 11.9; WP48 oddly not available; +0.43 last year with Detroit.
Profile: His three point shooting is lagging 60 points behind his career average and his assist% has fallen way off, but he’s posting easily the best rebound rate of his career at 10.0. Hard to know how much of that is noise. He’s got a reputation as a terrible defender and was a net negative last year in Detroit according to 82games.com, but has been a net positive this year- probably more noise along with teammates effects. Assuming he eventually returns/regresses to past performance levels he’ll continue to be a useful spare-part jump shooter who fits the offense without really being a guy you want to commit to long term. He’s basically here to fill gaps until the summer of LeBron, et al. On a side note, catch an interview with the man; he comes off as one of the nicest and most intelligent guys in the league.
So what does this all shake out to? The Nets’ offense is the first thing that has to be taken into account: it’s a system which depends on speed in the backcourt and range shooting everywhere, especially among the bigs and at the 3. The bigs draw people out to the perimeter and clear space for the guards to penetrate and either draw fouls or else kick the ball out, and the system works well enough so that a team expected to largely suck this year is over .500 and has the 6th best offense in the league. When a system is working that well it’s probably best not to screw around with it too much unless there’s a clear purpose in mind, so let’s take that as a template for how to organize these guys.
At the five, Lopez should start. If he develops his mid-range jumper to the degree Zydrunas Iilgauskas has in Cleveland this offense will be unstoppable as he’ll be able to flash to the high post or elbow area off the pick and roll, but as things sit he’s still got vastly more offensive range to spread the floor than Josh Boone and doesn’t give up much if anything in regards to rebounding and defense. On talent and performance I’d love to slot Boone at the 4 and there’s actually a good case that his offensive rebounding makes him the best choice as a starter at the 5, but this team needs shooters to work and Boone is not that. Against some teams, I’d love to see huge lineups with Lopez-Boone-Yi just for a different look and to test from time to time whether that lineup with the standard backcourt can still maintain effectiveness on offense while potentially gaining on defense and the boards. For whatever it’s worth, 82games.com indicates that that lineup hasn’t been tried this year.
At the four, and with the preceding kept in mind, Yi is arguably the best available starter given the way he fits the offense. But here’s an interesting wrinkle to try: given that Ryan Anderson and Yi Jianlian are both range shooters doing better than Bobby Simmons and Jarvis Hayes, and better rebounders than that duo, and not a man in the four of them can defend, why not try Anderson at the 4 and Yi at the 3? Yi is a quick player and, frankly, not a man of great physical strength- why not try him defending small forwards where his strength is less of a problem and his length may bother his guard? He can’t be much worse than he is trying to defend the 4. 82 games again suggests that Yi has had virtually no time at the 3 this year or last, but I would judge this a good lineup to at least experiment with if the goal is to keep shooters on the floor and try to minimize the amount of time being taken up by marginal players.
I think, then, we can safely say that Lopez, Boone, Yi, Anderson, and one of Simmons and Hayes (whoever is playing better) should be the basic set of players to choose from for vast majority of the minutes at the 3, 4 and 5 slots. All of them save Simmons/Hayes represent a real step above the second level of options for the team, and their skills are in most cases those most appropriate to the current offense. Yi and Boone and to a lesser degree Simmons are all reasonable risks at more than one position, so the number of minutes which leak through this first category of players to the second ought to be relatively small. Lopez, Yi, and Simmons start, Boone backs up the 4 and 5, Anderson backs up the 4 and Yi and Simmons/Hayes spit the rest of the minutes at the 3; or, Lopez, Yi, and Anderson start and Simmons/Hayes back up the 3 while Boone backs up the 4 and 5. Lopez and Boone can be swapped as their form ebbs and flows. In late-game situations where one bucket is needed, you could even throw out a five man unit of Harris-Carter-Simmons/Hayes-Yi-Anderson and spread the floor in every direction. The point is, with this core group you have flexibility and options within your chosen system.
What to do with the rest, then? Simmons and Hayes are at this point essentially marginal players regardless of Simmons’ contract or Hayes’ Detroit pedigree, and it makes little sense to try and force minutes to them. One of them is probably enough to cover the 3, and they can be interchanged based on recent form. If Anderson falls back to earth they may find their role expanding, but realistically I would prefer Najera to either of them in that event- he can shoot too, and he can also defend a little. Stromile Swift should see emergency minutes only; he’s simply not in the plans. Sean Williams and Nenad Kristic, lurking out there in Europe while the Nets retain his rights, are the tough calls. I want to like Williams- he’s a superior athlete and an exciting player, and despite an early rep there’s been little word of personal issues or laziness, but he’s rapidly becoming the forward equivalent of Marcus Williams- a busted prospect who can’t quite get all the way around the mental aspect of the game. Marcus drifted where Sean just lapses, but it’s the same basic issue. I’d like to say Williams could be showcased for a trade or at least allowed to play his way into the rotation, but right now there’s a lot of people ahead of him and it’s not clear what the overwhelming skill or ability is that he brings to the table. He’s athletic, but…well, at least Stromile Swift had a peak of sorts. I suspect Williams gets one more year, and if it doesn’t click for him, he’s gone. If the Nets can get a late 1st for him, it’s a good deal. Kristic, as well, I don’t expect to see again; he’d be perfect for this offense in many ways, but his long term potential especially after the knee injury just isn’t the equal of Lopez or, really, Boone.
The bottom line for the Nets is that they have a lot of options and ways to experiment with the available personnel within their current system, so as long as those opportunities are taken advantage of they should be able to ride out injuries, slumps, guys hitting the rookie wall, etc. fairly well. It’s a good place to be in, especially given how much better some of these players may be in a few years.
Well, I’m an idiot. I wrote a bunch of bullet points during the third and early fourth quarters, before the Nets became AWESOME CONQUERORS. Somehow, I failed to anticipate them following an 18 point quarter with a 43 point quarter. Here are those, rest of the thoughts to follow:
– Shaq looked moderately better tonight than he did against the Heat, but the only real reason for the difference was Steve Nash, who unlike apparently everyone else on the Suns roster can throw a decent entry pass. The Nets defended the big man the same way the Heat did, largely fronting him with Brook Lopez. They did send double teams much more quickly than the Heat did because Shaq was getting more touches in decent positions.
– Bobby Simmons was covered for large chunks of time by Steve Nash, which is a PG renowned for bad defense trying to guard a big small forward. Simmons’ final line: 24 MP, 2-8, 1-5 from 3. 5 points. I believe he only posted Nash up once or twice, which is not a good sign; neither is that Lawrence Frank was the one to move away from the mismatch, pulling Simmons for Jarvis Hayes.
– Yi Jianlian vs. Ryan Anderson is an interesting contrast to watch on the court. If you want to understand the term “basketball IQ”, and why it can’t really be taught, watch this pair for a game or two. Anderson has good anticipation and is a pesky, ball-slapping defender without gambling excessively. He moves well on the court especially without the ball, sensing where to be in order to give the ball the option to move to him, and his athleticism is good enough for his shot to make him a threat. Yi, meanwhile…well, some men you just can’t reach. There was a stretch of this game in the first half when, in a span of 4 minutes, he managed to botch two handoffs, wildly overpersue several non-shooters on the perimeter and collide with his own man trying to defend a screen/roll. All night he would ball watch and pay no attention to his man when his man was moving without the rock, and that man was AMARE STOUDEMIRE. This led to several colossal dunks, as did Yi’s habit of alternating between charging the man and getting blown past on the dribble, and laying 6 feet off and watching an easy jumper go it. Oh, and on one play in the 4th quarter he misjudged a screen/roll so badly that he, zealously closing down the man setting the pick, was whistled for a foul when he wildly swung his hands into the ball carrier who he was totally oblivious to. I recognize Stoudemire is as hard a man to guard as there is in the league, but this was still tragic stuff. He’s twice the athlete Anderson is and almost as good a shooter, but he’s just not got an intuitive understanding of the game.
– It’s also worth noting that Anderson had a crappy shooting night (4-10, 04 from 3), but never let that effect the effort he put out in other aspects of the game. That sounds like a little thing, but for a lot of guys and most rookies it’s rare. Brook Lopez has been the same way.
– Lopez twins guarding each other: high comedy. They were going at each other in the exact manner you would imagine they did as kids in the driveway, with about twice as much energy and thrashing about as the standard cagey, coiled-spring NBA matchup. These two desperately trying to dunk on each other was the easy highpoint of the game.
The real story of the night ended up being Devin Harris, however. 47 points in 41 minutes, 14/25 from the field, 17/17 from the line, 2/3 from beyond the arc, 7 boards, 8 assists, only 4 turnovers, and he ended his post-game interview with “Thundercats, hoooooo!” This is a great, great man. He’s totally come into his own this year, putting up a PER of 26 and change over a previous career high of 17ish, and a huge part of that is a TS% of 60.2% over two previous years at just about 57. He still has excellent quickness and ability to draw contact, but he’s also got far more confidence in his jumper which makes him truly deadly. Throw in that he’s slashed his turnover rate while using far more possessions than ever before and you have a guy whose individual play is suddenly at an elite level. When you take those numbers in the context of the way he’s made the Nets his team, and the way he carries them in games like this, and you start to realize that he’s in the process of making the leap from good sideman to potential franchise player. If this is truly his new performance level, he’s probably one of the 5 best points in the league.
Oh, and he’s signed for a good contract for the next 4 seasons after this one. And the Mavs still owe the Nets an unprotected first from the deal which brought him to town. And the Nets, in their rebuilding year, are above .500 (for the moment). Not. Too Shabby.