Path to Success: How the Nets Can Make the Playoffs in 2019
Elite Sports NY
I know what you’re thinking. Mason has finally gone off the deep end with his hot takes. According to you readers, I must not ever watch basketball if I think that the Brooklyn Nets, a team that has struggled to claw its way out from the darkest depths of the NBA since 2015, are now a team in playoff contention. Well, you best believe I’m making that argument. Here’s how the Nets can make playoffs this season:
1. D’Angelo Russell’s further development and health
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that D’Angelo Russell is one of my favorite young players in the NBA. While his stats show that he has marginally improved season to season, its important to remember that he has been hampered with injury every season thus far in his young career.
Before the knee injury in the 2017-2018 season, Russell was on pace to average 20.9 points, 5.7 assists, and 4.7 rebounds on 46% shooting from the field. He also improved in his ability to score in the paint (from 23.9% in 2016-2017 to 32.2% pre-injury in 2017-2018) and running the pick and roll (from 43.6% EFG in 2016-2017 to 47.7% EFG in 2017-2018).
If these improvements continue (even if they’re incremental) and Russell stays healthy, the Nets will have an all-star caliber point guard leading their offense to the playoffs this season.
2. Kenny Atkinson
For those who don’t know, before Atkinson became the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, he was the assistant coach under Mike D’Antoni and Mike Budenholzer; and their influence clearly showed. Last season, the Nets attempted the second most three-point shots at the second most frequency, behind only the D’Antoni coached Houston Rockets. While they didn’t have a particularly good rate of success on most of those shots, they did however find great success with their spot-up shots; shooting them at the second most frequency in the league (behind the San Antonio Spurs) and scoring on those plays at the 3rd best frequency in the league (40.9%).
One of the other ways they like to score was through the pick and roll, which accounted for 24.5% of their offense. Unfortunately, they rank at the bottom of the league in field goal percentage off the pick and roll, which was most likely the result of Russell’s injury and the lack of experience from Jarrett Allen. If Allen and Russell are able to improve and build chemistry without injury setbacks, you can count on the Nets being one of the best pick and roll teams in the league.
3. Their Competition
A few days ago, when making my NBA power rankings for my sports podcast, 13 in 30, I was able to fill out every spot with relative ease, except the 8th spot in the East (we were only doing top 8 teams of each conference). I asked my co-host, Brian Hoang, who he thought would be the 8th best team in the East, and he thought of the Cleveland Cavaliers. At first, I agreed with him about the Cavs being the 8th best team in the East, but something didn’t feel right about that. The Cavaliers struggled to score last year and were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, while still having LeBron James on the roster. Now that LeBron is replaced with Collin Sexton and Ty Lue is now faced with the duty of coaching this team instead of deferring to LeBron, is anyone reasonably going to claim that Cleveland would suddenly improve both defensively and offensively?
Kevin Love could carry them into the playoffs since he is still an all-star and would look to play a bigger role in the offense now that Lebron is gone; but, Love spent six years in Minnesota as the top option in Minnesota and didn’t make playoffs once. In Love’s best season in Minnesota (where he averaged 26.1pts, 12.5reb, and 4.4ast), the Timberwolves didn’t even break .500.
You can make the claim that this current Cavaliers team is better than that Timberwolves team, but the stats say otherwise:
The Timberwolves, were much better defensively, passed the ball and rebounded more often, and had a much better net rating. The Cavaliers scored the ball better, but they also had LeBron. Take LeBron out of the equation and the offensive rating for this team plummets. Even with Love, the Cavaliers are no longer guaranteed a playoff spot. Thus, the 8th spot opens to almost every bottom feeder of the East (except the Magic, Hawks, and Bulls).
If Kristaps Porzingis was healthy, I’d put my money on the Knicks taking that spot since they would have the most complete team that’s headed by one of the most dominant young players in the NBA. Unfortunately, there is now talk that Porzingis might not return until the second half of the season. The Pistons have two all-star caliber players, but they have terrible spacing and a coach who I have no faith in (see my article about the DeMar DeRozan or watch the god-awful adjustments made by then Raptors’ head coach Dwayne Casey during the playoffs). This leaves the only two real challengers other than the Cavs for the 8th playoff spot in the East, the Hornets and the Nets.
The Hornets look like the only real challengers to the Cavs based on the track record of Kemba Walker, but they have an unproven head coach that has a pretty spotty record when he was interim head coach of the Magic back in 2015. Under these circumstances, I trust Atkinson’s coaching and the further development of the Nets’ young core than I do a Cavs roster led by Kevin Love and Ty Lue, and a Hornets team led by Walker and anyone associated with the Orlando coaching staff between the Stan Van Gundy and Frank Vogel eras.
Everyone expected that LeBron James leaving the Eastern Conference would have huge consequences on the outlook of the Eastern Conference, but I doubt anyone would think that it would allow the Nets to finally reward their famished fanbase with a playoff berth so soon.
(All Stats Provided By NBA.com)