Monday, December 9, 2013

The Nightmare in Brooklyn

After going all-in on a bet to become a competitive team now, paying more in luxury taxes than most teams do overall and shelling out first round draft picks, sinking to the bottom of a terrible conference is the worst possible outcome. With a team relying on veterans and a couple stars in their mid-30's, the present was supposed to be at least modestly productive. With injuries and terrible coaching, the blame has already largely been placed. But what else has gone wrong? Are there any signs of improvement or freakishly bad luck?

The problem with the team as a whole starts with their league-worst defense. Bringing in Garnett and Pierce, this was not supposed to be a problem, as even the elder Garnett still had a large, positive effect on defense. However, baskeball-reference lists their defensive efficiency last in the league at 110.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, or 6.3 worse than average. They've given up 100-plus points to teams like the Magic, Wizards, and the Knicks. With the huge Brook Lopez playing better defense in the middle and the addition of Garnett, this is surprising -- has Garnett really fallen off this quickly? Last season one version of adjusted plus/minus (RAPM) found he was one of the three best defenders in the league and the Celtics were nine points per 100 possessions worse on defense when he was off the court; that's a large impact substantiated by years of results.

Yet the box score stats don't see his defense declining. In fact, he's grabbing 31.4% of all available defensive rebounds, which would be a career high and there are only 23 qualifying seasons in history that better the mark. His block% is the best since his days in Minnesota and is a little above his career average, and his steal% is also slightly better than his career average. Brooklyn is one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, ranked 25th, inflating his numbers, and one should never blindly trust box score stats, but blocks and steals are athletic indicators that usually precede the fall and defensive rebounding is a key component of defense. Synergy isn't pessimistic either: he ranks 157 overall on points per play allowed, which obviously isn't great but it's not a disaster either. He's only been in 12 isolation plays and given up a scant 0.42 PPP, so he's not getting burned. A quarter of his defensive plays have been post-ups, but he's only allowed 0.77 PPP, which is above average. He's not getting killed in pick and rolls either -- at 0.92 PPP allowed, he's still above average. Interestingly, roughly 43% of his defensive plays have involved spot-ups, which is a high number for a player you'd rather use for the interior.

Using the brand new SportVU data, Garnett ranks tenth out of 86 players in field-goal percentage near the rim when he's within five feet of the shot at 42.2% (for players with at least four field-goal attempts at the rim within five feet per game.) That's remarkable as the league average is near 58%, according to Right now the leader (guarding four attempts a game) is Taj Gibson for the Bulls. Hibbert is fifth but he also guards the sixth most field-goal attempts at the rim out of anyone in the league. But surprisingly, there's a Brooklyn player ranked higher: Brook Lopez is fourth at 39.5%. He's an improved player on defense who's fixed his mistakes by dropping back on pick and rolls, blocks a respectable amount of shots, and uses his huge frame (9' 5") fairly well. But with Garnett and Lopez locking down the paint, how can they be last in defensive efficiency?

Breaking down their opponent field-goal percentage by zone, the Nets actually perform well in two key categories: corner three's and the restricted area. They're fifth in FG% in the restricted area and 13th in attempts, while they're somehow first in corner three-point percentage and 15th in attempts per game. Defending the two most efficient spots on the floor well is the same formula the Pacers and Spurs use for their defenses. For example, the Pacers are first in both restricted area FG% and second in corner three percentage, and the Spurs fourth and 12th respectively. In attempts, the Pacers and Spurs are fifth and sixth, respectively, in attempts per game and third and sixth for corner three-pointers.

Since the Nets actually defend the two most important areas well, it's all the more impressive their defense overall is the worst in the league. Outside of the restricted area, they don't defend 2-pointers well but not horribly either. The outlier, however, is non-corner three-pointers: 44.9% is like turning every team into Stephen Curry. The next closest team's at 38.8. If the Nets defended these shots near the league average like, say, 35% on the same number of attempts, this would mean about 31 less three-pointers made or 93 points overall. That's a drastic difference of 4.65 points per game. It also translates to about 2.7 more wins over 20 games and 11 wins over a full season. Those three-pointers alone are enough to bring them close to league average on defense.

Brooklyn Nets
Restricted area
56.7 (5th)
25.9 (13th)
In the paint (non-RA)
41.0 (22nd)
11.7 (12th)
41.1 (23rd)
22.2 (12th)
Corner 3
31.6 (1st)
5.7 (15th)
Above the break 3
44.9 (30th)
10.7 (18th)

The most popular play in the league is the pick and roll, and good defenses defend these well and know how to communicate. Thus, Brooklyn's defense is likely awful here, and you can see it in the game footage. For example, versus the Lakers when you click on Steve Blake's attempts and scroll to the fourth video, you can see Shaun Livingston give Blake a huge amount of space to pressure Gasol. He scurries back, but not quickly, and there certainly wasn't a rotation to cover his lazy double team. Playing the Rockets, the Nets give up a perfect 6/6 to Chandler Parsons from behind the arc. On his first two attempts there's a simple pick set by Howard at the line; the defender goes under and the shot goes up. This is the three-point shot happy Rockets: you have to know your opponent and fight over the pick. And on the third three-pointer, the team simply forgets about him during an offensive rebound and leaves him with as much real estate as possible. You can see these mistakes in other games too.

Howard sets a pick as soon as he reaches the half court: they run this two times in a row for open shots

Rubio handoff to Martin, then a pick by Pekovic: Nets screw this up by basically setting a pick on their own player.

With poor communication and shoddy pick and roll defense, teams are feasting at the top of the three-point line. Normally teams shoot around 35% from this area. It might also be why they defend corner three's very well because why swing the ball all the way around when you're open right away? Getting beat at the top of the floor can also explain the high percentage on midrange shots and the high foul rate for the team.

Going back to Garnett: is he a liability now? Has he fallen off that much? The advanced numbers say he's not the source of the league's worst defense, and going through the game footage this is believable. On Pekovic's second to the last field goal attempt here, you can see Garnett defend a pick and roll well (though it's easier when the ball-handler, Rubio, can't shoot) and force a missed shot from Pekovic. Going to a game where defending the ball-handler is trickier because the guards can shoot, Portland, you can see Garnett pull off his patented "harass the ball-handler and jump back to defend the roll man" move.

 Aldridge set a high pick for Mo Williams but Garnett hops out behind the line to harass him

Then Garnett darts back around to cut off an angle for a pass to Aldridge

Though if Garnett is doing well, how can this be the league's worst defense? They're significantly below average in each of the four factors: their effective field-goal percentage is too high because of the shots they give up in the middle of the floor, they don't force many turnovers, they don't rebound well, and they foul too often. With Lopez in the middle, they have always have problems on rebounds, but they also have Reggie Evans and Garnett. With some size on the wings, this wasn't supposed to be a glaring problem, but Pierce has been injured and looking old, while Kirilenko has barely played. In fact, the biggest culprit for their disappointing defense in terms of personnel is Kirilenko: he's the one athletic, active wing player they can use on high scorers, and he can force more turnovers for their deprived team. Instead Alan Anderson has played the third most minutes on the team -- RAPM models found him to be one of the worst overall defenders in the league while the Russian was a large net positive. In addition, Teletovic has played more than anyone expected, and he has trouble staying in front of NBA-level players.

Though even if their defense was much better, the offense is holding them back too. With Lopez coming into his own and plenty of outside shooting, this shouldn't have been an issue, but there has been some historically bad results from some of their top guys, including their three new weapons. There's little chance all of Pierce/Williams/Kirilenko will continue to shoot that poorly, and Deron Williams isn't even old enough for such a giant decline. Along with Brook Lopez, he's the centerpiece of the offense, and if they want to climb high in the standings he'll need to rediscover his jump shot. And Garnett's percentages are so atrocious it's inconceivable they could remain that low. He's been relying on that long two-pointer for most of his offense as he's aged into his 30's, and there's no reason it should suddenly abandon him. But it's actually been how he fares inside the paint: he's shooting 48% at the rim, which would be terrible even for a guard, after years of being above 60% and his foul rate is a mere quarter of what it was last season. We've seen slow starts from Garnett before, however, and he'll need to regain his lift again.

Career average
Paul Pierce
Deron Williams
Andrei Kirilenko
Kevin Garnett

Synergy has their offense as a heavy post-up system (13.4% of their plays are post-ups, one of the highest rates in the league) with a high amount of spot-up shots and plays from the ball-handler in the pick and roll. But they're 20th and 23rd, respectively, in points per play for ball-handler and spot-up plays. If Deron Williams plays like he's able to and with some regression upward toward the mean for some of their shoots like Pierce, there's plenty of room to improve. The team probably doesn't even need a sophisticated system to succeed because they have a number of isolation/post scorers.

With the worst eastern conference in history and an Atlantic division of losing teams, there's still hope to make the playoffs. There's potential too. How can these players continue to shoot so poorly, and how can they continue to allow 45% shooting from behind the line (on non-corner attempts)? There's been awful coaching and dysfunction, where the best coaching move so far has been a spilled drink, but this has been heavily highlighted by the media and changes are already underway. Given the strange management from the eccentric Russian billionaire and the GM Billy King, there's no guarantee they'll "fix" the coaching, but it's hard to believe the situation could get any more dire (let's hope Kidd's solution isn't to become the first player-coach in decades.) But with 101 million dollars spent on the roster and the loss of several first round picks, hampering a future for a team that already has 62 million on the books in 2016 just for Joe Johnson, Deorn Williams, and Brook Lopez alone, a low seed isn't a victory by itself; they want to contend.

Good luck.

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