Roster Construction Doomed The Brooklyn Nets
After opening the season as championship favorites, the Brooklyn Nets are instead gone fishing, the first actual playoff participants eliminated from the real postseason tournament after they were swept 4-0 by the Boston Celtics. Though they lost the four games by only a combined 18 points, the Nets often appeared outmanned, outclassed, outexecuted, out-just-about-everything-ed by their opponents on their way to going gentle into that good Brooklyn night.
The Nets’ series loss showcased the shortcomings of their roster construction, including, specifically, just how short so many of their rotation players were. Boston’s size advantage, particularly on the perimeter, was noticeable throughout the series.
The Nets gave just 146 total minutes to players listed between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-8,1 with 139 of them going to Bruce Brown, who is 6-4. The Celtics gave more minutes to three individual players in that size range (6-8 Jayson Tatum, 6-6 Jaylen Brown and 6-4 Marcus Smart), and 669 total minutes to their five rotation players who met that criteria (that star trio, plus 6-4 Derrick White and 6-6 Grant Williams). Meanwhile, Brooklyn doled out 453 minutes to players listed at 6-foot-3 or shorter (Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry, Goran Dragić and Patty Mills), while Boston gave just 46 minutes to its only rotation player of that size (Payton Pritchard).
As a result, the average player on the floor for the Celtics was larger than the average Nets player in just about every way: taller by 1.1 inches, heavier by 13.4 pounds, longer by 1.2 inches.
The Celtics were bigger and longer than the Nets
Average height, weight and wingspan for players on the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, weighted by minutes played in their first-round playoff series
|Celtics||78.4 in.||215.4 lbs.||82.6 in.|
|Nets||77.3 in.||202.0 lbs.||81.4 in.|
|Difference||1.1 in.||13.4 lbs.||1.2 in.|
Those differences may not seem massive, but they showed up all over the place. The Celtics dominated the offensive glass, corralling 30.1 percent of their missed shots during the series compared with only 23.0 percent for the Nets. Brooklyn’s shots were contested more closely and more often than Boston’s, according to Second Spectrum tracking — and that’s despite Brooklyn taking a far lower share of its shots in the paint, where defenders are better positioned to contest than on the perimeter.
Boston’s individual and collective length caused all kinds of problems, even for one of the rangiest players in the NBA. Much was made throughout the series of Durant’s poor shooting numbers, and indeed, he finished with his third-worst field-goal percentage for any series in his 15-year career. But look, sometimes even the best shooters the league has ever seen miss shots. It happens. Stephen Curry went through the same thing for much of this season, showing that even the Greatest Shooter of All Time is not immune to a cascade of bricks on occasion.
What was perhaps even stranger in this series was Durant’s volume of turnovers, and the way in which they occurred. He gave the ball away 21 times in four games, marking the first series in his career in which he coughed it up more than five times per contest. And while a few of those were offensive fouls, and he tossed a bad pass here and there, an alarming number of KD’s miscues involved simply losing control of his dribble, either on the perimeter or as he attempted to wade through the thicket of limbs the Celtics placed between Durant and the basket.
The Celtics were able to show KD so many bodies (and twice as many arms) on every trip because they acted as if they did not care about what anyone else could do to punish them offensively. They practically ignored the existence of Nicolas Claxton and Andre Drummond, helped liberally off of Brown and even sent defenders who were ostensibly guarding Curry or Mills into Durant’s path.
Meanwhile, Irving made life more difficult for his star teammate by doing things like cutting through the lane while Durant was on the drive, but even that wasn’t as damaging as what Irving did when the ball was in his own hands. At times, it seemed as though Irving was trying to make things as difficult for himself as possible. He’d pass up open looks to dribble into contested stepbacks; drive into multiple defenders and rise up with little to no room to get off his shot; or pull up too quickly on pick and rolls, allowing his defender to get a rearview contest and force a miss.
Can Irving make these types of shots — and ones even more difficult? Absolutely. It’s part of what makes him such a uniquely talented player. It’s also part of what makes him a frustrating one, because a player of his rare gifts should be striving to create much better looks than these. According to Second Spectrum, his average jump shot during this series carried an expected effective field-goal percentage of just 42.6 percent. That’s his second-lowest mark for any playoff series in his career. He’s too quick, too crafty with the ball in his hands, too creative around the rim to settle for a “good enough” shot when he’s more than capable of generating a “good” one on any given possession.
Irving’s struggles to create open looks were emblematic of Brooklyn’s as a team. NBA Advanced Stats breaks down shots into four categories based on how closely they were contested by the nearest defender: very tight (0 to 2 feet), tight (2 to 4 feet), open (4 to 6 feet) and wide open (6-plus feet). The Nets generated less profitable looks than the Celtics did, with Boston getting a nearly even 50-50 split of tight and open shots and Brooklyn tipping more toward contested shot attempts.
Boston got the easier looks
Share of field-goal attempts for the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs by how closely contested they were
|All tight shots||55.1||49.8|
|All open shots||44.9||50.1|
Unsurprisingly given these disparities, the Nets lost the shot quality battle to the Celtics, both over the course of the series (54.3 quantified Shot Quality for Boston, 48.3 for Brooklyn)2 and in each game (by at least 1.9 and as many as 9.7 percentage points). Only Brooklyn’s outrageous shotmaking ability kept this series from being a total blowout. Despite their shot quality deficiencies, the Nets actually finished the series with a better effective field-goal percentage than did the Celtics, earning themselves the ignominious distinction of being first team in NBA playoffs history to be swept despite posting the higher mark in that statistic.
Beyond all these issues, Boston also simply had a more playoff-ready roster than Brooklyn.
All of the Nets’ non-Durant shooters (Irving, Curry, Dragić, Mills) are major defensive liabilities, which made it difficult for Nets coach Steve Nash to craft lineups that surrounded KD with enough spacing for him to do what he usually does on offense. Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s two non-Durant defensive weapons are either total non-threats outside the restricted area and epic disasters at the free-throw line (Claxton) or streaky enough from outside that the Celtics felt comfortable letting him fire away (Brown), so long as he wasn’t short-rolling and kickstarting ball movement to get the more consistent shooters an open look.
Nash spent much of the regular season tinkering with different groupings, trying to figure out which combinations of players would work best in a playoff setting, just as he did last year. Brooklyn used 43 different starting lineups this season — none for more than 11 games and 28 for just a single contest. Last season’s tinkering seemed more focused, though, with Nash pairing whichever stars were healthy with a rotating cast of role players to gauge which of them put Durant, Irving and James Harden in the best position to succeed. This season’s experimentation seemed to be a result of COVID-19, injury, refusal-to-get-the-vaccine, desire-to-be-traded-to-Philadelphia and back/mental health-related player absences, and the Nets were never able to establish two-way continuity with any version of the team.
What happens next for Brooklyn is very much an open question. Durant is signed long term, and Irving has indicated that he wants to be. (Whether it’s a good idea to give a similar deal to a player who has proven himself unreliable in several different ways is up for debate.) Brown and Claxton are set to be free agents, along with Dragić, Drummond, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. Ben Simmons, should he get back on the court, would be a salve for some of the team’s issues, but he exacerbates others. The same goes for Joe Harris, who likely has not lost the ability to shoot while rehabbing his ankle but also wasn’t exactly a stalwart defender before going under the knife. Curry has one year remaining on his below-market deal, and Mills has a player option for next season. In other words, almost none of this roster’s future is settled at the moment.
General manager Sean Marks and company have a lot of decisions ahead. With its season over far earlier than most expected, Brooklyn has nothing but time to make them.
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