A season after losing their first 18 games (12 of them by double digits) and having to wait until the 44th game of the season (on January 27) for their fourth win, the New Jersey Nets have earned four wins in their first ten games and have suffered three losses by three points or fewer, including a tough one-point loss to perennial Eastern Conference power Orlando.
A year ago, the Nets barely looked like an NBA team. Now, they look pesky, if not downright competitive. While this marked improvement is certainly a welcome change from the debacle of 2009-10, the Nets can’t help but feel as though they’re still underachieving. Whether it would have been reasonable to expect even this strong a record prior to the start of the season is debatable, but the way in which the Nets have gotten here suggests that they’re leaving money on the table.
Heading into the 2010-11, Devin Harris was the clear-cut key to a successful season for the Nets. As long as he’s healthy and committed to attacking the paint, Harris creates high percentage scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates, most of whom are incapable of getting their own shot.
Plagued by a groin injury early last season and with the Nets’ season all but over by the time he got back to full strength, Harris had little incentive for him to play with the aggressiveness that made him an All-Star in 2008-09. He needed to return to his form from two seasons ago- when 35%+ of his attempts came at the rim. While only 20% of Harris’ 2010-11 attempts have come at the rim (compared with 23.1% a year ago), he’s done an excellent job of getting into the paint, as 47.3% have from within 10 feet of the basket, compared with just 30.5% a year ago (from Hoopdata.com).
Also, Harris is attempting roughly six free throws per game- a far cry from 8.8 per game two years ago, but still solid- and hitting 84.7% of them (v. 79.8% a year ago). This number jumps to 8.7 per game in the Nets’ first three wins (he was ejected 14 minutes into Monday’s win over the Clippers)- an early sign of the correlation between Harris’ aggressiveness and the Nets’ success.
So if the Nets are actually winning games at a respectable clip and their main catalyst is living up to expectations, why does it still feel like they’re underperforming?
Well… while Harris has bounced back the way the team would have hoped, stud big man Brook Lopez- whose productivity was almost universally taken for granted- has failed to live up to expectations, thanks to a lack of assertiveness on offense and effort on the boards.
After averaging ~16 ppg on 51.2% from the field and 8+ rpg (over 3 orpg) over his first two seasons, Lopez, while still averaging 18 ppg, is shooting just 42% from the floor, grabbing 5.5 rpg (1.7 orpg), getting to the free throw line less frequently and taking tougher shots.
A year ago, when Lopez averaged 18.8 ppg and shot 50% from the field, nearly half (6.6 of 13.7) of his field goal attempts came at the rim, and he made 61.4% of them. This season, just 18.9% (3 of 15.9) are at the rim, and what’s worse, he’s only making 43.3% of them.
Last season, an additional 19% of his shots were attempted within 10 feet, but not “at the rim.” This season, that number is up to 39.6%, somewhat offsetting the drop at the rim, although with slightly tougher shots. Both seasons he’s hit ~49% of these attempts. For those of you keeping score at home, last season 67% (9.2 of 13.7) of Lopez’s attempts came from no more than 10 feet away, with a success rate of 57%. This season, 58.5% of his shot are from within 10 feet, with fewer point-blank attempts, and consequently a success rate that’s dipped to ~46%.
From 10-15 feet, the story hasn’t changed much from year to year, as Lopez made 34% of his 1.6 attempts last season, and is making 35% of his 2 attempts this year.
These days, Lopez seems content to try and make his living from long range. After averaging 1.6 and 2.9 attempts from 16-23 feet in his first two seasons (with a sub-40% success rate), he’s really taken to the perimeter this season, hoisting up 4.6 shots a game from this range, hitting just 35% of them.
What the hell is this guy thinking?
Is it absurd for one of the NBA top five or six centers to attempt so many shots from 10-23 feet (6.6) when he’s shown little capacity for hitting more than a third of them. Not only is Lopez seemingly insistent on proving that he’s a perimeter threat, he’s doing so at the expense of his strengths.
First and foremost, this misguided attempt to make a living from the outside has led to a big drop in offensive rebounding (1.8 orpg, v. 3.3 in 2009-10)- a major source of “at the rim” shots- with his OR rate dropping from 9.9 to 6.1.
The uptick in outside attempts (and resulting drop in attempts in the paint) has led to an average of almost one fewer free throw attempt per game (v. 2009-10). This is particularly problematic since, as an ~85% shooter, Lopez ought to be looking to get to the line as much as possible. As a result, Lopez’s True Shooting Percentage has been hammered (~57% his first two years, 49.4% in 2010-11), and his effectiveness drastically reduced.
The solution? Brook Lopez needs to get the hell back in the paint and rediscover his aggressiveness, no both the glass and while attacking the rim.