The Brooklyn Nets’ upcoming five-game road trip will give the team a great chance at changing the tides of this season.
Well, not exactly a swimming start to a championship season, eh?
Coming into the year, most of us here at ESNY saw the Brooklyn Nets as an easy 45-win, fifth-seed in the Eastern Conference — at minimum. With a paper-thin schedule to kick-start the season, it was at least fathomable that the revamped Nets would zoom off to a red-hot opening run.
Yeah, about that.
Through seven games, the Nets have undergone a meager 3-4 start with some truly brutal losses along the way; this includes a gut-wrenching defeat at the hands of the “can’t stop thinking about James Wiseman” Memphis Grizzlies (appreciate that dagger three, by the way, Jae Crowder…) and the humiliating squandered lead against the point guard-less Detroit Pistons (apologies to Bruce Brown).
Poor defense and predictable offense down the stretch have doomed these Nets. While Kyrie Irving has been every bit as incredible as advertised, his teammates have balanced his impressive efforts with pretty iffy impact across the board. Caris LeVert is picking up where he left off during last season’s playoffs (19.4 points on 45.3% shooting), and Joe Harris and Taurean Prince deserve nods as well for their scorching hot three-point shooting. But otherwise, Brooklyn’s power — especially off the bench — has been inconsistent at best.
Even so, there are some positives. Brooklyn is posting the sixth-best point differential (+0.7) in their conference, albeit against a pretty “meh” schedule. They’re also scoring 109.7 points per 100 possessions — seventh-best in the association. Even the defense has perked up as of late, and Brooklyn sits at slot No. 18 on the defensive rating leaderboard.
Over the next two weeks, Brooklyn will embark upon a two-week road-trip crusade — its longest of the season. Kyrie Irving, star of the Nets, certainly understands the gravity of the challenges ahead.
“Obviously there’s nothing like being at home, but that’s really where you come together as a group,” Irving said of the road-trip to Brian Lewis of the New York Post, “You want to come out with a winning record. Take those opportunities to play on other organizations’ floors or going against other good guys in our league.”
To prepare ourselves for the (hopefully) exciting times to come, let’s briefly take a look at the competition on the horizon.
Friday, Nov. 8 @ Portland Trail Blazers
Fear not, Nets fans! Your favorite Brooklyn hoopers aren’t the only NBA hot-shots off to a slow start. The Portland Trail Blazers — a Western Conference Finalist just a season ago — has also tripped off the starting blocks with a not-so-great 3-4 start. Just this week, they fell to the grossly depleted Golden State Warriors, whose starters looked like this:
This warriors starting lineup man sheesh https://t.co/hqPJiO1etN
— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) November 5, 2019
Witnessing the first Damian Lillard vs. Kyrie Irving matchup of the season will certainly be one hell of a spectacle. With Stephen Curry out with a broken hand, Dame has taken the reins as the league’s best point guard. His statistics are unbelievable: 31.1 points, 7.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds and an “are we sure he isn’t using an aimbot?” shooting line of 49.3/40.3/89.6. Kyrie’s stats, heh, aren’t too shabby either: 31.7 points, 7.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds — all of which are career-highs, by the way.
Expect this game to be a shoot-out. After losing Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless and replacing them with… basically zero wings and forwards (Rodney Hood is a shooting guard and Mario Hezonja freaking stinks), Portland’s defense has gone to utter crap, allowing a ninth-worst 109.2 points per 100 possessions. Yes, Portland is a playoff-tested ballclub, but the Blazers are coming off a back-to-back prior to Friday’s game, which bodes nicely for the Nets. This one is, dare I say it, winnable.
Sunday, Nov. 10 @ Phoenix Suns
What a great matchup. A massively underachieving Nets team against an upstart Suns squad doing basically the exact opposite.
I’ve been on record for saying, “you know, the Suns don’t look too bad!” on various preseason podcasts (including ESNY’s Clean Sweep). This is me telling you all, I’m smart and I told you so. (Kidding. Kind of.)
Phoenix stole the corner held by last season’s Sacramento Kings (and to a lesser degree, the Nets); they’ve been more than happy to surprise opponents who laugh them off as easy wins. In just seven total games, Monty Williams‘ Suns have already found a way to topple the title favorites from both conferences: the LA Clippers and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Phoenix’s defense has been staunch so far, ranked seventh in the association. On offense, even with the loss of Deandre Ayton, the Suns really haven’t missed a beat. Recent 23-year-old Devin Booker, who appears poised to finally make the All-Star team, is dropping 26 points on average for his second-straight season. This time, however, those 26 big bucks come with a basically unheard 50-50-90 shooting split. My lord.
Containing the offensive brilliance that is D Book is a big ask for Caris LeVert, whose defensive impact has been… iffy this season? Too many times have we seen LeVert left in the dust as his man zips around screens for easy spot-up shots. (Losing your man in the corner off a freaking ATO is beyond unacceptable. These are the plays that Kenny Atkinson will surely point to when discussing LeVert’s benchings at the end of games; which, by the way, I totally disagree with. But that’s for another day.)
Playing next to a pass-first point guard (Ricky Rubio) has given Booker the daylight he needs to score efficiently. We’re starting to get a taste of his University of Kentucky self, scoring more as an off-ball option, and it’s on LeVert to hone in his defensive awareness in the face of the sure-fire All-Star.
If things go wrong, Booker puts up fifty, the Nets flounder in the second half, and the Aron Baynes Stan Account (incredible Twitter follow) rubs the tough loss in the face of Nets Nation. This strikes me as a trap game for the still-pretty-lackadaisical Nets.
Tuesday, Nov. 12 @ Utah Jazz
Three things in life are certain: death, taxes and Brooklyn Nets losses against the Utah Jazz.
Utah’s iOS 11.3 lineup is a bit different than previous iterations. Utah is still a defensive powerhouse underneath the guiding hand of Quin Snyder, ranked first in defensive rating according to NBA stats. One-half of the Jazz’s splashy offseason is making a massive impact as a Salt Lake baller: Former Net Bojan Bogdanovic is netting (heh) 20 points per game on a 49.4/45/95 shooting line (is he a stealth All-Star?). The other half of Utah’s offseason coup, Mike Conley, well… I’m not really sure what he’s doing.
I wasn’t planning to name-drop Ricky Rubio twice in this column… but to his credit, without the Spaniard’s passing flair, Utah’s ball-movement has tapered off dramatically. Utah ranked sixth in the league in passes made with 310.7 per game last season. Now, that number has dropped to 263.3 made passes — sixth-fewest in the NBA. (Sound familiar, Nets fans?)
Yet again, this game versus the Jazz will bring forth another huge assignment for Caris LeVert. Similar to D Book in Phoenix, Donovan Mitchell has decided that 2019-20 is the year he breaks down the brass doors of All-Star heaven, averaging 25.2 points on 52% shooting. It appears his FIBA World Cup seasoning has fully marinated. Now, the former Louisville slasher is ready to take on the world. Let’s hope LeVert, once described as Brooklyn’s defensive stalworth, is ready.
Thursday, Nov. 14 @ Denver Nuggets
A year ago, Brooklyn handled their business against last season’s Western Conference two-seed, beating the Nuggets during both of their meetups.
After a sluggish start that may or may not have stemmed from Nikola Jokic‘s, um, interesting game shape, the Nugs are picking things up. During their last two contests, they’ve beaten both Florida basketball teams by a combined 24 points.
Insert whatever cliche you’d like about Denver’s textbook style of team basketball; all five starters are averaging, at-minimum, 11 points per game.
Two matchups stand out to me. The first: Jarrett Allen vs. Nikola Jokic. A year ago, The Fro did a pretty credible job containing the Serbian MVP candidate. Per NBA’s matchup stats, Allen’s persnickety coverage forced Big Yoke (can this nickname PLEASE catch on?) into four total turnovers and just one assist. Jokic is a fairly physical post-up presence, so it was certainly enthralling to see Allen — normally a pretty timid defender against other bigs — attack him with such ferocity. Yet, the Nets’ then-20-year-old center was totally fearless. See for yourself:
The second key matchup entails our guy, LeVert, who has thus far been brought up in nearly every section of this column. (He is the Nets’ X-Factor, ya know.)
Instead of focusing on his defensive coverage, it’s Caris’ offense I’ll be watching closely. Gary Harris is one hell of a stopper, certainly All-Defensive team capable, and will undeniably take this matchup personally. A year ago, LeVert — the shifty Nets’ two-guard — crossed Harris’ feet like a delicious Auntie Anne’s pretzel and lofted a game-winning floater in his grill. I’d bet my
house, hm, toaster? (I don’t really own anything worth much of value) that the defensive-minded Harris remembers this moment with gritted teeth and a heavy heart.
Saturday, Nov. 16 @ Chicago Bulls
It’s obvious that this is the most winnable game of the bunch. To some (ahem, me), the Bulls were a stealth playoff contender in the not-so-congested Eastern Conference. With a real-deal option at point guard (Tomas Satoransky) and some veteran assistance in the frontcourt (Thaddeus Young), it was at least conceivable that the Bulls could exceed expectations.
Well, f— me and my stupid predictions, things in the Windy City sure haven’t gone as planned.
The Bulls are off to a horrid 2-6 start, channeling the energy of their Midwest football brethren (the Chicago Bears) by completely falling short on all expectations. Similar to Bears’ QB Mitch Tribusky, it appears Zach LaVine is actually who we all originally thought he was: a stat-stuffer. Lauri Markkanen has somehow regressed and Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen has kindly decided to join the New York Knicks‘ head coach David Fizdale in the tight race for “first coach fired.”
Then again, the Nets have appeared more than happy to play down to their competition, so who really knows with this one? Brooklyn can’t fall short in any additional ‘schedule wins’ if they want to remain in the playoff hunt.
I’ll let Brooklyn’s superstar point guard do the honors when closing this one out. “Five teams that are pretty good in our league,” Irving told Brain Lewis when asked about the upcoming schedule. “A great test to go on the road trip for that long.”
Let’s get the job done, gentlemen.