Whenever a team opens a season with a sluggish start, change is typically on the horizon. Kevin McHale was the latest coaching casualty Wednesday afternoon, as the Houston Rockets fired him prior to their game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Such is life in the NBA.
In fact, Jeff Hornacek is one of the league’s longest tenured coaches, and he has only served in his post for some 25 months.
When the losses mount, the coach is the easiest change to make. While Lionel Hollins may not be on the hot seat yet, the cat calls are already out for his job. To be fair, those calls started some 10 minutes after he was hired. “That’s the business. We’ve all been fired,” Hollins said prior to the Charlotte loss. “Nothing surprises me in thus business. … Win 60 games, you get fired. Win 56 games you get fired. It’s just the business.’’
Hollins, whether he would admit it or not, has not done a brilliant job coaching this team. That said, he’s got very little with which to work. Yes, he’s made mistakes. He’s stuck with one lineup a little too long, or he’s called an inopportune timeout, or he’s been reticent to ride a promising rookie.
None of Hollins’ transgressions have led to a 2-10 record, however. The argument could actually be made that he’s put the team in position to win games that the same ones calling for his job thought the Nets had no chance of winning. Take the 107-99 loss to the Golden State Warriors, for example.
With starting point guard Jarrett Jack, the team executed a flawless game plan in limiting reigning MVP Stephen Curry. The star guard shot 13-for-31 from the field, which could go down at season’s end as his worst performance.
Regardless of whether the Nets should have fouled prior to a game-tying three-pointer or stuck with a different lineup, Brooklyn had the game won. On the second night of a back-to-back, no less.
The team ran a perfect inbounds play, and Brook Lopez missed a chippy at the rim that he will make 99 times out of 100. A similar situation played itself out Wednesday in a 116-111 loss to the Charlotte Hornets. Down four points, Thaddeus Young–who had played quite well up to that point–missed a layup at the rim that he too makes more often than not. On the next possession–still down four–Lopez was whistled for an offensive foul at mid-court.
Running through the Nets’ losses, they have overachieved in most of them. Take away the first three games, and Brooklyn has had a chance to win nearly every one. Against the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 2, Shane Larkin missed a free-throw with 2:45 left that would have given the Nets a three-point lead. Joe Johnson missed two long jumpers (not ideal shot selection) around a Bogdanovic turnover.
The next game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Julius Randle banked in a one-handed runner from the top of the arc to beat the shot clock with 1:31 left, giving the Lakers a five-point lead. Hollis-Jefferson subsequently missed a pair of free-throws. Down by three, Young then committed a five-second inbounds violation where a player appeared to be open on the play.
Same story against the Sacramento Kings. At one point, the Nets led by 15 points late in the second quarter. The team had no defense for DeMarcus Cousins, though, and ultimately fell by two. It is no surprise that the Nets are shooting 11% worse in “clutch” time than they are during the rest of the game.
“If you looked at every game this season, we’ve gotten off to fast starts, and there are probably seven or eight games where we’re up 10 or 15 points and we lost,” Young said. “We just have to figure a way to maintain or finish out the games at crunch time.”
Brooklyn is prepared for these games, and although simplistic, they are a play here and a play there away from winning. Their league ranks are not as bad as one would expect for a 2-10 team. Brooklyn ranks 16th in field-goal percentage and 14th in assists. In addition, the team is only committing 14.3 turnovers per game (8th best in the league). Given the way the season started, the ball handling has improved dramatically.
There are other reasons for the losses, though.
The Real Problems
While it is easy to blame Hollins for the losses, the players have come up small with their execution. There are various reasons why the team is struggling, and they include:
The Schedule: Aside from games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Charlotte Hornets, the Nets have faced a schedule comprised solely of 2014-15 playoff teams. No Nets team in recent memory would have completed that gauntlet with a winning record. Brooklyn might have scrapped together an extra two or three wins, but the end result would have been the same: a losing record.
Three-point shooting: This is something Hollins has no control over. General manager Billy King comprised a roster deficient of one of the most valuable facets of the modern NBA game: the three-pointer. The Nets have no Kyle Korver, no Stephen Curry, heck, they have no Khris Middleton. Joe Johnson’s wear-and-tear has limited his effectiveness in getting and making open shots, especially from distance, leaving Jack and reserves Wayne Ellington and Bojan Bogdanovic as the only other legitimate threats to hit from deep. Unfortunately, the latter two struggle on the defensive end of the floor, making it hard for Hollins to keep them in the game. The Nets rank dead last in the league in three-point percentage, shooting 28.9 percent.
Athleticism: The Nets – for better or worse – are built to play a half-court game. With Jack, Johnson, and Lopez on the floor, the team is not scoring a tremendous amount of fastbreak points. Players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Markel Brown, and Thaddeus Young are suited for that style, but the larger part of the roster is not. Management has conceded that the team needs to fit a “younger and more athletic” mold, hence the drafting of Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough, as well as the signing of players like Shane Larkin and Thomas Robinson. That is, however, a long-term strategy and not one that is fully implemented currently.
Defense: No matter how many schemes and principles a coach tries to instill, defense is much more about will than skill. A guy like Andrea Bargnani is never going to be a great defender. It is quite telling that Hollis-Jefferson is the Nets’ best defender in his rookie year.
Until these areas improve, the Nets are playing with fire in most of their games. Better teams are typically quite proficient there, making it an uphill battle before the tip. Considering their shortcomings, the Nets have actually played better than expected. The performances are not consistent throughout the game, however.
Since the Nets have improved from Game 1 to Game 12 from a structural standpoint, there’s no reason to believe the wins won’t come eventually. How often remains to be seen.