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Mostly Solid Grades On Nets Mid-Term Report Card, With Some Weak Links
Game 41 is a rather arbitrary moment in the season for reading a measuring stick, but it is the NBA’s midpoint. Ergo, it’s as good a time as any to evaluate the performances of the Nets, even if the only grades that really matter will be based on the equivalent of final exams—the playoffs.
Bear in mind that I grew up in an era before grade inflation, so some may view these as too harsh. However, they will be graded on a curve based on expected roles as opposed to solely statistical marks. I will also be cognizant of any recency bias, because this stretch of six Nets losses in eight games, including Thursday’s deplorable 130-109 home loss to tanking Oklahoma City is more a reflection of Brooklyn’s hellish schedule (fourth game in five nights and eighth in the first 13 days of 2022) than who they really are.
At their best, with Kyrie Irving joining Kevin Durant and James Harden, the Nets can beat anybody. Unfortunately, Irving has played just three games, having been banned from Barclays Center by New York City’s Executive Order and only recently allowed to rejoin the group on the road as a “part-time player.”
Still, at 26-15 and tied for second place in the Eastern Conference, the Nets had plenty to be pleased about in the season’s first half. Here then are the midterm grades:
Kevin Durant: A-plus
The superlatives would flow off this keyboard if I didn’t have to get to the rest of the roster, but you know who he is. He’s having an MVP-caliber year, dominating in all phases--scoring, playmaking, defense. A sore shoulder may have contributed to a mini three-pointing slump, but a 50/40/90 season is still in play, especially if Irving can help space the floor better in some of the second half games.
Patty Mills: A-minus
He’s been the Nets’ barometer, averaging 15.5 points per game with a 48.1/47.4/87.5 shooting split in wins and 9.1 ppg on 33.3/30.5/85.7 shooting in losses. Fortunately, the only game he’s missed in the season’s first half was on Thursday night and that was a designated rest day. Signed to the taxpayer mid-level exception as a free agent this offseason, Mills was expected to supplement the Nets’ top perimeter scorers off the bench. When Irving refused his COVID-19 vaccination and Joe Harris went down with an ankle injury, Mills was thrust into a much larger role, averaging nearly five minutes more per game this season than his previous career high four years ago. Some regression from his hot start was inevitable. His effort (21 points, 6-for-8 three-point shooting, and numerous hustle plays) in Wednesday’s resounding victory in Chicago is more an indicator of his importance to the Nets this season.
Joe Harris: A-minus
Unlike Irving, Harris’ absence is excused, so his grade won’t be dinged by an injury that required surgery. In his 14 games, in which Brooklyn went 10-4, the NBA’s reigning three-point champ shot 46.6 percent from long range, which puts him just .0001 behind Miami’s P.J. Tucker for the league lead this season. Harris was just starting to heat up, converting 25-of-42 attempts in his last eight games before the injury. The ensuing loss in offensive gravity has been deeply felt by his teammates, as Brooklyn was the NBA’s top three-point shooting team at 39.3% on November 14 and have been the league’s fifth-worth (32.1%) since.
James Harden: B-plus
There are so many reasons—the indifferent defense, the careless decisions with the ball, etc.—to knock this grade down quite a bit, but the overall picture hasn’t been as bleak as many have advertised, especially considering he wasn’t in top shape coming off a summer of rehab from last season’s hamstring strain and then having to deal with the uneven, to put it mildly, officiating. Harden leads the Nets in assists and rebounds but more importantly, no one in the league is better at controlling the pace and then breaking down defenses. Like with Mills, Harden’s three-point shooting has been a strong predictor of success—Brooklyn is 12-2 in games where he has shot at least 40% from deep. Look for his efficiency to improve in the second half when Irving is around.
Cam Thomas: B-plus
I still view him as a volume scorer, not an efficient one, which will continue to produce inconsistent results. However, the rookie has certainly taken on a larger role than I originally envisioned, and deservedly so. Even when you took the Nets’ COVID-19 outbreak out of the equation, this team has needed shot creators and Thomas is quite adept at creating space to get off makeable attempts. He’s also had some moments where his passing and defense shined, but they’re not his forte. Only 20, he could certainly develop into a more well-rounded player. This season, the Nets have to be pleased with who he is.
DeAndre’ Bembry: B-plus
Not too shabby from a player I once viewed as being on the roster bubble. Bembry seems to have supplanted Bruce Brown as Head Coach Steve Nash’s top choice for the perimeter defender role. Though not the screen-and-roller that Brown is, Bembry has been a terrific finisher in the restricted area (70.2%, per NBA.com) and has even knocked down 12-of-27 three-pointers (44.4%). Still, it’s his defensive physicality that has altered certain games. No wonder the Nets fully guaranteed his contract last week.
LaMarcus Aldridge: B
The King of the mid-range shot (technically, he trails Philadelphia’s Seth Curry among players with at least 50 such attempts, per NBA.com), Aldridge has provided instant offense at a position on this team where scoring has been sorely lacking. Defensively, the Nets haven’t been all that adversely affected by Aldridge’s slow feet—they’re defensive rating has been worse with Nic Claxton in the middle—but they really can’t employ their preferred switching schemes on opponent pick-and-rolls with Aldridge on the court. His rim protection (a 25th-best 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes and a mediocre 65.1% opponent shooting allowed in the restricted area) could be better, but he was brought out of retirement to get buckets, and he’s been doing that as well as he’s had throughout his 15-year career.
James Johnson: B-minus
Another player who played a surprisingly key role in many Nets victories. Johnson doesn’t shoot it well (39/22/25 split), contain opposing ballhandlers well, nor does he solve Brooklyn’s rebounding issues. However, he is eminently switchable on defense and he is just so savvy in the way that he can free up teammates for open looks with his screens and passing (often on the same move) or score on cuts to the basket. Nash went through a stretch where he trusted him implicitly, though that now appears to be over.
Bruce Brown: C
Opponents have gotten wise to Brown’s sneaky ploys as the undersized roller in the pick-and-roll game. His numbers in the restricted area and just outside have taken a hit while his three-point shooting…well, he’s still working on it. Still, his playing time was always dependent on his defense, and I haven’t noticed that much of a slip. If I’m curious as to why he hasn’t seen much action in the last two weeks outside of garbage time, he must be flabbergasted. I trust that Nash must have his reasons, hence the lower grade.
Day’Ron Sharpe: C
The rookie center has one high-level skill—rebounding. Therefore, it seems inexcusable for the Nets to own a lousy 61% defensive rebounding rate during Sharpe’s 77 minutes on the court over the last four games. He has shown a knack for hunting offensive rebounds and he had some nice finishes in the pick-and-roll game, but he isn’t ready for prime time. The reason the grade isn’t lower is that he isn’t supposed to be.
Kessler Edwards: C
The first of the Nets’ pair of two-way players, Edwards has a bit of Rodions Kurucs in him, though the hope is that he can develop into a better perimeter shooter. Both were second-round picks and, given their length and position, Nets fans, including me, couldn’t help but be drawn to them, with every highlight prompting outsized recognition. The reality is somewhat murkier. Edwards is mistake-prone, to which he is entitled as an inexperienced player. If the Nets really need him to win big games down the line, they probably won’t.
Nic Claxton: C-minus
I’ve written a ton about Claxton over his three-year career because his potential to be a game-changing force is so tantalizing. However, whether it’s due to injuries or Nash placing him in roles for which he isn’t suited, the results speak for themselves. Here’s what he is: A part-time energy disruptor who can switch onto lead guards that are giving the Nets fits on pick-and-rolls. Here’s what he’s not: A starting center on an elite NBA team. If opponents are cutting off the lobs to Claxton, he is a minus on the offensive end (though he deserves credit for improved free throw shooting). As noted above, he hasn’t been giving Brooklyn a boost on the defensive end either, not like he did last season. The grade reflects that level of disappointment.
Blake Griffin: C-minus
The hustle plays only get you so far. Like Brown, Griffin went from starting on a team that was inches from defeating the eventual NBA champion Bucks in last postseason’s second round to Nash’s doghouse after Griffin started this season 9-for-56 (16.1%) from three-point territories. Much more disarming has been Griffin’s shooting closer to the basket, blowing nearly half his attempts from the restricted area. His famed explosion has all but evaporated, leading to many cringeworthy forays to the hoop. I do believe he should continue to play a role since he can still bring that physicality and basketball IQ that opponents have to respect.
Paul Millsap: C-minus
It’s hard to play well when you’re not playing regularly, especially for a 15-year veteran like Millsap. Still, you have to take advantage of the limited runs you get, and Millsap too often hasn’t inspired much confidence from Nash (though I vow to never waver). Oh, he cleans up the defensive glass, creates deflections, and sets hellacious picks, but he needed to show more juice on the offensive end. A 35.5/24/70.6 shooting split isn’t gonna cut it for a stretch five these days.
David Duke Jr.: C-minus
While his on-court activities warranted a worse grade, Duke Jr. deserved some slack as an undrafted two-way player. In this town, we account for growth potential. With Duke Jr., the Nets view him as a player who can guard any position and attack in multiple ways. Unfortunately, though he has made 5-of-his-last-7 three-pointers, it merely raised his season rate to 28%. He hasn’t been good at the rim either, shooting 45.5% in the restricted area. No matter what happens the rest of this season, he’ll always have the Toronto game, where he helped the shorthanded Nets to an overtime victory with 10 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, two steals, and 2 blocks in 38 minutes.
Jevon Carter: D
I’d cut him just for his attitude in garbage time. Earth to Jevon: No one wants to see you dribble around for 15 seconds before throwing up an awful jump shot. Let some of the young guys have a chance with the ball in their hands. As the old saying goes, he does more passing at the dinner table than he does on the basketball court. Not only hasn’t Carter been the steady perimeter shooter he was advertised to be, he isn’t really a defensive bulldog either. He’s the proverbial all activity, no results player. If (when?) Marks needs a roster spot to complete an acquisition, Carter should be first in line out the door.
Kyrie Irving: F
Ordinarily, a player who has only suited up for three games would earn an incomplete, especially one as gifted as Irving. In this case, however, the absences were self-inflicted. Irving was MIA simply because he refused to take a vaccine that 99% of his league colleagues took. The only saving grace is that there’s still time for him to correct his mistake, with the playoffs being the only test that will ultimately matter. For now, though, he has failed his team and his teammates, no matter what they say publicly.