On Wednesday night, the New Jersey Nets fell 117-101 at the Izod Center to the Dallas Mavericks. The loss dropped New Jersey to 0-18 on the season, breaking the record for worst start in NBA history of 0-17 shared by the 1988-89 Miami Heat and 1998-99 Los Angeles Clippers. How did the Nets get to the point of historic futility?
It's a complicated mix, one in which a lot of things had to go wrong for New Jersey. Obviously, the Nets weren't going to be competitive this season after trading star guard Vince Carter to Orlando along with Ryan Anderson for second-year guard Courtney Lee and veterans Rafer Alston and Tony Battie. Our final SCHOENE projections pegged New Jersey 29th of the 30 NBA teams, ahead of only surprising Sacramento. However, SCHOENE also offered a mean prediction of 29.5 wins, suggesting enough talent to compete on a regular basis.
First, let's try to establish what a streak like this really says about a team. Dean Oliver considered the issue in a chapter of his seminal Basketball on Paper devoted to winning and losing streaks. Oliver showed that a team with a 20-game losing streak at any point in an NBA season has a 19 percent shot of finishing the year with 21 wins or more. So while an 18-game streak is certainly a bad sign, it's hardly proof the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers' 9-73 record is in grave jeopardy.
In New Jersey's particular case, there are several mitigating factors. The first is the Nets' poor fortune the handful of close games the team played early in the year. In the season opener between the league's two worst teams, Minnesota's Damien Wilkins scored at the buzzer to unbreak a tie and beat New Jersey 95-93. On Nov. 14, the Heat stole a win away from the Nets by making a pair of contested three-pointers in the final 30 seconds, capped by Dwyane Wade banking in the game-winner with .1 seconds left and New Jersey up two. In between, the Nets also lost a pair of games by three points. On average, a team would have won at least one of those games and avoided an 0-18 start. It's also worth noting that New Jersey's point differential (-11.3 after the loss to Dallas) is better than that of the 2-16 Timberwolves (-12.8).
Second, the Nets have been battered by injuries. Battie and Keyon Dooling have yet to play all year, Jarvis Hayes has seen action in just one game, Yi Jianlian has missed 13 and Lee has missed seven. On paper, depth in terms of competent talent was a strength for New Jersey. In practice, four players--Alston and wings Trenton Hassell (who has started 12 games), Bobby Simmons and Terrence Williams--have rated at least 0.8 wins below replacement player. The injuries have limited the alternatives to these players, which is why all of them are averaging at least 29.5 minutes a night.
Most troublesome of all was the groin injury suffered by point guard Devin Harris, who missed 10 games. Not only was Alston the only true point guard left on the roster with Harris and Dooling sidelined, the loss of one of the handful of players on the roster with an ability to create his own shot was painful for New Jersey. Already, with Carter's departure, the Nets were asking several players to take on larger roles in the offense. Taking away Harris, who used a team-high 28.6 percent of possessions while on the court last season, meant New Jersey was putting entirely too much responsibility in the hands of role players like Alston, Hassell and Williams and overloading the remaining go-to scorers on the roster, center Brook Lopez and swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts.
The challenge of creating shots helps explain why the Nets' players have been less efficient than expected so far. In the wake of last week's Unfiltered post on Chris Duhon's improbably bad shooting, a reader wondered on Twitter which teams were collectively most underperforming or overachieving compared to their SCHOENE projections. The answer to the former, predictably, is New Jersey.
What I did to measure this was take projected two-point and three-point percentages and apply them to players' actual shot attempts from inside and outside the arc, then find the points teams had gained or lost compared to if the same players had shot as projected instead of how they have actually shot so far. Here are the best and worst teams.
Team 2P 3P Tot
New Jersey -78 -39 -117
Charlotte -46 -51 - 97
Chicago -46 -30 - 76
Washington -42 -12 - 54
New York 44 -96 - 52
Team 2P 3P Tot
Phoenix 44 66 110
Sacramento 78 30 108
Golden State 108 - 9 99
Boston 94 -18 76
Milwaukee - 6 75 69
Sometimes, these differences reflect weaknesses of the SCHOENE system, like a projection for the Boston offense that was unnecessarily pessimistic. Other times, they reflect player development, like improved three-point shooting for Channing Frye and Brandon Jennings (as compared to his time in Euroleague) that looks like more than a fluke.
In New Jersey's case, we can trace some of the difference between their projection and reality to the injuries. With players forced to take on larger role, their shooting percentages have inevitably suffered. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the difference suggests some Nets are simply performing worse than they will the rest of the season. Harris, for example, is certain to improve on his current 39.2 percent on accuracy on two-point shots, while Lee (36.6 percent on twos) has also struggled much more than expected, probably because he's dealing with his groin injury.
Don't underestimate what this means to New Jersey's bottom line. Adding 117 points to the Nets' total improves their point differential all the way to -4.8, which would be better than six other NBA teams.
The poor shooting has undermined the fact that Lawrence Frank had New Jersey playing good basketball before he was fired on Sunday. The Nets came into Wednesday's game ranked 14th in the NBA in Defensive Rating (they then managed to waste one of their better offensive efforts of the season by allowing 49 points in the second quarter to the Mavericks). New Jersey is dead last on offense, and making dubious history in this regard as well. Including the game against Dallas, the Nets have been 12.5 percent worse than league average in terms of points per 100 possessions, which would be the worst offense since the ABA-NBA merger.
Team Yr ORtg LgRtg Adj
NEW JERSEY 09-10 94.6 108.1 -12.5
Denver 02-03 92.6 104.9 -11.7
Chicago 99-00 95.0 105.5 - 9.9
L.A. Clippers 87-88 98.7 109.3 - 9.7
Chicago 98-99 93.6 103.4 - 9.5
Miami 88-89 98.7 109.0 - 9.4
Emboldened by the knowledge that the Toronto Raptors stopped threatening records on offense not long after last week's column was published (though the Toronto D still continues to shatter previous marks), I'm confident in saying that New Jersey won't end the season as the worst offense in league history. This is a bad offensive group, certainly, but nowhere comparable to that talent-deprived 2002-03 Denver squad. When healthy, the Nets will be far more effective.
A similar conclusion applies to the Nets as a whole. It's certainly obvious that this team is not very good, and the negativity associated with the worst start in NBA history has threatened its collective psyche. Reaching that point, however, has required a perfect storm of misfortune, whether in terms of winnable games, injuries, or players slumping. Things are bound to improve by season's end, even if it won't be enough to remove this New Jersey team from the history books.
For more insights and observations, follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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