At first blush, there's nothing bad about upgrading the roster by replacing Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Despite its age, the new duo is all-around better than the pair it replaces. Well, except on the offensive glass.The Brooklyn Nets have no real financial limit other than the bounds of NBA rules, and teams have proven over and over again that there's always a way to add salary despite the so-called cap. That salary cap is set at $58 million this season. The Nets have $102 million on the books. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is paying tens of millions more in luxury tax penalties. He does not care.
So if money is no object of concern, better players are always a better choice, right? The Nets, now 2-5 after an embarrassing 21-point loss in Sacramento on Wednesday, are doing their damnedest to prove that wrong.
After watching the Nets' offense fail to do anything positive against a Kings defense that ranked dead last in the league coming in (up to No. 27 now, thanks Brooklyn!), it looks like there's an issue getting all of these stars comfortable. The Nets' stacked starting five -- Pierce and Garnett plus incumbents Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson -- each had between 10 and 14 shooting possessions on Wednesday. There's no way that players like Lopez or Williams should be so limited in terms of usage; for the season, Lopez has a usage rate of 25 percent, and everyone else is at 22 percent or lower.
The effect is that the Nets don't really have Deron Williams or Joe Johnson out there. They have pieces of those players out there. Williams hasn't had this low a usage rate since his second season in the league. Johnson's current usage rate is 17 percent, which is right above a Thabo Sefolosha-type level. J.J. hasn't been that low since his rookie year. Johnson's been pretty efficient so far this season; having played off and on with ball-dominant point guards (Steve Nash, Williams) during his career, he has some off-ball abilities. But Williams is flailing, and it's pretty easy to see why: he's totally uncomfortable in an offense in which he gives the ball to a teammate to create 80 percent of the time.
Williams has been an All-Star level player because he's a versatile creator and playmaker who can physically dominate a lot of opponents. Take the ball out of his hands as much as the Nets have, and he loses most of that advantage. He's never been a good defender, and he appears to be a little gimpy. So if he's not able to do much more than try to create off of the dribble three out of every 10 possessions on offense and get beaten on defense, he's not just not the Deron Williams we all expect. He's not even a good NBA player.
Giving the ball to Pierce and Garnett for 12 times per game each is better than giving the ball to Wallace and Hump that often. But it would appear to be quite a bit less effective than giving the ball to Wallace and Hump fewer times and sharing the difference with Williams, Johnson and Lopez. Right now, with the rampant equality of possession and usage, Brooklyn doesn't have a team of stars, they have a team of stars masquerading as role players.
Williams is the biggest loser in the trade-off. He looks uncomfortable, and because he's not putting up numbers and can't defend, he's getting smoked by lesser point guards. That makes for more discomfort as the losses pile up. He's pressing offensively while trying to learn the preferences of Pierce and KG, which is leading to a ton of turnovers. He's racking up assists, too, but because he's become less of a scoring threat teams are expecting it and jumping his passes.
With all of these weapons, the Nets should basically never turn the ball over. Any one of them can create in a pinch; Lopez is the only starter who hasn't averaged at least five assists per game once in his career, and he does a great job getting his own shot. Yet Williams is averaging more than three turnovers in 28 minutes per game, and Brooklyn ranks No. 17 in turnover rate.
Jason Kidd, who knows better than anyone the value of giving a point guard free rein, has installed a system that totally cages his All-Star point guard. The result is a morass of isolation plays that, at least on Wednesday, ended with a lot of shots bouncing off of the rim. Johnson has always been good in the post. Garnett has always been sweet in the high post. But with this roster, having multiple possessions in which J.J. backs down his opponent from 22 feet to rim out a stepback or having multiple possessions in which KG jab-steps, does a spin move and clanks it off the back iron ... that's just a horrible use of this talent and this payroll.
Having watched Williams grow up in the NBA, I believe he can get the club better looks consistently. He had the Nets at No. 8 in offense last season. They are No. 26 right now. It's time for him, Lopez and Johnson to take back over. If that means bringing Pierce (who still has plenty in the tank) off the bench and playing Garnett even more limited minutes, so be it.