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Why are the Nets so bad?

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The Nets have Kyrie Irving, but they’re off to a slow start. What gives?

Spencer Dinwiddie looks distraught for the Nets.
The Nets are fading fast.

The Brooklyn Nets are off to a disappointing start after having the biggest summer in franchise history. Sure, with Kevin Durant sidelined for the year, the Nets were never going to be in the championship discussion. But 13 games in, Brooklyn wouldn’t even make the playoffs. The team has a 5-8 record, below the Hornets, Magic and Pacers. Yikes.

This year is supposed to be a warmup year for Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan and the Nets. They’re supposed to make the playoffs, maybe win the first round, and show fans that they’re a healthy Durant away from glory. It’s the next phase of growth for an organization that shocked most by competing with the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of last year’s playoffs without Irving or Durant.

Instead, the Nets look like they’ve taken a big step back. They’re being outscored by 4.09 points per 100 possessions by opponents, worse than 23 other teams. These aren’t the Nets we were hoping for, and now with injuries to both Kyrie Irving (shoulder impingement) and Caris LeVert (thumb surgery), this team could nosedive quickly.

The Nets’ defense is not good

Even before the injuries, the Nets’ defense stunk. Brooklyn’s lone superstar, Irving, has never been a good defender, and nobody was expecting that to change, even in a new setting. But the rest of the Nets rotation, aside from him, hasn’t been good either, and that’s a problem.

The Nets rank No. 22 in the league in defensive efficiency, and it isn’t all Irving’s fault. Part of the issue is that Brooklyn allows the eighth-highest offensive rebounding rate (27.9 percent) in the NBA. Opponents are scoring 13.3 second-chance points per game, too. This is the same problem that existed for Brooklyn’s paltry defense a season ago when it allowed a 28 percent offensive rebounding rate, and 14.4 second-chance points per game. Jordan’s presence in a small Nets rotation hasn’t been the fix.

Brooklyn also rarely forces turnovers. Weak ball pressure around the perimeter is causing the lowest forced turnover rate in the league (12 percent.) The best outcome a defense can ask for is a steal, but the Nets average just 6.2 steals per 100 possessions, fourth-worst in the league. This year is even worse than last season’s 13.1 percent forced turnover rate, which ranked eighth-worst in the league.

This isn’t a starting lineup vs. bench issue. Of the four most-used five-man rotations the Nets have deployed, none is playing well on the defensive end. The Nets’ starting lineup (Irving, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince and Jarrett Allen) has played 97 minutes together, and is allowing 111.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s better than the team as a whole, but would still only rank as the 16th-best team rate in the NBA. That’s bad for a group of your supposed best players. Even though the starters are scoring 110.9 points per 100 possession, which is really good, and would rank No. 7 of all NBA offenses, the bad is outweighing the good. The Nets are losing when their starting five play together.

The bench doesn’t provide many fixes either. The Nets don’t employ any guards or wings esteemed for their on-ball defense. That’s why a player like Ja Morant, in his third game ever, was able to score 30 points on 22 shots against them in a one-point Grizzlies’ win. The Pacers’ Jeremy Lamb scored 25 points on 19 shots, and even the Pistons no-name guards, Bruce Brown and Luke Kennard, combined for 46 points on 39 shots.

It’s hard to win when you’re allowing opposing backcourts to have their way.

Caris LeVert is playing poorly, too

The key to this year being a success for Brooklyn was LeVert taking the next step. The Nets believed in him enough to give him a three-year, $52.5 million contract extension in August, but he hasn’t played up to it.

He’s scoring better than ever, averaging 17 points per game on 42 percent shooting, which is just one percent worse from a season ago. He’s upped his three-point shooting to 36 percent on four shots per night too. His ability to put the ball in the hoop has improved, but it’s come with consequences.

Handling the ball more than usual, LeVert’s become a turnover machine, coughing up 17 possessions per 100 plays, nearly six more than last season. And the type of turnovers he’s committing are even more crippling to the team. So far, 21 of his 31 turnovers have been bad passes, or him losing the ball. At 19.2 points per game, the Nets allow the seventh-most points off turnovers of any team in the league.

His defense hasn’t been good either. The team is better with on the floor, holding opponents to 1.6 points per 100 possessions fewer than when he’s on the bench, but the defense still isn’t good. The Nets are still allowing 108.7 points per 100 possessions when he plays, which would be the 16th-best team defense in the league, just below the Bulls. Box numbers aren’t everything, but LeVert isn’t even averaging one block + steal per game.

LeVert is going to miss the next four-to-six weeks to repair ligament damage to his thumb. Hopefully that period off will help him.

If healthy, Irving is probably enough to get this team into the playoffs, but don’t expect them to be much better than last year

Irving is still an incredible offensive player. No matter how lackluster he is defensively, his offense will outweigh it. He’s averaging 29 points per game with seven assists and five rebounds so far, and he isn’t even shooting as well as usual yet. He’s going to will Brooklyn to the playoffs, as long as he recovers from this ominous shoulder injury.

The Eastern Conference is shallow, and Irving is one of its few stars. The Raptors, Sixers, Celtics, Bucks and Heat look likely to cruise to the top-five playoff spots, and the rest are up for the taking. When Victor Oladipo returns, the Pacers will compete, but no other team is definitely ahead of the other in the rest of the pack. The Hawks might make a run with Trae Young, the Magic might figure out their offensive struggles, but the Nets would really have to tank out to miss the postseason.

Yes, Durant should fix the Nets

It’s fair to criticize the Nets, who are underachieving with the pieces they have, but they’re also missing a generational star. Durant is one of the best players on the planet, and he’s going to make Brooklyn an elite team the second he returns.

Still, this year’s Nets have been disappointing to watch. A lot of the core remains the same from last year, with the exception of Irving replacing D’Angelo Russell, and a handful of rotation pieces. The rest of the remaining group just hasn’t developed as Brooklyn hoped.

At least not yet.