The Nets Surrender

As the Mets have learned over the past few weeks, baseball is unpredictable.  Until the games are played you are never quite sure what will happen.

To an even larger extent unpredictability rules the National Football League.  Four games into the season and supposed Super Bowl contenders like the Saints and Chargers are struggling while the Detroit Lions are 3-1.  

And then we have the NBA.  Last week the Associated Press reported the following about the New Jersey Nets:

As the New Jersey Nets prepare for training camp next week, team president and general manager Rod Thorn said the team has dropped from the lineup of usual suspects to win the Eastern Conference.

It’s not that the Nets have declined, it’s that the rest of the Eastern Conference has gotten much better, Thorn said.

“There are about five or six teams that are better than us,” Thorn said Thursday at a news conference. “Some of the teams that weren’t so good in the past are now a lot better.”

So before the Nets even arrived to training camp the Nets have already surrendered the season.  This raises two questions: 

Are the Nets already out of contention?

AND

What happened to a team that appeared in the NBA Finals in both 2002 and 2003?

The Recent Nets

Let’s start our answers with the state of the current roster.  And that story begins with what transpired over the past two seasons. 

Table One: The New Jersey Nets in 2006-07 and 2005-06

Table One reveals that two years ago this team won 49 games.  Last year, though, the team only managed 41 victories.  What exactly happened?

The big change across the past two seasons was the play of Richard Jefferson.  Jefferson produced 15.6 wins in 2005-06.  But injuries last year limited his effectiveness and his production fell to only 1.8 wins.  

When we look at the summation of Wins Produced (which tells the story of the team’s efficiency differential) we see that the Nets decline was more modest than the actual wins total indicated.  Given this team’s level of offensive and defensive efficiency the Nets should have only expected 44.5 wins in 2005-06, or about 5.5 more wins than we saw in 2006-07.  Why did the injury to Jefferson not hurt more?

The key is not in the eight players who played both seasons. No, the story is in the players lost and added.  When we look at the players lost after 2005-06 we see virtually no productivity at all.  In contrast, the players added – specifically Mikki Moore, Josh Boone, Eddie House, and Hassan Adams – did something.  Okay, as noted with respect to both Moore and House, something was not much.  In fact, in this group only Adams was above average.  But at least these players offered a positive level of productivity and that helped cushion the blow of losing Jefferson.

The Pareto Principle and the Nets

Although Moore, Boone, House, and Adams helped some, it’s important to emphasize the “not much” part of their story.  Yes, relative to the players the team let go, this foursome did something.  But when we think of productive supporting casts, the players on the Nets not named Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson (when healthy), leave much to be desired.

To illustrate this point, consider the Nets the first four seasons Kidd played in New Jersey.

Table Two: The New Jersey Nets from 2001-02 to 2004-05

In Kidd’s first season the Nets won 52 games and advanced to the NBA Finals.  The big three on that squad – Kidd, Keith Van Horn, and Kerry Kittles – produced 72% of this team’s Wins Produced.  In discussing the Pareto Principle and the NBA I noted that 80% of wins in the NBA are produced by 20% of its players.  This means that the top three players on each team tend to produce most of a team’s wins. 

We can see this pattern in 2001-02 in New Jersey, and it continued for the Nets in 2002-03 and 2003-04.  The top three on these latter squads – Kidd, Jefferson, and Kittles  each time – produced 77% of the team’s wins in each campaign.  And each time this team was considered a contender in the Eastern Conference.

Then in 2004-05 something changed.  Yes, Vince Carter replaced Kerry Kittles as one of the top three players. And yes, Jefferson was hurt.  But the big change was in the supporting cast.  When the Nets were contenders the supporting cast produced more than 20% of the team’s wins.  In 2004-05, though, the supporting cast only offered 8% of the team’s victories.

And these past two seasons, the supporting cast was even worse.  In 2005-06 the production of the supporting cast was a -14%.  And last year it was a negative -2%.  Yes, in each of the past two seasons the supporting cast actually combined to hurt the team.

And this is why the Nets are no longer contenders.  Jason Kidd was the most productive player in the league last season.  Carter is not quite as good as Kidd, but he is still quite productive.  But even if Jefferson comes back healthy, the supporting cast on this team remains suspect (of course if Jamal Magloire could hit his free throws it might be a different story).

Are the Nets out of Contention?

Unfortunately it looks like Thorn is right. The Eastern Conference has passed this team by.  The Nets should not expect to be as good as the Bulls, Celtics, Pistons, or Cavaliers. 

And the person responsible for this is Thorn.  It is his job to build an adequate supporting cast.  Like Kevin McHale when he had Kevin Garnett, Thorn has one of the very best players in the NBA on his roster.  Yet, at this point it sounds like Thorn doesn’t believe he has been successful in building an adequate supporting cast around this talent.  In looking over his roster, I think I have to agree.

Such news should be sad to hear for Kidd.  Kidd is the most productive player taken in the 1994 draft. And that is likely to remain the case since most of this draft class has either left the NBA or is clearly getting ready to leave soon. There are not many years left in the tank for Kidd, and it looks like the inability of the Nets to find just an average supporting cast is going to make those last few years less than thrilling. 

If only Kidd didn’t play basketball.  If he were a football or baseball player he could at least believe at the start of training camp that this year will be different.   Basketball players, as Kidd demonstrates every year, are just too consistent across time to fool themselves.  Many teams enter training camp knowing that a championship is not likely in the cards for them this year.  Unfortunately for Kidd, it looks like he plays on one of these teams in 2007-08.

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given HERE

Wins Produced and Win Score are discussed in the following posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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