The New Jersey Nets joined the NBA in 1976. Over the next 24 years the Nets only had seven winning seasons. The best of these teams was seen in 1982-83, when the Nets posted a 2.58 efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) and won 49 games. If this is your best, obviously your franchise has problems.
The Guards of New Jersey
Then in 2001, the fortunes of this team changed. Over the next six seasons the Nets never had a losing season. The team also had a 1.9 average efficiency differential, besting the 1982-83 mark three times (2001-02, 2002-03, and 2003-04).
Obviously the key addition was Jason Kidd. In his first seven NBA seasons – with Dallas and Phoenix – Kidd produced 97.6 wins with a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of 0.253 (more than twice the average mark of 0.100). If we look just at his four full seasons in Phoenix we see a 0.300 WP48. In sum, Kidd came to New Jersey as an elite player. In six plus seasons with the Nets, this elite status continued. Kidd posted a 0.353 WP48 with the Nets, leading the team in Wins Produced each and every season.
Although Kidd was consistently a very good player, he was not always working alone. During the Kidd era the Nets consistently employed a productive shooting guard. From 2001-02 to 2003-04, that off-guard was Kerry Kittles. In eight NBA seasons, Kittles produced 52.2 wins with a 0.148 WP48 (average WP48 is 0.100). If we focus just on the three seasons with Kidd, we see a 0.176 WP48.
Kittles departed after the 2003-04 season. Midway through the 2004-05 campaign, Vince Carter came to New Jersey. Like Kittles, Carter was also a productive shooting guard, posting a 0.188 WP48 from 2005-06 to 2007-08.
When we look at each of the past seven seasons – reported in Table One – we see the Nets starting backcourt produced an average of 30.2 wins each season. This works out to, on average, nearly 70% of the team’s Wins Produced. In sum, the Nets were led by its starting guards.
The New Jersey Supporting Cast
One should note that although Kittles and Carter posted similar productivity numbers [at least in terms of WP48], the combination of Kidd and Kittles got considerably more help. One can see this in Table One, where it’s noted that Kidd and Kittles never produced as much as 60% of the team’s Wins Produced. Meanwhile the combination of Kidd and Carter always accounted for at least 79% of the team’s wins.
The same story can also be told if we look at the number of above average players on the team. Focusing just on those players who played at least 1,000 minutes, here are the players – other than the starting guards – who posted a WP48 in excess of 0.100 in each of the past seven seasons:
2001-02: Keith Van Horn (0.183), Todd MacCulloch (0.166), Lucious Harris (0.152)
2002-03: Richard Jefferson (0.192), Kenyon Martin (0.110)
2003-04: Richard Jefferson (0.186), Kenyon Martin (0.184)
2004-05: Richard Jefferson (0.125)
2005-06: Richard Jefferson (0.244)
2007-08: Josh Boone (0.154)
The 2001-02, 2002-03, and 2003-04 editions of the Nets were the best in franchise history (at least in the NBA). And when we look at the help the backcourt received, it’s easy to see why these teams were so good.
After Martin left for Denver, though, the Nets slowly declined. In 2004-05 and 2005-06 the Nets were able to field winning teams despite only having three productive players (Kidd, Carter, and Jefferson). In 2006-07 the Nets managed to win 41 games with Kidd and Carter as the only above average players.
The Decline of Richard Jefferson
And then we have the 2007-08 edition. Table Two reports what this team accomplished this past season, as well as what we would have expected had these players performed as they did in 2006-07. As one can see, the last edition of the Nets was bad. And given the past performance of these players (and the minutes played), we would have expected the Nets to be bad.
Although most players performed as expected, there were are few differences. Kidd and Carter — still the top two players on the team — were helped by the emergence of Josh Boone. However, the declines in the play of Nenad Krstic and Bostjan Nachbar (each went from bad to really bad), as well as the departure of Kidd, caused this team to fall even further than we would have expected.
But let’s play a game of what if. What if Richard Jefferson went back to what we saw in 2005-06? That one change would have resulted in 14 additional wins. In other words, if Jefferson had not declined, this team would have once again made the playoffs.
How did Jefferson decline? Table Three reports his career numbers.
FOR THE ITEMS IN RED, SEE THE UPDATE BELOW: Comparing 2007-08 to 2005-06 we see where Jefferson’s production has changed. His shot attempts and scoring have both increased. But his rebounds, blocked shots, and steals have declined. In fact, his performance with respect to net possessions (rebounds + steals – turnovers) was at an all-time low this past season. The decline in rebounds – which was even worse after Kidd departed — was the primary reason Jefferson morphed into a below average player.
It’s possible that Jefferson’s injury problems have caused him to limit his work on the non-scoring aspects of the game. Regardless of the reason, without a productive Jefferson, the Nets only had Kidd and Carter. And when that wasn’t enough for this team to contend for a title, New Jersey decided to trade Kidd and start over.
In sum, the Nets fall from elite status in the NBA can be tied to the failure to field a productive supporting cast. And that failure can be partially linked to the decline in the production the team received from Richard Jefferson.
Going forward the Nets do have above average players in Carter, Boone, Devin Harris, and DeSagna Diop. But none of these players are at the level of Kidd. So unless an extremely productive player is added to this mix (or one of the above average players gets much better, or Jefferson returns to form), we can expect the historic Nets to return in the immediate future.
UPDATE: NetsDaily noted in the comments to this post that the data on Richard Jefferson in Table Three was incorrect. In looking at the table, I had to agree. Basically, I incorrectly the labeled the years. The data – going from left to right – went from Jefferson’s rookie year to the present while the years went in the opposite direction. I have now fixed the table, so years do match the data.
This correction does change the story a bit. From 2005-06 to 2007-08, Jefferson did not decline in terms of blocked shots and steals. He did drop-off in terms of rebounds and shooting efficiency.
Although the data was incorrect, the essential story remains the same. Jefferson did get worse. Had this not happened, the Nets would have remained a playoff team.
Thanks to NetsDaily for spotting this error. Given that no one checks the tables before stuff is posted here, I suspect this kind of problem happens more frequently than I would like. If you spot something like this, please let me know and I will try and get that corrected.
Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.