It's a Tuesday night at Barclays Center and Nets emcee David Diamante has his work cut out for him. The listless, ragged home team is once again being bludgeoned to a pulp, this time by the speed and energy of the Denver Nuggets. The crowd is disinterested at best, disgusted at worst. Diamante is a loyal Brooklynite, an over-the-top hype man from the world of boxing. Hoping to bring the crowd to life, he reaches for Brooklyn's self-identity of hard scrabble, working class pride.
"We may be down, but we're never out!" Diamante says. "Brooklyn, STAND UP!"
The crowd responds with loud boos, its most heartfelt sentiment of the night.
The Nets are 5-13 and haven't won at home in a month. Its lineup of superstars, the one many observers believed could put a real scare into the rest of the Eastern Conference, has hardly played at all. A three-story likeness of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez standing together rings the entrance to Barclays. Thus far that five has played together a grand total of 78 minutes.
The injuries have been unending and severely impacted the on-court product. But the co-opting of Brooklyn’s civic identity has never really suited this team. Its best player is a 7-foot, laid-back Californian. Lopez might be the best post scorer in the NBA, but he’s better known for low rebounding totals that belie the grit and toughness so central to Brooklyn’s self-image. Most of the people who work for the Nets’ front office still live in New Jersey, where the team still practices. The players all live outside the borough, too.
The Brooklynization of the Nets has meant cool jerseys, Jay-Z courtside, great food in the concourse of Barclays Center and the occasional piece of public art that gets a mention in the New Yorker. It’s also been a cynical commercial play to draft off the borough’s rise in national prominence and local cultural import. Two years into its residency on Flatbush Avenue, the Nets may have a stronger identity on the national landscape than they do in Brooklyn.
The team remains a flashy transplant, tossing around money for players with well-known, glitzy brands. If the franchise were a guy showing you around his apartment, you imagine him telling you the price of everything in it: "Oh yeah, that antique is a Paul Pierce. You’ve heard of him, right? Yeah, he’s great. $15 million, but, I mean, there's only one Paul Pierce.”
Pierce's former Boston colleague, Garnett, stars in a new commercial for Beats headphones. Garnett is dressed exquisitely, a professional who has earned his legendary status, as he heads into an opposing arena. Fans line up outside the arena to scream invectives and make fun of his age. Garnett slips on his headphones and drowns out the haters; he’s ready to prove everyone wrong.
"Hear what you want," the ad says.
It’s ironic, given Garnett’s actual play this season. The 37-year-old looks gassed. His defensive rebounding has somehow held up, but his Usage Rate is the lowest it has been since he was a 19 year-old rookie, and he’s on pace for his first season with a PER below the league average.
Garnett's personal defensive rating (a very noisy statistic but one not without merit) is his worst in 15 seasons, a testament to how great he’s been for so long. His credentials as the keystone of Boston's strongside zone are legendary; he would make a short list of current players fit to coach a defense himself. But Garnett is no longer capable of anchoring a defense on the court. His mind is as quick as ever, but changes in direction take a split second longer. Garnett can't reverse course nor, as he did for so long in Boston, can he defend more space than any other player.
Overall, the defense is abysmal; the very worst in the NBA. The principles appear mostly sound, but the personnel is simply too slow. Good defenses are characterized by length and quickness on the perimeter, and a lynchpin inside. Despite some other impressive imports, until Andrei Kirilenko is healthy, the Nets are big ... and that's about it.
Meanwhile, in part because of the absurd string of injuries, Brooklyn’s offense has collapsed this season after being a top-10 outfit in 2012-13. For all the criticisms of Avery Johnson and later P.J. Carlesimo’s lack of creativity, the offense worked. The Nets were top-seven in rates of both free throw and 3-point attempts -- excellent indicators of a healthy offense that generates high-value opportunities.
Led by Lopez, the Nets are still getting to the line, but they have not been able to establish any identity on offense. In reality, the only identity they have on either end of the court is negative space: The absence of those who aren't out there because of injury.
In this context, it feels cruel to judge Jason Kidd's debut season as a head coach, especially since Kidd himself publicly renounced many coaching duties in favor of delegating to Lawrence Frank. Recently, Kidd curtly demoted Frank, who coached Kidd on the New Jersey Nets from 2003-07. Frank will no longer sit on the bench or run timeouts, which he did throughout summer league and the first 17 games of the season. Frank is reportedly seeking a buyout, which would terminate the strange arrangement famously used by Larry Bird during his coaching days in Indiana.
This may correct a cosmetic issue -- cameras repeatedly caught Kidd staring blank-faced as Frank conducted timeout huddles -- rather than produce actual change. The details of the breakdown are still unclear, but that the relationship dissolved so quickly and so publicly speaks to greater structural issues within the organization. Given their history, Kidd must have known the kind of coach and co-worker Frank is before he recruited him to his staff.
But that’s just the problem with this Nets team: So many things seemed like given truths and safe assumptions, only for it all to fall to pieces almost as soon as the season began. There was nothing cynical about the preseason optimism. But you can't always trust the hype to deliver once the product is out of the box.