Paul Pierce, Nets Battling Injuries, But Poor Health Not to Blame for Team’s Struggles

Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn NetsIf you’re anything like me, you groan whenever another member of the Brooklyn Nets goes down with an injury.

It’s not because you’re a Nets fan or feel particularly sad that such a highly touted squad has so immensely failed to live up to expectations, but because each injury creates another opportunity for an excuse from a team that really has no right to any.

Paul Pierce has become the latest casualty, reportedly headed to the sideline for at least two weeks with a broken hand. He joins Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry on the list of Nets players who have missed significant time due to injuries this season. At 5-12, Brooklyn’s record is even more broken than most of its players.

To the Nets’ credit, they haven’t fallen back on their injuries as the source of their woes. Coach Jason Kidd is sounding like an NBA See ‘N Say — “The Nets coach says, “This one is on meeeeeee” — and Kevin Garnett is running out of explanatory cooking analogies, but so far no one has suggested, even implicitly, that the injury bug has been the primary cause of their struggles.

It’s a really good thing, too, because if they did, it would be just cause to throw something against a wall. Nothing heavy or fragile, mind you. Just something small and unbreakable, to express one’s frustration without causing any actual harm.

Before these injuries start to pile up more and become indistinguishable, let’s clear one thing up right away: Injuries have little, if anything, to do with Brooklyn’s problems. They may not have helped, since no team can lose an All-Star center and an All-Star point guard and not expect to see an effect. But even when fully healthy, the Nets have been underwhelming at best, terrible at worst.

Take Lopez, the low-post scorer whose absence is often cited as part of the reason for the Nets’ ineffective offense. The Nets are 22nd in offensive efficiency at 99.7 points per 100 possessions; with Lopez on the court, they have been more than three points worse at 96.3. If Lopez, who has missed seven of Brooklyn’s 17 games, never played at all, the Nets’ offensive efficiency would be 101.6 — the same as the first-place Pacers.

To be fair, the Pacers set themselves apart with their stellar defense to bolster their average offense, and Lopez has been surprisingly impactful on Brooklyn’s defense. But it is the offense, not the defense, where the Nets lean on Lopez most. Coming up short there means Lopez is coming up short for the Nets, period.

If only the Nets could get their intended starting lineup had been able to get on the court more often, they’d be able to figure most of this stuff out, right? In fact, the Nets’ inability to field that star-laden lineup for the intended amount of minutes may be the only reason they’ve won as many games as they have. The lineup of Garnett, Pierce, Williams, Lopez and Joe Johnson has posted an offensive rating of 95.1 points per 100 possessions, a number that would put them fifth from the bottom in the NBA, below the Celtics, Sixers, Knicks and Derrick Rose-less Bulls. On defense, their 100.6 points allowed per 100 possessions would be in the bottom third of the league, just ahead of the Raptors and two spots below the Celtics. Not quite as bad as the Nets have been in reality, but still pretty bad.

The biggest problem for the Nets isn’t health, but the absence of a strong, competent head coach and not enough talent to make up for the power vacuum at the top. Despite their individual offensive skills, none of Brooklyn’s star players is an elite playmaker at his position any longer. Without any offensive structure to operate within, the players end up making a lot of passes — but no passes that actually get them anything constructive. Garnett is an all-time great at the defensive end and Pierce has always been crafty there, too, but both have shown their age. Opponents have done an excellent job of getting Garnett and Pierce on the same side of the basket — at both the offensive and defense ends — and attacking them once they get there to capitalize on those veterans’ lack of mobility.

The Nets still have enough lingering sidenotes to create some semblance of optimism in Brooklyn. The Garnett-Pierce-Lopez-Williams-Johnson fivesome has shared the court for only 78 total minutes, albeit as the team’s most-used lineup, but that’s still a relatively small sample. (The Nets’ most-used lineup last season of Williams, Johnson, Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries had logged 117 minutes together by this time last season, for example.) The return of Andrei Kirilenko should give an immediate boost to the defense and allow Pierce to focus more on the offensive end, where he was struggling at a career-worst level before he broke his hand. And thanks to the Atlantic Division’s continued awfulness, the Nets are just 1 1/2 games out of first place.

Patience wears thin quicker in New York than elsewhere, however, which makes it a minor miracle that Nets observers have waited and saw with this team as long as they have. For a full month, the “what ifs” and “yeah, buts” had their say. It’s time to call the Nets what they are, injuries or no, black-and-white. And bad all over.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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