Few people have noticed given the moribund state of the franchise, but the Nets have been surging since the beginning of March. Brooklyn lost their first two games since the end of the All-Star break but compiled a 7-10 record in March after just one win in January and February combined. They have been even better in April, winning their four of their first five games. Brooklyn has won more games in March and April (with 11 victories) than in the rest of the season combined (with only nine wins).
While the return of Jeremy Lin and his underrated brilliance is clearly a factor, he is not the sole motivator of Brooklyn's success. Brooklyn had cobbled together the best Defensive Rating in the league for two weeks prior to their loss to Orlando. They are still the eighth-best defense in the league by Defensive Rating since March 1, a remarkable achievement for a team that was 27th in Defensive Rating at the end of February. Brooklyn is switching more quickly and more effectively than at any other point in the season. That switching serves to not only prevent open shots after screens but also serves to cut off previously open passing lanes:
The team as a whole deserves credit for this stretch of vastly improved basketball, but most of the credit should go to coach Kenny Atkinson and his new starting lineup. Since moving Rondae Hollis-Jefferson into the starting power forward role, the Nets have been a much better team on both ends of the floor. With free agency looming, the Nets have reason to be optimistic for a chance at a playoff berth next season if they can upgrade the weakest position in their starting group.
The Fantastic Four
It became clear during each of their respective rookie seasons that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert would be the future cornerstones of the Brooklyn Nets. The only matter of real debate was what position the two young prospects would play. Hollis-Jefferson was a shooting guard for most of his rookie season, and LeVert was projected as a combo guard after his senior season at Michigan.
Hollis-Jefferson struggled to be effective as a wing player in the early portion of the season and was eventually moved to the bench at the start of December. LeVert, meanwhile, struggled with consistency from beyond the arc and also struggled with defending smaller and quicker guards. Both players had spent the majority of their playing time at small forward prior to the All-Star break, and it appeared that it might be difficult for them to both be effective with the other on the floor.
On February 24, Kenny Atkinson discovered the starting lineup that has to some extent salvaged the Nets' season. With Jeremy Lin back in the fold, Atkinson played Lin and Randy Foye in the backcourt, with LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson as the two forwards and Brook Lopez in the middle.
The first two games from that lineup were disappointing, as the group did not gel right away. They lost that February 24 game against the Nuggets 129-109 and followed that up with an 112-95 loss to the Warriors.
Since then, that starting crew has lit up the league. The Nets are 10-9 with that starting lineup since the two late February losses. The five-man unit is now, in a manner that is both depressing and encouraging, the most-played lineup for the Nets this season with 229 minutes played over just 21 games. The group has a Net Rating of 4.1 per NBA.com — that number would equate to the sixth-best team in the league over a full season. The group has been effective on both ends of the floor; their Offensive Rating of 106.7 would be 15th in the league over a full season and their Defensive Rating of 102.6 would be fourth-best in the NBA.
Jeremy Lin's return is the driving force of this improved starting lineup; indeed, one could argue that any new Nets starting five would look better than lineups involving the promising but currently overmatched Spencer Dinwiddie or Isaiah Whitehead running the point. Teams are far more afraid of Lin's scoring ability when he drives to the basket, which in turn creates easy looks for his teammates on spot-ups or cuts to the rim:
While Lin taking over the point guard duties was all but guaranteed to improve Brooklyn's fortunes, he has not done this by himself. However, the most interesting facet of this team's success is that it has not been entirely in the way that fans might have expected.
The return of Jeremy Lin should have taken Brook Lopez's game up another notch with the potential for a deadly pick-and-roll combo. However, Lopez's stats after the All-Star break are nearly identical but slightly worse than his numbers beforehand:
Source: Basketball-Reference.com; ORtg, DRtg, and +/- statistics as of 4/7/2017
Although the dip in free throw percentage is mostly an issue of small sample size, it is truly remarkable that his True Shooting Percentage before and after the break are identical. His Usage Rate is down very slightly, as are his points. His rebounding numbers have gone slightly up, but they are also close to his numbers before the break. Thus, it would appear that Brook has not been the main factor in Brooklyn's massive shift in fortunes.
Instead, the improvement has come from the young guns in the starting lineup. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has still struggled with his shot, but he has boosted his scoring and rebounding averages while also having noticeably improved his defensive play since the All-Star break:
Source: Basketball-Reference.com; ORtg, DRtg, and +/- statistics as of 4/7/2017?
However, the biggest improvement has come from Caris LeVert. LeVert has not avoided the rookie wall as much as he has blown it to smithereens:
Source: Basketball-Reference.com; ORtg, DRtg, and +/- statistics as of 4/7/2017
Oddly enough, LeVert's Usage Rate before and after the All-Star break are identical. Despite not using any more possessions than he did before the break, Caris has improved his output across the board. While spending time with the starting unit would likely have boosted his stats even without the return of Jeremy Lin, the sheer magnitude of his improved play is encouraging both in terms of his potential play next season and in terms of his long-term outlook.
The Weak Link
It does seem unfair to peg Randy Foye as the weak link in this starting lineup. His veteran presence and offensive gravity as a threat from beyond the arc have played a key role in the success of this starting group.
However, Foye is already 33 years old and will be 34 before the start of next season. He will also become a free agent this offseason. Given the Nets' timeline, it seems unlikely that he will return next season barring a significant hometown discount.
Foye has been below average on both ends of the floor this season. He ranks in the 24th percentile on offense and the 41st percentile on defense as of April 7 per Synergy Sports. He is also shooting 37.4% from the floor and 34.4% from deep--below league average in both cases. His combination of age and shooting struggles make him a probable candidate to depart in the offseason.
The Nets tried desperately to acquire talented young shooting guards in restricted free agency last season but failed to land either Allen Crabbe or Tyler Johnson. Sean Marks will almost certainly try to explore that market again this offseason; while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would be a long-shot signing, he would be a perfect fit with Brooklyn's core four and just might provide enough of a boost on both ends to give the Nets a chance at the 7th or 8th seed in next year's playoffs.
Making long-term judgments about a team's future based on their play in March and April is usually short-sighted. Many teams have nothing left to play for, and the Nets are essentially the only team that has been eliminated from playoff contention that does not benefit from losing games down the stretch of the season.
That being said, 21 games is definitely a large enough sample to at least be noteworthy. The Nets might not be an elite defensive team over the course of a whole season with this crew, but their success on both ends of the floor with their new starting lineup is impossible to ignore. It would be more than a little bit premature to hope for a playoff berth next season. However, if Brooklyn can find a solid shooting guard to replace Randy Foye in free agency, their path back to the postseason would become a whole lot easier than any Nets fan could have hoped for before the start of March.