The seismic impact of player movement is most easily visible in obvious places. It’s hard to ignore the crater a superstar leaves behind upon exiting a roster, or the shiny new juggernaut he often creates in its wake. But the tremors can be felt much further out, by the NBA laymen who may never impact the league in that way, but will often feel the brunt of such moves in unforeseen ways.
The Brooklyn Nets have not named a starting center yet. They should not need to. Their starting center from last season, Jarrett Allen, is returning and figures to be even better. The 21-year-old took big steps on both sides of the ball last season, evolving into a strong finisher in the pick-and-roll and a significantly improved rebounder, but he excelled especially as a rim-protector. Among centers to contest at least six shots per game at the rim last season, only Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobertallowed a lower field goal percentage on such shots, per NBA.com.
Landing two superstars changes a team’s internal calculus. The things that matter to many teams no longer apply when such an immediate impetus to win exists. That’s how otherwise smart teams like the Miami Heat wind up cutting players like Patrick Beverley. Scrutiny is amplified in the presence of stars. They aren’t impressed by unheralded prospects with upside like Beverley. They expect minutes and roster spots to be doled out in service of immediate dividends.
It’s unclear if Durant or Irving are particularly impressed by Allen. They couldn’t have been turned off by his presence, but he was hardly a draw, either. The chance to play with close friend DeAndre Jordan, on the other hand, almost certainly mattered in their recruitment. And while he is still an effective player, he is declining quickly enough to suggest that if he is still better than Allen (a big if), he won’t be for much longer.
Jordan, who shot over 70 percent from the field in three of his final four seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, has dipped to 64.4 percent over his last two. His rebounding rate fell to its lowest total since the 2015-16 campaign, but the biggest drop-off came on defense.
Jordan allowed opponents to make 57.9 percent of their shot attempts at the rim last season, a respectable percentage not too far off from Allen’s 55.1 percent figure. The difference is that Allen contested six shots at the rim per game, 10th most in the league. Jordan’s 3.7 were 62nd despite him playing 3.5 more minutes per game than Allen. His defense was, far more often than is acceptable for a player with his reputation, lazy. It should not be possible for a two-time First-Team All-Defense center to produce plays like this.
Lapses like that don’t do Jordan any favors when lined up against the man who did this to LeBron James.
Allen is, at the very least, a more effective defensive player right now than Jordan, and his ascendance in other areas could push him past the former All-Star in just about every respect in the near future. But that former All-Star looms over the choice Kenny Atkinson will eventually need to make.
Frank Isola reported last month that Irving and Durant pushed for the Nets to signCarmelo Anthony. Anthony, another former All-Star, has been out of the league for almost a calendar year. But players evaluate other players differently than teams do. Just as Irving and Durant may have skewed their perception of Anthony, Jordan’s mere presence on this roster in itself raises serious questions about their perception of his abilities as well. If they still view him as the player he once was, they probably expect him to start.
The Nets have to walk a tightrope in balancing matters like this. Handing Allen the starting spot right off of the bat risks offending the superstars who will form the core of this roster moving forward. Naming Jordan the unquestioned starter risks alienating the players who made the Nets attractive enough to land two superstars in the first place. Last year’s Brooklyn locker room was bereft of questions like this. The best players played. Factions didn’t need to exist. But stars change the equation, and the Nets are far from the only team juggling these agendas.
Take the Los Angeles Lakers. By virtually any measure, Rajon Rondo was among the worst players in the NBA last season. The Lakers were 10.5 points per 100 possessions better with him off of the floor last season than on it. He had the lowest field goal percentage among players to suit up for at least 40 games on the team, and ESPN’s real plus-minus metric ranked him 79th out of 103 points guards in the NBA defensively. Rondo signed for the minimum this offseason, yet when Five Thirty Eight measured the worst contracts signed over the summer, he made the list. Why? Because their numbers found that he was worth -$6.6 million.
These problems were most pronounced with LeBron James on the floor. The Lakers were outscored by 5.5 points per 100 possessions when the two played together. It is extremely difficult to get outscored with James on the floor under any circumstance, but the Lakers are brushing off any concerns. Lakers coach Frank Vogel told team reporter Mike Trudell that he expects “a complete reversal this year. I think those two guys will be great together.” He even touted Rondo’s notoriously poor three-point shooting, saying “Rondo has shot the heck out of the basketball from the 3-point line” over the summer. Rondo did shoot an improved 35.9 percent from behind the arc last season, but of his 142 total attempts, 101 were deemed “wide-open” and 36 were categorized as “open” by NBA.com.
But Vogel’s hands are tied. Rondo is a favorite of James’ despite their poor numbers together. The Lakers added two former All-Star teammates of his this summer in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Even if Alex Caruso and Quinn Cook are superior players by both production and fit, neither has the reputation Rondo does among his most important teammates.
Almost every team to make a major splash this offseason is confronted with this quandary in some form. Coups lead to compromises, and as the Nets did with Jordan, most teams are happy to pay whatever tax it takes to land a superstar. There are only so many of them in the sport. Using one sub-optimally is better than not having one at all.
For now, Atkinson’s approach is the sensible one. By refusing to name a starting center, the burden of proof lies with the players. If Allen is truly superior to Jordan, he’ll prove it on the court. Irving and Durant will see it.
But eventually, these matters require resolution. Allen is due for a contract extension next summer. Brooklyn’s approach to negotiating that deal will be telling. The Lakers are not only trying to win this season, but convince Davis to remain with the team for the long haul. Are they prepared to risk upsetting him in the short term in the interest of winning for the long haul?
The seminal question of most preseasons is how freshly acquired superstars will fit in with their new teams. But the answer, in most cases, is just fine. They’re superstars, and teams contort themselves to fit around such players. The real questions lie with the players doing the contorting, and who stands to benefit if they are unable to. The teams that are best able to manage these internal struggles between reputation and production are going to be the ones still standing when the dust settles in June. The Nets and Lakers will need to settle their own affairs before they can hope to challenge the best teams in the NBA, and their ability to do so will define the early portion of the season.
Sources from: CBS Sports