Brooklyn Nets

What we've learned from Nets slow start without Kyrie Irving

The Nets have now experienced two weeks of life without Kyrie Irving.

The results? Not quite what was expected.

The Nets still had the best odds to win the title following the announcement that Irving will "not play or practice with the team until he is eligible to be a full participant," but they've gotten off to a slow start to the season without the seven-time All-Star.

The Nets enter Thursday's matchup with the Hawks in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a 4-3 record. Their three losses weren't particularly close either. After losing to the Bucks by 23 points on opening night, the Nets fell to the Hornets by 16 points and the Heat by 13 points, both on their homecourt.

It's still incredibly early, of course, but a few things have jumped out from Brooklyn's sluggish start.

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James Harden is working his way back

The Nets still being title favourites without Irving hinged on Harden being the player he was prior to his hamstring injury last season.

So far, he hasn't.

Harden's averages through seven games stand at 18.6 points, 8.6 assists and 7.6 rebounds on .398/.385/.865 shooting splits. The assists and rebounds are among the highest marks of his career, but his true shooting percentage is down to a level we haven't seen since his rookie season, he's averaging his fewest points since his third season in the league - when, need you be reminded, he was a sixth man - and, as you're probably well aware of at this point, his free throw attempts have plummeted.

Some of him not getting to the foul line as much is the result of the NBA cracking down on fouls this season, but that's not the only source of Harden's struggles. As Ian Levy of FanSided pointed out, he isn't driving nearly as much to start this season as he has in the past and appears to have lost some of his explosiveness around the basket. And as Nekias Duncan of Basketball News highlighted, not only is he getting to the rim less, but he is settling for a lot more floaters.

Harden has turned his floater from a weakness into a strength, but he hasn't been knocking them down to start this season.

POWER RANKINGS: What we've learned about the Nets

Those are concerning signs for a 32-year-old who is up there in both games and minutes played among active players. It's possible all of that mileage is starting to take its toll, but the hope is that he's simply working his way into shape following an offseason in which he says he was mostly rehabbing from the hamstring injury he suffered in last season's playoffs and wasn't able to play much pickup.

"He's still an excellent player even if he's not at peak form, and we still believe in him," Nets head coach Steve Nash said. "And he'll get there in the next few weeks."

The Nets can only hope that's the case.

The offence is a work in progress

The biggest surprise? The Nets have struggled to score the ball.

Last season, the Nets had the best offensive rating in the league, scoring at a rate of 117.3 points per 100 possessions. So far this season, they're averaging 103.7 points per 100 possessions, ranking them ... 22nd in the league.

Teams aren't scoring as efficiently as they were last season. Also, Harden's start absolutely factors in the Nets having a below-average offence as of this writing. (It's easy to forget that Harden worked his way into the MVP conversation after he was traded to the Nets last season). Still, players who can score 25-plus points on .506/.402/.922 shooting splits in their sleep don't exactly grow on trees.

The Nets still had the equivalent of a top-10 offence when Irving wasn't on the court last season, but it hasn't come quite as easy to them to start this season.

Without Irving, the Nets have already experimented with three different starting lineups. In the first two games of the season, they went big with Harden, Joe Harris, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Nicolas Claxton. They started Jevon Carter in Griffin's spot for one game and Bruce Brown in Claxton's spot for the last four games.

Small sample size alert, but their new starting lineup has performed much better than the others.

How Brooklyn's starting lineups have performed
Lineup Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Harden, Harris, Durant, Brown, Griffin 43 95.7 90.0 5.7
Harden, Harris, Durant, Griffin, Claxton 20 83.3 132.6 -49.2
Harden, Harris, Durant, Carter, Claxton 11 72.7 108.7 -36.0

The bench has firepower

A positive for the Nets: LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills have hit the ground running.

Aldridge, who came out of retirement to re-sign with the Nets, has scored double figures in three of the six games he's appeared in, including a season-high 23 points off the bench in Brooklyn's come-from-behind win over Philadelphia. He's not the low post threat he once was, but Aldridge is embracing his inner stretch big and is shooting a scorching 17-for-22 (77.3 percent) from midrange to start the season.

Aldridge's comfort picking-and-popping, in particular, makes him a natural fit next to Harden and Durant.

"He has scoring instincts, something you condition your mind for as a kid," Durant said of Aldridge. "Just knows how to score the basketball no matter what in any situation. He's one of those guys that can get you baskets in the midst of a lot of chaos."

Speaking of natural fits, Mills got the season off to a record-breaking start by making his first 10 3-point attempts. He's had a couple of rough shooting nights since but is still tied with Harris for the second-most 3-pointers made on the team (18) while ranking first in 3-point percentage (.514). His 3-point shooting is much-needed in the absence of Irving, as is his secondary/tertiary playmaking.

Mills has his limitations on defence, but it should come as no surprise that the Nets have been at their best offensively with him on the court.

Now, if the Nets could get a little more out of the rest of the supporting cast...

You know who he is

Harden has struggled, but Durant has been spectacular.

Durant is averaging his most points (27.7) since his last season with the Thunder. Additionally, he's averaging a career-best 8.9 rebounds to go along with 5.3 assists, which is also one of the higher marks of his career.

Durant already has two 30-point games, as well as one triple-double.

The only real concern is Durant taking on a bigger load than he probably should at this stage of his career - a 33-year-old superstar who is only two seasons removed from tearing his Achilles and was limited to 35 games last season due to injuries. The luxury of having two other stars in Harden and Irving is that it allows him to play more of the long game.

Without Irving, a little more will be asked of Durant for the Nets to get through the regular season.

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