11:40 am Nov. 12, 2012
This past weekend, the losers of the Dwight Howard sweepstakes battled to see which team had been hurt less by the year-long drama that ultimately sent the star center to Los Angeles.
The Brooklyn Nets, who tried unsuccessfully to trade for Howard, defeated the Orlando Magic, who tried unsuccessfully to keep Howard, in a home-and-home series Friday night in Orlando and Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn.
The Nets dominated the Magic Friday night, winning 107-68. The margin on Sunday was much closer, an 82-74 win.
The pair of victories came complete with inexplicably wide divergences in the Nets' offense, the part of the team's game that is supposed to carry it this season. And the two defensive efforts, superficially impressive, may be little more than a consequence of the decimated Magic team Howard left behind.
On Friday night, the Nets turned in their most complete offensive performance of the season. They shot 50 percent from the field, including 39 percent from three-point range. They turned the ball over just 11 times, and dished out 21 assists. Better still, those 21 assists came from ten different players. It was the kind of blitz the Nets expected to routinely throw at opposing defenses.
Through one quarter Sunday, the Nets looked to be improving upon Friday's effort: they led 35-17. Then came the drought, with the Nets scoring 47 points over the final three quarters, failing to reach 20 points in any of them. Only a similarly weak effort from the Magic kept the Nets' slump from costing them a home game. They'd done something similar last Monday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and blew a 71-49 third quarter lead in the process.
Exactly what is holding the Nets back from consistent offense isn't clear. Deron Williams is down a bit from his career Player Efficiency Rating, but still at a robust 16.5. Brook Lopez is outperforming his career numbers. Only Joe Johnson has been a disappointment so far, but Johnson's limitations don't account for the team's dormant offense over long stretches.
What the Nets do have, moving forward, is the chance to get the offense right against relatively weak defensive opposition. Their next three opponents, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Sacremento Kings, all rank 20th or worse in defensive efficiency so far this season. So while the Nets figure out what ails them generally, and Johnson specifically, they can do so without coming up against any of the league's better defenses.
And even with their sporadic offense, it's obvious the Nets weren't hurt nearly as bad by Howard's decision as the Magic, who were effectively destroyed by the deal.
Only three Magic players are even playing at a league-average level by P.E.R. The two centerpieces of the Howard deal, center Nikola Vucevic and forward Moe Harkness, check in below that level. The draft picks the Magic received aren't likely to be high ones, and without Howard in the middle, the Magic lack the defense or interior scoring that made them, after all, a playoff team last year.
So while the Nets have some problems to work out, they at least have the personnel on hand to do so. For the Magic, the real problem is much worse.