Even before Washington unveiled their new style of basketball, and magically transformed into Level Ten, 3-point spell casting Playoff Wizards, there was one glimmer of hope heading into the postseason. Even before Randy Wittman started playing Paul Pierce at power forward, and before Bradley Beal started attacking relentlessly, there was one thing Wizards fans knew they could count on to provide some possible playoff spark.
“Playoff Mode Nene”
Every Wizards fan (and every Bulls fan) remembers the fury and wrath the Brazilian unleashed on Chicago. And Denver fans remember the Springtime performances that earned Nene his 10 million dollar a year contracts. Nothing is more frustrating than watching a star talent go through the motions for 82 games, with only a few tantalizing moments. But that frustration quickly turns to bliss when you watch the guy transform and just annihilate his competitors in the games that REALLY count. Nene was Bruce Banner. Playoff Nene was the Hulk.
The stats didn’t always have a dramatic change, but you could feel the impact. Playoff Nene’s attitude was different. His aggression was different. His emotion was different. Playoff Nene was a guy you wanted to go to war with.
And then, this season happened. The entire Wizards team has gone through a transformation, changing their attitude and performance entirely, led by Optimus Dime. But instead of the emergence of Playoff Nene, we are seeing a guy who looks like he’s lost his All Spark.
Nene played 25.3 minutes per game in the regular season, and that number hasn’t changed much, with Nene playing 23.7 minutes per game during these 2014-2015 playoffs. But even while playing about the same minutes (and using a similar percentage of possessions), Nene’s production has dropped dramatically across the board, on both ends. Just how bad is it? Check it out.
Nene’s standard and advanced metrics confirm what we’ve been seeing by the eye test: Dude just hasn’t been playing well. And unfortunately for Nene (but fortunately for the Wizards), Marcin Gortat has been playing great, making Nene’s decrease in production and efficiency look even worse. Check out Nene’s 2014-2015 regular season production compared to his playoff production:
Let’s break the analysis of those numbers up into two areas: Individual scoring, and playmaking.
Individually, Nene simply can’t get the ball in the basket. After shooting above 50% in the regular season, Nene has dropped to under 40% in the playoffs, and his point production has dropped accordingly. Needless to say, six points per game in the playoffs is not what you expect for 10 million dollars per year. And to make matters worse, it’s hard to find any justifiable excuse for Nene’s lack of production. Jonas Valanciunas? Amir Johnson? Tyler Hansborough? Paul Millsap? Pero Antic? That’s not exactly a murderers row of defensive juggernauts. If Nene was struggling to produce against Rudy Gobert, or Anderew Bogut, or Anthony Davis, we could give him a pass. But so far this post season, Al Horford is the only above average defender the Wizards bigs have had to deal with.
Equally disturbing, if not more so, is the lack of playmaking from Nene for others. Regular watchers of TNT’s Inside the NBA know that Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaq all enjoy harping on the fact that you’ve got to be more than a one dimensional player, and you can’t let struggles in one department affect your performance in others, and they’re right. We can look at the Wizards own roster for the perfect example:
In John Wall’s opening playoff game this year, his shooting was very much sub-par. However, Wall remained an elite distributor and a lock down defender, and found ways to help his team win despite his offensive struggles.
Nene has failed to do the same. He hasn’t just struggled to make the shots he’s taken, but he’s also struggled to help create for his teammates at the level he did during the regular season. After creating an assist on 11.7 percent of his possessions during the regular season, he is down to 5.4, less than half of his regular season creation, during the playoffs. And adding insult to injury, while the assists have reduced, the turnovers have not. Nene is committing about two turnovers for every assist in the postseason, about double his regular season ratio of errors.
And the intensity just hasn’t been there either. We don’t have any metrics for flat out intensity, mental focus, and being “into the game,” but let’s just say, we haven’t seen any of this:
Now, when any player struggles, it’s only justified to try to find a silver lining. To try to find a reason, an excuse, anything to explain away the struggles. Maybe Nene is getting the ball regularly away from his best spots or outside of his best sets, and skewing his numbers? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Nene’s two most productive roles are as the screen setter/roll man in the pick-and-roll, and as a post-up threat.
Nene is at his best when he’s doing things like this:
Sadly, Nene has been impotent during the playoffs in both the pick-and-roll, and on post-ups, struggling to create any production for himself or his team out of both sets.
During the regular season, Nene was a legitimate pick-and-roll threat. He finished shots at a high percentage, and also generated a decent point production output for his team, comparable to Marcin Gortat. Take a look at how both Nene and Gortat performed as the roll-man on pick-and-roll sets during the regular season:
The playoffs have told a completely different tale, and Nene’s struggles have only been magnified by Gortat’s sensational playoff performance in the pick-and-roll through six games. Look at how things have changed in the playoffs.
Quick tangent: HOLY CRAP! 78.6% and 1.41 points per possession!!!! Maybe all the Wizards bigs need to start dressing like this!
— Marcin Gortat (@MGortat) April 26, 2015
Back to Nene…that’s not good. The Wizards are putting him in the pick-and-roll more frequently, which should be good, considering it’s one of his strengths, but he’s just not getting it done. And Gortat’s numbers show that the opportunities are clearly available, but Nene simply isn’t taking advantage of his chances the way Gortat is.
Post-ups are typically the other major set in which Nene thrives. Throw the ball into the big Brazilian, and watch him use his quickness and strength to abuse smaller, slower defenders, to score for himself or set-up others. Basically, watch him do this:
At least that’s what we thought. In reality, Nene post-ups have been inefficient all regular season, and only gotten worse in the playoffs.
Ugh. Don’t let that increase in field goal percentage fool you. Look at that turnover percentage. Most of the post-up possessions in the playoffs for Nene have resulted in turnovers. Yes, the few times Nene has actually gotten up a shot, he’s hit half of them, but the points per possession reflect that Nene post-ups have been even less efficient in the playoffs than in the regular season. Fortunately, Wittman has been astute enough to reduce the frequency of Nene post-ups, rather than force poor possession after poor possession.
I’d love to stop the Nene crushing here. I’d love to talk about Nene and the Wizards crushing the Raptors and Hawks instead. I personally really like Nene, and was excited to see Playoff Nene rip through the East he like gored the Bulls last postseason. I’d love to say that despite his offensive struggles, he’s still affecting the game positively. But in the interest of full-disclosure and all-court evaluation, we must point out the following: Nene is also coming up short on…
Granted, defensive metrics aren’t a perfect science. Not even offensive metrics truly are. But when the metrics confirm what we are seeing, they tend to be more persuasive. Take a look at the defensive metrics for Nene, regular season vs. post season:
That’s not exactly paint protection from your starting power forward, and symbolic “enforcer.” ZERO blocks in six playoff games?! 57.7% shooting at the rim? Again, there’s more to defense than stats, but still…in the words of Mark Jackson, “you’re better than that.”
So, what is wrong with Nene? Where is that playoff intensity and added edge we expect from Playoff Mode Nene? What happened to that switch we thought he could turn on when May came around? I wish I knew.
Is he feeling less relevant with the emergence of Beal and Otto? Is he no longer feeling the need to provide the emotional boost and physical presence, now that Paul Pierce is around? Is he feeling that his role has been usurped by Gortat? Maybe it’s a little of all of that. Maybe it’s something else. But regardless of the reason, no reason is acceptable.
Missing shots is one thing. Lacking the focus, energy, intensity, and physicality that we know is somewhere there inside is another. Wall is banged up. Pierce is past his prime. Otto is still emerging. And Beal needs help. If the Wizards are going to win this series, and keep this season going, they’re going to need THIS Nene:
They’re going to need his effort. They’re going to need his intimidation. We know he has it in him, but it’s time for Nene to bring it out, because as every Wizards fan knows: Having it “internally” isn’t enough.