In essence, both Johnson and Lopez are pseudo-stars when compared to Erving. Each scores like a star. Each is paid like a star. But neither contributes to wins like a star.
Of course, not every one of the Nets’ current high-priced players has always been an average player masquerading as a star. In the past, players like Garnett, Kirilenko, Pierce, and Williams have been quite productive. For example, back in 2002-03—when he was 26 years old—Garnett had his best season; producing 21.5 wins for the Minnesota Timberwolves. One year later, Kirilenko—at 22 years of age—had his best season, producing 16.8 wins for the Utah Jazz. The next season—when Pierce was 27 years old—he produced 12.8 wins (his best season) for the Boston Celtics. Finally, in 2007-08, Williams at 23 years of age had his best season, creating 13.6 wins for the Utah Jazz.
Last year, though, was 2012-13. These players are now past the age where players tend to offer their highest production (academic research shows a peak somewhere around a player’s mid-20s). Kirilenko (who has been hurt for much this year) did manage to produce 10.6 wins for the Minnesota Timberwolves last year, and Williams was still somewhat productive, producing an even nine wins for the Nets. Pierce and Garnett, though, combined to produce only 11.2 wins for the Celtics last season. So the Nets agreed to acquire two players—guaranteed more than $27 million this next year (and even more when we consider the luxury tax implications)—who were once very, very good. But today—in basketball terms—they are just very, very old.
All of this illustrates another lesson from Dr. J.’s career. When Erving was producing more than 20 wins per season for the ABA Nets he was in his early 20s. Although Dr. J. went on to produce nearly 119 wins in the NBA, his productivity in later years never matched what he did in the mid-1970s (and the most productive player on Erving’s 76ers title team in 1983 was Moses Malone).
So the Nets appear to be learning the lesson of Dr. J’s career the hard way in the 2013-14 season. Scorers who are not above average with respect to efficiency—and don’t do much else—are not going to help a team win many games. And basketball players tend to be productive when they are young. Once age has taken its toll, the productivity we once observed tends to go away forever.
When fans look at Brooklyn they see a collection of “stars” that should be worth the money the Nets are paying. But once we understand why Dr. J. was so good in New York we see that the Nets are actually just a collection of pseudo-stars and players past their prime.
Given what this collection did last year, we never should have expected the Nets to contend in 2014. If these players all played as well this year as they did last year, the Nets—given their allocation of minutes in 2013-14—should still only be on pace to win about half their games. But the team is not quite reaching that pace. Although most players on the Nets are producing at a level similar to what we saw last year (again, suggesting that coaching doesn’t matter much), there are three players—Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Reggie Evans—who have caused the Nets to fall short of even the meager record we might expect. What does this trio have in common? These are three of the four oldest players on the roster. So it appears that the Nets are being done in by aging stars and a predilection for unproductive “scorers,” not bad coaching.