There's no denying the importance of Nene to the Washington Wizards on both ends of the ball. Nene is the team's top post threat, a superb passer that initiates many of the team's sets and a versatile defender when he's right.
But as we inch closer to the end of his second season with the Wizards, I'm a little worried that his decline is beginning earlier than we expected.
Injuries have played a role this season for sure, and the jury is still out on whether they are one-time ailments or the kinds of things we'll see in the future. Nevertheless, Nene's numbers are all down this year, and with him having so much money left on his contract, it's a bit of a concern.
Nene's calling card for many years was his ability to use the possessions he got effectively. For three straight years in Denver from 2008-09 to 2010-11, he had a true shooting percentage above 63 percent. Last year, though, that number dipped to 55.4 percent in his brief, injury-plagued tenure in Denver before being bumped back up in the few games he played in D.C.
This year, though, the fall has continued. Nene's true shooting percentage is all the way down to 53.6 percent in 2012-13, a below-average figure for any big man. Dig deeper, and even that number is somewhat deceiving. Per NBA.com/stats, Nene's true shooting percentage as a starter is a dreadful 51.8 percent. The only reason Nene's figure as a whole is higher than that is because of the 62.1-percent figure he posted in the 12 games early in the season when he came off the bench. A big percentage of that production came against second-line players, so I don't think a lot of weight should be placed towards it.
What is causing this efficiency decline? A look at Nene's shot charts says it all. Nene is shooting just under 59 percent at the rim this year, a pretty mediocre number. Here is his at-the-rim percentage in the previous four seasons.
- 2012: 60.7 percent.
- 2011: 66.2 percent.
- 2010: 64.3 percent.
- 2009: 67.3 percent.
One could somewhat excuse Nene's struggles to finish around the basket if he was converting from the perimeter, but this, too, isn't happening. Nene has never been known as a knock-down shooter, but he still hit a respectable 42.2 percent of his jumpers from 15-19 feet over the past four years, per NBA.com/stats.
This year? That percentage is all the way down to 31.5 percent, which makes Nene a major liability as a scorer in the pick and pop action the Wizards love to run. While Nene can certainly make plays as a passer and screener on dribble-handoffs out of these kind of sets, his inability to make the defense pay for leaving him, combined with (or because of, depending on your point of view) his reluctance for shooting is one reason why the Wizards' offense often struggles even with John Wall in the lineup.
When you combine Nene's poor shooting with Emeka Okafors' 33.6-percent mark from 15-19 feet this year, it's no surprise that the Wizards have trouble generating decent spacing. Ironically, the Wizards' three-point shooting hasn't been the huge issue many expected, thanks to the proficiency of Bradley Beal and Martell Webster. It's the mid-range shooting that the Wizards must have to be able to hold their own offensively.
Bottom line: one of Okafor and Nene needs to be able to hit more mid-range jumpers for the pairing to work. Otherwise, any defensive advantage gained by playing the two together will be negated on the other end.
The problem with Nene's scoring efficiency carries over to other elements of his offensive game. Specifically, his passing is affected. While Nene is capable of some beautiful dishes to cutters in high-post situations, he's prone to overpassing, and smart defenses key on that to force turnovers. Consider: Nene's turnover percentage over the past two years is higher than it was in the three years before that.
You can often see how Nene's reluctance to score impacts his passing. His hesitation on this play allows the Knicks to send their preferred double team and set up their weakside coverages, leading to this Raymond Felton steal.
And even when Nene doesn't commit a turnover, he often leaves his teammate out of rhythm with an unexpected pass. Note how Wall has to reset the offense after this post-entry kickout with Carmelo Anthony on Nene.
Nene's passing can be glorious for the Wizards' offense, but if he's not supplementing it with aggression or scoring efficiency, defenses can key on it too much.
Whether Nene's problems recently are due to decline, injury or how he's being used remain to be seen. He certainly got off to a bad start health-wise with his plantar fasciitis, and I imagine he's still playing through lots of pain. The adjustment to playing power forward with another big man as opposed to the center in a small lineup in Denver has also affected his offense. Going forward, the Wizards should consider playing more small lineups and using Nene in more dynamic ways in their offensive sets.
But it's also possible that Nene is declining faster than we expected. When last year's trade was initially made, the hope was that Nene would maintain his previous level of production for a couple years before slowly falling off on the back end of his deal. If Nene is slowing down sooner and faster than that projection, it's obviously a big concern given how much money is left on his deal. Option C -- let JaVale McGee walk and sign someone less expensive than Nene and/or bank the future cap space -- could look better than ever.
All we can hope for is that a summer of rest rejuvenates Nene's game.