NEW YORK — Unprompted, Paul Pierce broached a once-inconceivable topic after the Brooklyn Nets lost for the sixth time in seven games.
"It's tough," Pierce said after the Los Angeles Lakers beat Brooklyn on Wednesday. "We are still learning. Hopefully we learn before it is too late – before we are completely out of the playoff mix."
Out of the playoff mix? The team with a $102.2 million payroll and $87.4 million more in luxury tax payments out of the playoff mix? The team with 36 combined All-Stars appearances not in the playoff? The Nets were built for a title, not fighting for the eighth seed.
The inglorious 4-11 start has left Nets in 13th place in the East, 1½ games ahead of the last-place Milwaukee Bucks nearly a fifth of the way into the season. It might get worse before it gets better. Brooklyn's next three games are at Houston, at Memphis and at home against Denver – all opponents with winning records.
The good news? The Nets are also just two games out of eighth place, and in the East, .500 basketball might be good enough to make the playoffs. The East has just two teams (Indiana and Miami) better than .500 today. The conference is average to horrible, outside of the Pacers and Heat right now.
"We still have time," Pierce said.
For the Nets to finish at least .500, they need to go 37-30 the rest of the season, a .552 winning percentage. Certainly doable, but not easy as patience dwindles with each loss.
Injuries to Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry have stunted Brooklyn's growth, and Jason Kidd's coaching acumen is a work in progress.
No teams likes to use injuries as an excuse, but it's a fact.
"We still need to get healthy," Pierce said. "We just need to be able to hold down the fort a little bit better than what we have been doing. We can't wait on guys to get healthy. We have to get the job done."
Williams, Lopez, Kirilenko and Terry are day-to-day. The Nets need 20 games with their full lineup before sweeping conclusions. But when will Brooklyn get its full lineup and will it be too late by then?
And Kidd's coaching? The Nets expected a learning curve, though it's fair to question the decision to give this team to turn the team over to him, since he went from playing in last season's playoffs to a head-coaching job this season. Everyone knew he was going to rely heavily on assistants but that doesn't alleviate criticism.
The spotlight on Kidd's coaching turned to folly against the Lakers. With eight seconds remaining and the Nets out of timeouts, Kidd subbed in Mirza Teletovic for Tyshawn Taylor. As Taylor headed to the bench, he bumped into Kidd, spilling Kidd's soda on the court.
The liquid needed to be cleaned up, giving the Nets time to huddle on the sideline and draw up a three-point shot. Of course, Nets assistant coach John Welch designed the play for Pierce, who missed a potential game-tying three.
"Sweaty palms," Kidd said. "I was never good with the ball."
That from the guy who is second on the NBA's all-time assist list, ahead of Mark Jackson, Steve Nash and Magic Johnson.
According amateur lip-readers, Kidd said, "Hit me," to Taylor as Taylor headed for the bench. In a season of woe for Kidd, it may have been his best coaching move this season. The NBA's basketball operations office will determine if Kidd violated a rule deserving of a fine or if the soda flop was just shady gamesmanship.
That's a small issue in the big picture, anyway.
The Nets are struggling and have been a poor second-half team, especially in the third quarter. Brooklyn is 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions (110.3) and 25th in points scored per 100 possessions (95.2) for a league-worst minus-15.1 net efficiency rating in the third.
Pierce is shooting 37.6% from the field, Kevin Garnett 36.1% and the Nets are 21st in shooting percentage (43.3%). Without key players, Brooklyn has simplified the offense, and Kidd is starting to see some progress. The Nets overcame a 27-point deficit against the Lakers to tie the score at 92.
"We are executing down the stretch. We are getting wide open looks," Kidd said. "It's just a matter of them going in and they will, and that's what we believe in as a coaching staff and as players. We will make these shots. If they keep representing themselves, we will be fine."
Point guard Shaun Livingtson said he is starting to see resiliency that was missing in earlier losses.
"We know the long-term goal and we have a veteran ballclub," Livingston said. "But we have to start putting the pieces together to get better."
As much success as Garnett has had, he has also played for struggling teams. For him, there's one solution for a talented team.
"The work ethic," Garnett said. "I figure that when you struggle in something, you want to fix what's killing the consistency in your team, but more importantly you work on it. …. Obviously we've been a team on paper that's been assembled to be successful and we have the personnel to be just that.
"We've been hit with some early season dilemmas but no excuses. So the first thing I think when you ask me that is work ethic and working through things."
Everyone understands the issues: significant roster changes, inexperienced coach and injuries. But the Nets are close to entering that dimension where urgency morphs into disaster.
PHOTOS: NBA photo of the day for the 2013-14 season