Nash Has Some Explaining To Do After Fourth Nets Loss In Five Games
Nights like Friday’s 121-109 rout of the Nets by visiting Milwaukee make me miss my old City Game podcast. For we’re past the point where this team warrants a bitter rant.
Four losses in their past five games, with all of the defeats coming at home, have raised serious questions about Brooklyn’s prospects, especially if superstar point guard Kyrie Irving continues his obstinance about taking the COVID-19 vaccine that has now limited him to road games only.
With Irving a part-time player and wing Joe Harris still out with an ankle injury, opponents have figured the Nets out. In their one game with Irving, a 129-121 victory at tired and depleted Indiana, Nets superstars Kevin Durant and James Harden found more comfortable spacing. Otherwise, you can see the frustration boiling on the court.
I wouldn’t call a January regular season slump “a crisis,” but the Nets had better hope that Head Coach Steve Nash is every bit the communicator he’s cracked up to be, because he has a whole lot of explaining to do to many of his players.
Imagine going into a game versus the defending NBA champs and thinking that starting third-year center Nic Claxton and undrafted rookie wing David Duke Jr., a two-way player, was a good idea. Neither had to be guarded on the perimeter because they are shooting a combined 6-for44 (13.6%) from outside the restricted area this season, according to NBA.com, with Duke Jr. a woeful 2-for-18 from three-point distances.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s starting five featured four guys who all shoot over the league average of 35%, with the one “non-shooter” Giannis Antetokounmpo, who simply dominates the Nets in every meeting. To me, the difference of the game was that almost all the players the Bucks employed had the ability to make shots, whereas the Nets were overly reliant on their two stars to score.
If the theory went that the Nets required extra defenders to hang with the Bucks, how’d that work out? Brooklyn was outscored, 30-19, in the nine minutes Claxton and Duke Jr. played together, bringing the running total over the two games of this experiment to 63-45 in a little under a half of basketball.
Imagine what DeAndre’ Bembry was thinking after the Nets wing was a major factor in the Indy comeback from 19 points down in the second half and then watched all but a 7:36 run in the second quarter, where the Nets and the Bucks played virtually even, from the bench. No offense to Duke Jr., but what has he done to deserve minutes over Bembry, aside from playing hard in garbage times?
The bigger issue is how the Nets have come to the view that Claxton is an NBA starter. How about allowing him to excel in a role for which he is suited, like as an energy guy off the bench who can switch onto guards who are destroying Brooklyn’s other bigs on pick-and-rolls?
Claxton’s box score stats may be on the rise, and the improvement in his free throw shooting has been utterly amazing (16-of-his-last-21, or 76.2%), but the Nets are getting killed when he’s on the floor—on both ends. In the 12 games he’s started (the Nets are 6-6 in those contests), Brooklyn has surrendered 121.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, a league-worst defensive equivalent by 6.5 points.
But it’s offensively where Claxton has really bogged the Nets down. He is a developing player, so he doesn’t have the timing of the screen-and-roll game down. The alley-oop lobs have all but dried up (0-for-3 in the last 5 games, per NBA.com), especially when the Nets simultaneously utilize other non-shooters, allowing their defenders to slough off and help in the paint. Watching Claxton operate catching passes out of the short roll can be cringe-worthy. For every nice attack to the basket, there’s a wild foray that has little chance to succeed.
Now imagine you’re LaMarcus Aldridge, a 20,000-point career scorer who’s still got the touch from the mid-range areas. You chose to come back to Brooklyn after being forced into retirement due to a scary heart issue in the middle of last season. It may take some time to get his conditioning back after a bout with COVID-19, but how did the Nets limit him to just 9 minutes on Friday when it was such a struggle to score? Again, it wasn’t like Brooklyn got run out of the gym in Aldridge’s time—they were outscored, 25-23.
Simply put, if the Nets are going to go with a non-shooting perimeter defender in the starting lineup, whether it’s Bruce Brown, Bembry, or Duke Jr., they can’t also start Claxton. If Blake Griffin is still out of favor (I’m not sure why—he’s been better since starting the season 9-for-56 from deep before he got benched in November), it has to be Aldridge.
The veterans on the Nets bench are likely to understand Nash’s predicament when it comes to all his options for playing time. It’s the nature of a professional to not like sitting under any circumstances, but they don’t stew about it too much if the team is winning, or else they’ll be labelled a malcontent.
The Nets played fantastic while as many as 10 players fell into the league’s health and safety protocols. In that period, there were fewer permutations for Nash to consider, so he often had little choice but to go with whoever was available on a given day. On the few nights it didn’t work, who could blame him?
In this difficult stretch where the team is struggling, however, it’s on Nash to a) Make adjustments to fix the issues, and b) Play a psychologist role to keep everyone who isn’t currently part of the solution on the same page.