Nets “D” Can Be Elite If They Successfully Addressed a Pair Of “S’s”
If there’s one area where Nets fans can feel good about the club’s potential for the upcoming season, it’s the defense. After an offseason of retrenching following the end of their short-lived Superstar Era, they appear to be loaded with the kind of switchy, athletic defenders that every team covets. According to a social media posting by NBA writer Brett Usher using data from dunksandthrees.com, Brooklyn will come to training camp in October boasting eight players who ranked in the 80th percentile or better in a defensive impact stat called defensive estimated plus-minus last season.
The TBD question, then, is whether this good look on paper will translate to the court. For it didn’t quite work out that way last season.
Six of the eight aforementioned players, led by the ninth-place vote-getter in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year category Nic Claxton, will be returnees. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, who helped lock up overmatched Puerto Rico for Team USA in a World Cup exhibition on Monday night, are solid defensive building blocks. Even if you dropped enigmatic Ben Simmons from the list since he was shut down after 42 games due to back woes, that still left Brooklyn with a healthy crop of solid defenders to take on Philadelphia in the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
While the slower postseason pace (8.4% lower than during their regular season contests) kept the Nets’ points allowed totals at a reasonable level, their defensive efficiency in that series was far from acceptable during the four-game Sixers sweep. In other words, despite the individual defensive prowess, something(s) was off.
There were several reasons as to why Philly was able to create so many wide open looks and, when they missed, register an absurd 20 second-chance points per game against a team with all these allegedly stout defenders, but I submit that lack of continuity wasn’t one of them. Or did anyone not notice what the Lakers did after reshuffling their roster around the trade deadline. Not only did Brooklyn have 27 games following the Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant trades to integrate new personnel, the league then gave them five days off following the end of the regular season. That’s an eternity in NBA circles to design and install a new system geared for one particular opponent.
The point here isn’t to rehash the ugly past, but to speculate about whether Brooklyn addressed the issues that will hinder its ability to develop into an elite defensive juggernaut. From my perspective, it will boil down to the two “s’s”:
One of these years, I’ll get to watch the Nets go into a playoff series without a glaring height disadvantage. With Claxton continuing to hold the title of sole legitimate big man in the rotation, I doubt it will be this season, should, of course, the Nets even make it. Granted, few teams can match up with Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid anyway, but the Nets found a way to exacerbate the situation by assigning wings like Royce O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith to the All-Star behemoth for significant stretches, necessitating immediate double teams.
Despite their best efforts, it was brutal. Nor was it just due to Embiid’s length—the Nets, with their generally leaner bodies, were manhandled physically by the likes of P.J. Tucker and Paul Reed underneath the basket.
Don’t look for the Nets to morph into hulks in one offseason. Who will even be the backup five in 2023-24? I think we’ll see Simmons reprising the role at some points, though I maintain he is miscast as a backline defender. Despite his 6-foot 10 frame, he is renowned more for his perimeter hawking than for banging. Maybe he’ll get back some of the explosion lost to the back surgery to help out more on the boards this season; or maybe not.
Brooklyn General Manager Sean Marks did bring in Trendon Watford and Darius Bazley as underrated signings towards the end of free agency to compete for minutes up front this season. As flyers on young talent, those acquisitions were absolutely well-intentioned. But I worry that they do appear to be a possible set-up in the continuation of Marks’ trend of relying on smaller guys to play up from their more natural positions.
Neither player has a record to indicate they could solve the rebounding crisis—In the bulkier Watford’s case, the Blazers grabbed over 80% of available defensive rebounds when Watford was paired with true center Jusuf Nurkic in 231 shared minutes and under 70% in Watford’s other 951 minutes where he was primarily the de facto 5, per NBA.com.
The latter range is where Brooklyn resided last season, ranking 29th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage at 68.9% before dropping to a pitiful 63.2% in the playoffs, per NBA.com. Not being able to finish off defensive possessions with a rebound doesn’t only damage a team’s defensive rating—if the Nets, the NBA’s sixth-most generous team in terms of second-chance points allowed last season, could have eliminated just one putback per game, they would have ranked fifth in the league in defensive rating instead of 16th—when it happens late in close games, it can create a psychological drain as well. When I looked back at the Nets defensive rebounding rate in what NBA.com deems “clutch” games following the trades, I did a double take: In 12 such games totaling 40 minutes, they grabbed 45% of all available rebounds when the score was within a five-point margin in the last five minutes. Not even a 50/50 proposition.
No wonder they lost 8 of those 12.
There has been so much temptation on the part of the Nets’ staff to “Unleash the Claxton” to its full extent that I believe it has fogged their minds of the overall picture.
Brooklyn’s fifth-year big, still only 24, is both one of the league’s best shot-blockers, finishing second to Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. with 2.5 per game last season, and also one of its best isolation defenders, allowing just 0.79 points per possession against isolations, per NBA.com.
I guess the only thing Claxton can’t do on defense is be in two places at the same time.
Too bad. For there has to be a reason why opponents went to such a dry well of challenging Claxton mano-a mano a league-high 202 times last season—47 more than the next most targeted defender, per NBA.com—and that was to get him away from the basket. If he’s contesting a jump shooter 20 feet from the hoop, he can’t simultaneously be a factor under it.
How else can you explain why the Nets logged virtually the same defensive rebounding percentage with Claxton on versus off the court last season despite their reserve options’ size limitations? That figure was also basically unchanged before and after the trades. And Claxton’s aggregate number should be higher than 8 boards per game too—it’s not like the Nets have a Reggie Evans type at power forward who chases down and steals every uncontested rebound.
Sure, the Nets were a stingier defensive team overall with Claxton on the court last season, but his 111.3 defensive rating ranked just 19th among 50 qualifying centers, per NBA.com. Not that I blame Claxton for a team stat, but I expected more of an impact on the scoreboard from a DPOY candidate.
My theory is that the Nets were sort of hoisted on their own petard, meaning they schemed themselves into less-than-ideal results. In this case, it was the gratuitous switching. Claxton was so good at sticking with smaller ballhandlers by switching pick-and-rolls, Brooklyn disregarded the consequences—such as mismatches on the glass--elsewhere on the court.
Never mind that by being so accommodating on opponents’ ball screens—often without so much as a stiff breeze from the arena a/c unit—it allowed them to dictate their offense. Opponents picked their poison—and then suckered the Nets into taking it.
At the very least, I’d like to see the Nets become more variable on defense this season, incorporating some drop coverage to keep Claxton closer to the rim. Make better use of all these long, athletic perimeter defenders by instructing them to get around screens instead of dying on them. Mixing in some zone defenses wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
If the Nets are to surprise people this season, they’re going to need their defense to be more disruptive than it’s been. They have plenty of the individual pieces to do it, with Simmons obviously a major wild card should he be able to return to NBA All-Defense form. But can they find the right configuration and scheme to execute it?