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Nets Finally Going In Right Direction With Positionless Basketball
I’ve been hearing from Nets head coaches about the NBA’s trend towards positionless basketball for nearly a decade. Bigs who handle the ball and shoot threes, everyone switching screens one-through-five, etc.
There’s no question that’s where the league is heading. You have Orlando’s 7-foot 2 Bol Bol converting 42.6% of his three-point shots, Boston’s 6-foot 4 Marcus Smart neutralizing bigger bodies in the post, and 6-foot11 Denver center Nikola Jokic dishing out dazzling dimes on a nightly basis. Next season, 7-foot 4 French sensation Victor Wembanyama is slated to arrive on the NBA scene and rewrite all the old rules about who can do what on the basketball court.
Unfortunately, whether it was prior Nets Head Coach Steve Nash’s personal fondness or the limitations of the roster he was provided—or a combination of both—his application of the positionless theory skewed towards smaller lineup configurations. I will never get over how Nash’s game plan actually schemed for 6-foot 1 Seth Curry to guard Boston’s 6-foot 9 horse Al Horford during last season’s first round playoff series, which the Celtics swept.
This season, though, Jacque Vaughn, who took over the job when Nash and the Nets parted ways on November 1, is experimenting with a different formula, especially now that the team’s injury list is nearly clean (guard Patty Mills, who has been out of Vaughn’s rotation for three weeks save for last week’s shocking victory in Indiana where half the team took the night off, sat out Friday night’s 119-116 thriller in Toronto with a non-COVID-19 illness). Friday’s victory was the Nets (18-12) fifth in a row and ninth in ten games, so Vaughn’s experimenting has not yet come at a huge cost. To the contrary, it just might be something that makes Brooklyn a potentially dangerous playoff team.
When Nets star guard Kyrie Irving, who took over in Friday night’s fourth quarter with 15 of his 32 points, including his first career buzzer-beating, three-point walkoff (not to mention the sweet assist on Brooklyn’s prior possession to find forward Yuta Watanabe in the corner for an open triple with 15 seconds remaining), took his usual end-of-third-quarter respite, Vaughn went with a rather unique five-man unit. You’ve all heard of “three-guard” lineups, a Nash favorite, right? Well, Vaughn countered, how about if I trot out a “no-guard” lineup? No Curry. No Edmond Sumner. Not even Cam Thomas just to bring the ball upcourt.
Now, the group of Kevin Durant, the de facto “point guard”, plus Watanabe, Joe Harris, Ty Warren, and center Nic Claxton (who was subbed out for wing Royce O’Neale for the final 36 seconds of the period) didn’t exactly blow the Raptors out of the water, outscoring them, 9-8. But it certainly underscored how Brooklyn, for years known as a rather small and soft team, now has the bodies to wall up defensively against the league’s upper echelon.
Obviously, Irving and Ben Simmons will continue to play outsized roles so long as they’re healthy. Still, the 6-foot 10 Simmons’ ballhandling and passing make him a positionless fit in lineups that boast four other floor-spacing shooters while the 6-foot 2 Irving, playing for a new contract, has been showing more of a willingness to do dirty work such as help out inside to block shots, rebound, and dive to the floor to get after loose balls. In past seasons, you could see Irving get upset when he switched onto opponents’ bigs, who’d abuse him mercifully. Not that he’s now become a strong interior defender, but there’s no question we have seen a higher battle level from Irving since his return from last month’s suspension for posting hateful and antisemitic content on his social media.
The difficulty for Vaughn going forward—assuming, of course, that his club’s injury luck won’t take another horrific turn, an overly optimistic assumption—will be some unpleasant conversations he’ll have to make if this is the new Brooklyn Way. He apparently already had the talk with Mills as well as big man Markieff Morris; next up might be Curry, who is another pending free agent and isn’t even used to coming off the bench, let alone being dropped from the rotation completely. Curry may have been nursing a sore hamstring but that wasn’t the only reason he logged a mere seven minutes on Friday—he just isn’t a fit on the court with Irving against the teams that don’t play that small, like Toronto, with all their big and athletic bodies, and most of Brooklyn’s main competitors.
With Harris regaining his three-point stroke (17-for-his-last-30 from deep over his last seven games) and O’Neale continuing to prove his worth as a glue guy even as his shot has gone the other direction (9-for-31 in the same span), the team is just better off going bigger. Off the bench, Vaughn has at his disposal Watanabe, a blessing of a find by Nets General Manager Sean Marks this offseason, and Warren, both of whom stand 6-foot 8 and combine scoring with defensive switchability.
Like I wrote in my previous post (Nets’ Hot Streak Gives Them Leeway To Find Right Deal To Address Stretch Five Need (substack.com)), in my view, all that stands between a fully-loaded Nets squad and a deep playoff run is a stretch big man to coexist with Simmons. The Claxton/Simmons numbers when paired on the court are improving, but let’s see what happens next week when the Nets face better paint-protecting opponents Golden State, Milwaukee, and Cleveland.
For now, I have to admit that it’s been pleasurable to watch the Nets finally transition to how positionless basketball works best—plugging in bigger bodies to do the traditional chores once tasked to smaller ones and not vice versa.