What’s Up With The Nets’ Shoddy Defense And Can It Be Fixed?
Thirteen games may be too small a sample size in an NBA season to decree any conclusions, but observations of certain trends can be denoted as ones to monitor, in both hopeful and concerning tones.
In the Nets’ case, there have been some results in their 6-7 start that have met or defied preseason expectations. For example, Cam Thomas’ scoring leap to 26.9 points per game, though not surprising to the confident player, was a material boost to Brooklyn’s projected offensive production before he sprained his left ankle in a November 8 contest versus the Clippers. On the other hand, Ben Simmons being sidelined since November 6 with a back injury and averaging less than one free throw per game during the six games he did play was certainly foreseeable, at least to me.
One consensus prediction was that a full training camp would lead to a Nets team that could excel on the defensive end of the floor. After all, the roster is loaded with high-level and lengthy individual defenders, anchored by center Nic Claxton, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
From one of my summer musings ( Nets “D” Can Be Elite If They Successfully Addressed a Pair Of “S’s” (substack.com)), I figured that besides cohesiveness, the Nets could get to that higher level if they addressed a pair of issues that haunted them in prior seasons. The team had to play bigger to correct a gaping rebounding disadvantage and they had to incorporate different pick-and-coverages to keep teams from targeting the Nets’ weaker defenders both inside and outside the paint.
Well, check and check. The Nets rank third in the league in defensive rebounding percentage (again, small sample size disclaimer) after finishing 29th last season, per NBA.com. Part of the reason is their increased usage of “drop coverage”, which has allowed their big men to start from a better rebounding position instead of having to chase ballhandlers on the perimeter after switches.
Yet not only hasn’t the Nets’ defensive efficiency improved, it’s gotten worse, both from aesthetics and metrics standpoints. It’s not yet season-defining, but it is concerning. Brooklyn is ranked 23rd in defensive rating at 115.3 points per game allowed per 100 possessions. Last season’s squad was also 6-7 after 13 games, but they had surrendered just under 110 points per 100 possessions despite a league-worst defensive rebounding percentage.
Obviously, the schedule composition has something to do with these incongruities. Brooklyn’s seven losses this season have come against opponents who are all currently over .500 and have posted a cumulative 65-27 record (.707 winning percentage). The Nets might have been able to steal a couple of them with better end-game execution, but I wouldn’t dump those into the “bad loss” trash folder either.
However, before you hang your hat on the Nets’ defense surging from an “easier” upcoming slate, understand that A) Only five of those 13 games were against top-ten teams in offensive rating; and B) There aren’t as many easier games as you might think. It’s not like there are and will be 15 teams over .500 and 15 teams under. The vast majority of clubs are at Brooklyn’s level or higher; how the Nets fare at Atlanta on Wednesday and during their ensuing five-game home stand versus those teams with whom they’ll be competing for playoff/play-in position will be more indicative of their true status. It just won’t necessarily be “easy.”
Still, in order to stay relevant over the long haul, the Nets will have to fix their defensive issues. 56.4% of opponent field goal attempts have been what NBA.com deems “open” looks (at least four feet of space from the nearest defender), the highest percentage in the league. That includes 35.1 open three-pointers allowed per game, more than anyone but Charlotte and San Antonio.
Fortunately, opponents shot just 35.5% on those higher quality three-point attempts, about 1.3% below the league average. In other words, it could have been worse.
So, getting back to the original topic, what gives, and can it be fixed?
Let’s start with personnel. It’s hard to rail against Head Coach Jacque Vaughn for his rotations given the constant flux in his nightly availability sheet. I do worry that he has a blind spot for backup point guard Dennis Smith Jr., but that’s for another day. With Simmons and Thomas both out for the last five games, the starting five of Claxton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Spencer Dinwiddie has actually been stout in their 41 minutes together, sporting a 98.8 defensive rating, per NBA.com. Even during the last two losses to Miami and Philadelphia where Brooklyn was pillaged for over 120 points allowed, that group did fine, posting a 114 defensive rating.
It’s when Vaughn has had to mix and match that trouble has brewed. Introducing new elements, whether it’s a player with excellent hands on defense like Royce O’Neale or the improving Day’Ron Sharpe has often led to runs against.
Vaughn talked recently about his club’s inability to finish quarters strong, including Sunday’s second stanza when the 76ers used a 17-5 run in the last three minutes to go up by 12 points at intermission. Sharpe and Lonnie Walker IV were on-court witnesses to that game-turning stretch. Similarly, reserves like Sharpe, Walker, O’Neale, and Smith Jr. were in the middle of Heat spurts at the tail end of Thursday’s middle frames that allowed them to expand their leads.
Barring foul trouble, which hampered Johnson in Miami, teams typically run their starters at the end of second quarters. Vaughn hasn’t been matching that in his rotations, and has gotten burned. He seems to be extra careful with Claxton’s minutes, possibly due to the ankle sprain he suffered in the opener versus Cleveland that cost him eight games. Still, I saw several instances in the last two games where Claxton’s minutes were wasted against non-Bam Adebayo/Joel Embiid lineups.
More importantly, Vaughn has to hold his players more accountable for all those open shot attempts against. When you watched Miami and Philly, they closed out significantly harder to the three-point line than Brooklyn and executed the ensuing rotations more precisely when the ball moved. With the Nets’ general length, they should be in positions to both apply help if needed while also staying attached to opposing shooters. There’s been too much ball-watching.
When screened, the Nets need to match their opponents’ physicality; it’s not a good look when you can’t get through Miami’s Duncan Robinson on an off-ball pick. To play effective drop coverage, the screened defender has to stay in the play and not get pinballed out to midcourt; otherwise, it’s a two-on-one against the dropping big man. The Nets have generally leaner body types, but they could still employ more of a hit-first mentality on defense.
Hopefully, these tweaks will help the Nets improve on their league-worst ranking in turnovers per game forced (11.1). Given their struggles operating out of a half-court offense, it would be quite helpful if they could generate more than the 5.5 steals per game they’ve been averaging, also a league low. Those are most often turned into transition opportunities.
It’s misleading to assert that Simmons’ absence has been at the root of Brooklyn’s forced turnover drought. He was averaging 0.5 steals in nearly 32 minutes per game. Only once during his six games did the Nets come away with more than six steals.
Simmons, though, did like to play at a breakneck speed, the prior defensive outcome be damned. The Nets have since been playing at a much more leisurely pace, topping 100 possessions just once in their last six games after hitting three digits in five of their first seven games, per NBA.com.
Whether Simmons is in or out, Brooklyn won’t be successful unless they can reduce the number of times per game they’re taking the ball out of their own net.