Will Irving Distraction Give Top Bought-Out Free Agents Pause When Considering Nets?
Beware The Coming Simmons/Drummond Minutes
Like many veteran free agents, guard Goran Dragic is looking for an opportunity to play a significant rotation role for a championship contender.
The Nets, who are reportedly among the teams the recently bought-out Dragic is considering for his new home address, can supply half that equation—and half of the other half.
A fully-loaded Brooklyn squad is certainly capable of competing at the highest levels, but the complication, as it always seems to be with this club, comes from Kyrie Irving.
At 35, Dragic’s best days are in his rearview mirror, but I can still see him coming off the bench to create offense as a lead guard for short stretches, which is just what the doctor ordered in Brooklyn. Since James Harden was dealt to Philadelphia at the deadline last week, Nets Head Coach Steve Nash has been hamstrung by relying on ill-suited players to bring the ball up in the halfcourt and run effective sets. When Ben Simmons, the featured consideration in the Harden trade, is ramped up and ready to go, he can certainly push the pace as a point guard but his shooting limitations present additional issues (see below).
Dragic, a 36% career three-point shooter who has only played five games for Toronto this season before he was sent to San Antonio, would solve one of Brooklyn’s core problems. He has a history with Nash as his understudy for three seasons in Phoenix over a decade ago. He has to know it’s not a bad culture fit here.
That is, until Dragic analyzes what’s going on with Irving, the Nets unvaccinated star who is only eligible to play road games. For those hoping that New York City Mayor Eric Adams will lift the vaccine mandate soon, this was a distressing week. Not only did Adams say he was reluctant to make any alterations at this point to his Executive Order, despite the glaring inconsistency that allows unvaccinated visiting players to perform at Barclays Center while Irving is banned, a new COVID-19 variant, one that appears capable of evading PCR tests and antibodies, is starting to flex its muscles around the world.
The point here isn’t about this variant that’s still being studied per se, but that this pandemic isn’t over, no matter how people feel about it. There will always be another variant, some of which will be concerning. So relying on a progressive mayor (a Knicks fan, no less) to bow to a celebrity athlete over the City’s healthcare policy, even if it’s the right thing, isn’t a great bet.
That means that this distracting on-again, off-again dance with Irving will continue for some time. Does Dragic really want to deal with that, potentially playing major minutes at home while making cameo appearances on the road, possibly into the postseason? Nash already has too many mighty mites to play off the ball in Seth Curry, Patty Mills, and, if defense is the priority, Bruce Brown. The six-foot three Dragic would have to get in line with those folks on the road as Irving logs about 40 of the 48 minutes.
Dragic is still mulling all his offers and no hints have been leaked as of this writing. Brooklyn General Manager Sean Marks was able to persuade Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge in last year’s buyout market, but there was a clear path to playing time for both of them.
Because of Irving, the Brooklyn road is much more muddied for Dragic.
The Nets mainstream media beat reporters have been all over the biggest mystery in the aftermath of the Harden trade, and that’s how the pieces, especially Simmons, will fit together.
The Daily News’ Kristian Winfield was the latest to tackle the subject over the weekend, and while I have a high regard for his reporting skills, I will respectfully disagree with his conclusion on the matter.
The short answer as to whether the Nets can thrive offensively while playing a pair of non-shooters in Simmons and center Andre Drummond on the court together for large stretches is no.
Don’t get me wrong, any time you have transformational talents like Kevin Durant and Irving on your side, there’s often a way to create a bucket when it’s needed. However, by not properly spacing the floor, you’re taking away a good chunk of their repertoire, and it’s quite foreseeable that it will eventually come back to bite the Nets at a critical juncture.
How? Say Simmons crosses the midcourt line as per above. His defender is already ensconced in the paint, since that’s where 551 of his 583 field goal attempts took place last season--he shot 10-for-31 (32%) from outside the restricted area, per NBA.com. Even after Simmons passes, his man can feel free to zone up on the ball side, only paying attention to Simmons if he moves towards a dunker’s spot.
The same goes for Drummond, who has been averaging a hideous 0.58 points per possession on 43 post-ups this season. Defenders can flash off him to scrape at the gather of a penetrating ballhandler and/or challenge the shot and they’ll be fine as long as they can scurry back to keep Drummond in front.
With defenses now armed with two potentially long extra defenders already in help position nearby, the driving lanes will get jam-packed like the BQE after former Mayor Bill De Blasio’s parting gift of a road diet. Congratulations, you just turned the Nets’ dynamic three-level offense into a strict jump-shooting team.
Again, the Nets boast the top three and four-of-the-top-five mid-range shooters in the league (minimum 100 attempts), per NBA.com, in Aldridge, KD, Curry, and rookie Cam Thomas—while Irving led the NBA in the category last season but has seen his efficiency plummet to 38.8%--so they can get away with suboptimal floor spacing for a little bit.
But now factor in the added intensity of the playoffs, where every shot against is contested exponentially harder than in relatively meaningless regular season contests, and you can see how this plan isn’t likely to be sustainable.
The Nets’ best chance at success is to start Aldridge in the middle so the defense has to account for him from as far as about 18-feet away. That allows Simmons the freedom to roam with Curry/Mills spotting up behind the three-point arc while the Nets’ stars go to work. Defenders have to stay home or risk allowing an uncontested look from an excellent shooter.
Maybe if the Nets face the Sixers and behemoth center Joel Embiid, you match up with Drummond, but in such a series, I can see the Nets needing all five of their bigs to bang with him anyway.
Drummond and Simmons will undoubtedly spend time together on the court, but those minutes should be tucked away against opposing team’s bench units, when the paint congestion will be easier to tolerate. Starting both would be an unappetizing recipe.