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Can Nets play pace and space without any stretch bigs?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s talk about Brooklyn’s bigs.

If you look at the basic numbers of what bigs are supposed to do, the Nets don’t look that bad. They’re top-10 in rebounds per game and 15th for paint points. The issue is that their frontcourt personnel does not fit the style they want to play.

We’ve emphasized that enough. Quincy Acy is the only big that can stretch the floor and hit the three ball, and even he’s struggling to do so – shooting just 30 percent this season.

Tyler Zeller has improved but defenses still encourage him to shoot from deep. Jarrett Allen is 19-years-old and operates best in the paint while Timofey Mozgov has been slow and inefficient in the pace and space offense. Jahlil Okafor has only played in one game so far and Trevor Booker is now with Philadelphia.

They’re undermanned AND playing a system that does not fit their personnel…or personnel that doesn’t fit their system. Which is it?

The Nets attempt the second-most 3-pointers in the league. For their offense to work efficiently — taking 34 3-pointers per game — they’ll need at least four players that can stretch the floor at all time.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been Brooklyn’s most consistent player on the floor. While he’s improved from deep, teams still give him space and dare him to shoot every time. It’s no matter. He can be a system fit, but it’s crucial who’s playing next to him in the frontcourt. He thrives in the motion offense because it enables him to float around the paint, work around off-ball screens, isolate and slash.

The interesting thing is that RHJ is having his best year when the paint is extremely congested. If the Nets had bigs that could stretch the floor, then they could utilize the inside-out game, which would open up the perimeter and the paint, making everybody’s life much easier.

The closest thing they have to that is Acy, who has struggled to find any sort of groove this season.

Steve Lichtenstein has analyzed Brooklyn’s two-man lineups in the past and the results prove this to be true: The offense is better when there is a stretch big (Acy) on the floor, despite his struggles.

These are the current numbers per 100 possessions:

Acy/RHJ plus-18.3 (including a 122.5 offensive rating) in 105 minutes.

Zeller/RHJ plus-4.3 in 279 minutes

Acy/Zeller minus-14.6 in 70 minutes

Acy/Allen minus-12.8 in 154 minutes

Allen/RHJ minus-1.7 in 132 minutes.

RHJ/Mozgov minus -17.7 in 164 minutes

Again, this isn’t on Hollis-Jefferson, who has become Brooklyn’s star with both D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin out with injury. This falls on the make-up of the front-court, a big worry heading into the season for several reasons.

So, how does it get better? Sure, some sort of trade or acquisition can be made – as Sean Marks always points out that the Nets want to remain ‘fluid’ throughout the season. As for the current lineup, it isn’t looking good.

It makes you wonder how they’re going to operate with Okafor in the big rotation.

There could be some value for a post player (or a big face-up player) like Okafor, especially when the game slows down and you need buckets late. Still, he’s another player who doesn’t exactly fit the criteria of Kenny Atkinson’s offense. He’s attempted eight 3-pointers over his 3-year career, hitting only one. There’s a reason the Nets had him shooting three’s while he gets into game shape.

So again, where does he fit in? More importantly, where do any of these bigs fit in if they can’t somewhat stretch the floor?

At 22-years-old, Hollis-Jefferson has earned his keep as a 4 in this league. He’s shown he can fit in the system without utilizing the three ball.

Teams are covering the Nets tighter on the perimeter and it’s been a difference maker. They’ve lost five of the last six, and they’re averaging less than 100 points in the five losses. Indiana showed physicality on the perimeter after the halftime break. San Antonio did the same right from the start.

Teams are adjusting to Brookyn’s predictable, yet solid offense.

It’s on Atkinson and the coaching staff to adjust accordingly to their personnel. However, if they’re set on playing the way they do, then it’s on Marks to not only acquire talent – but acquire talent that fits within the system.

Of course, RHJ, Allen and Okafor are all young players who can evolve their game. And in an interview with Fred Kerber two weeks ago, Atkinson hinted at a lineup that featured Allen at the 4, Okafor at the 5. Allen said he thought the combination could work, that for the Nets, the 4 and 5 are “interchangeable.”

Still, Marks trusts Atkinson to make it work by developing players and integrating them somehow. But at some point, Atkinson needs some reinforcement to fit the criteria of the offense.

... Or one can ask: Is a coach supposed to adjust to his personnel? It should probably be the latter.

It’s the golden question moving forward, especially with Russell and Okafor returning within the next few weeks, both whom operate best in the pick and roll and inside the paint. Of course, by then, the Nets could have a new player or two.

You never know.