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Installing not just a culture, but an identity

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The Brooklyn Nets are essentially building a franchise from the ground up. While Sean Marks has constantly alluded to building a “culture” off the court, Kenny Atkinson has established an “identity” for the team on the court as well.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Chicago Bulls Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the 2015-2016 season, Sean Marks began to retool the Nets in his own vision. There were dozens of new front office hires. Kenny Atkinson was hired to lead the way on-court as head coach. Only four players that were on the 2015 opening night roster made it to opening night, 2016-2017. Two of those players (Brook Lopez and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) remain with the team today.

As a San Antonio Spurs disciple, Sean Marks has constantly mentioned building a “culture” for the Nets in the next few seasons. How many times has “culture” been mentioned? Bryan Fonseca thinks that “culture” could be the Nets’ newest (and fastest) drinking game…

The foundation, as Marks likes to call it, has been laid in the front office and in the locker room. The Nets roster has showed its appreciation and gratitude through social media the past few days. Every player seemed grateful for the season, despite the adversity of a 20-62 season.

The Brooklyn Nets have fostered an identity off the court.

The Nets also found their identity on the court this past season. It may be the first time since the Jason Kidd-era (or the brief stretch where a Kidd-coached Nets took the NBA by storm in early 2014) that the Nets have a distinct play style. Despite the team’s lagging record, that foundation of a successful basketball team has been established on the court.

Offense

The Nets’ high-octane motion offense is rooted in the Spurs’ team culture (drink), Daryl Morey’s Rockets, and Mike D’Antoni’s spread offense. The team is pushing data-driven basketball to the NBA’s extremes. This past season, the Nets shot the most three-point attempts in franchise history. They shot 2,591 three-pointers this year. The second spot in the franchise ranking belongs to the 2013-2014 Kidd-coached team, with 1,922 attempts. That’s a difference of over 600 attempts for spots 1 and 2.

Brooklyn also shot a franchise-low number of two-point field goals this season (4,397), yet made them at an efficient clip (50.6%), good for second in franchise history. Brooklyn was also top-ten in the league in free throw attempts this past season. It shows that when the Nets aren’t attempting shots from deep, they’re scavenging points at the rim.

And of course, there’s the pace and ball movement. Brooklyn ranked first in pace this season, and ranked eighth in the NBA in passes made. Despite the team’s frantic pace and high volume of passes, they ranked 20th in the league in assists. Obviously, a lack of a pure point guard for most of the season could have altered the Nets’ assist rankings. But there were numerous instances where a Nets player received a pass and attacked on offense.

FanSided’s Ian Levy tried to visualize the offensive style for each NBA team. Here’s his assessment of the Nets’ offense.

So, the Nets push the pace, swing the ball and move off-ball quite a bit. Levy’s measure of shot selection was the percentage of shots from the three-point line, rim, or from the free throw stripe. He called it MoreyBall percentage.

Interestingly, the Nets’ offensive style chart looks similar to the Golden State Warriors.

The resemblance is noteworthy, considering the two teams were on complete opposite ends of the standings this past season. Obviously, the talent gap is wide between Brooklyn and Golden State. Steve Kerr is another head coach that drew heavy influences from D’Antoni and Popovich. Additionally, the Nets’ style charts are similar to the Rockets in shot selection and pace and to the Spurs in ball and player movement. The influences are clearly there on offense.

The Nets’ offense is essentially a react-and-attack system. Kenny Atkinson’s squad will try to swing and move the ball to manufacture an open look from three, or find a crevice for an attack of the basket. Here’s what an ideal Nets possession could look like, with everyone getting a touch.

Pair that with a breakneck pace, and Brooklyn’s offensive identity is evident. It’s not exactly a Brooklyn redux of Spurs or Rockets-ball. Additionally, the Nets offense relies on attackers, rather than mercurial shooters like the Warriors. The Nets will try to outrun and scramble-opposing defenses, with virtually any player able to attack, pass, or shoot at a moment’s notice.

Defense

The Nets’ defensive identity is much harder to quantify. Pre All-Star Break, the Nets’ defense was as free flowing as their offense. A center like Brook Lopez would often pick up the point guard in transition, with guards hustling back to defend the paint. That style did not lead to success, with the Nets ranking as one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA.

Post All-Star Break, the Nets seemingly found their defensive identity. Part of their March revival included a rise in defensive metrics. In their final ten games of the season, the Nets were a top five NBA team in defensive rating. The defensive improvement was a long time coming for a team that previously struggled to stop the simplest plays.

Call me crazy for seeing similarities to the Golden State Warriors again, but the Brooklyn Nets are trying to emulate the Warriors’ defensive scheme. The lineup of Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Durant-Green is as potent a lineup as there is in the NBA. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t replicate those players (how does the NBA feel about cloning?). But the physical profiles of the Nets could match up with the Warriors’ five.

The 2017 Nets’ defense was also reminiscent of the 2014 Nets. That squad was best described by Bill Simmons as “just having a bunch of 6’7” guys that can switch everything.” That encapsulates the Nets’ ideal defensive identity.

Here’s a look at a few of the Nets’ best defensive stands...

The lineup on the floor features Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead, Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brook Lopez. RHJ is screened twice initially, but fights around them, with a little help from Brook Lopez. Tobias Harris receives the pass and Dinwiddie stays on that side of the court to help. Caris LeVert is able to keep his eye on Ish Smith and Marcus Morris off of the dribble. Harris passes to Morris and LeVert slides over. Smith receives the pass and drives, but Dinwiddie and LeVert are there to contain penetration. Smith passes to Morris, who is immediately picked up by a shuffling LeVert. Morris takes a contested jumper right inside the three-point line. He misses. That possession required teamwork and length.

Against the Knicks, the Nets again showed a strong effort defensively. Caris LeVert is screened twice off-ball and Spencer Dinwiddie switches onto Courtney Lee. Dinwiddie is tall enough to guard Lee, and LeVert is a good match off-ball against Lance Thomas. Lee attempts a drive, but is stifled by the long arms of Jeremy Lin and Dinwiddie. Lee squeezes a pass to Derrick Rose, whose shot is contested by a recovering Lin.

Above, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert defend the pick and roll. The two switch, and defend the cross matches well. RHJ shows some nice footwork after Seth Curry tries to shake him. Quincy Acy slides over to prevent a Curry layup, forcing a turnover.

The Nets’ desired defense is an amorphous blob of long arms, frequent switches and occasional help defense. The addition of players like Spencer Dinwiddie, K.J. McDaniels and Archie Goodwin fit right into the Nets’ defensive aspirations. While a plodding center in Brook Lopez may not be Warriors-esque defensively, the rim protection and length of a seven-footer is needed if the Nets choose to go small from positions 1-4.

Looking to the Offseason

Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are currently traveling the world scouting talent for the Nets’ offseason. Nets scouts surely have looked to the college ranks as well for the upcoming draft. Marks has made it clear that the ideal Nets player fits within the Nets’ culture (drink). When evaluating players, Markinson will also look to who fits both the offensive and defensive identities of the team. Ideally, the Nets will choose players that fit, rather than plucking the biggest names and figuring out their role later.

During Monday’s end-of-season press conference, Sean Marks mentioned a pre-draft interview with Caris LeVert, saying “that’s a Brooklyn Net right there” after speaking with him. The front office has established the type of personalities they envision in Nets uniforms. With the Nets’ new on-court identity, fans are hoping to say “that’s Brooklyn Nets basketball” in the future.