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Brooklyn’s (New) Backcourt: Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

With the Nets’ off-season *seemingly* settled, the focus will now shift to the on-court product, rather than the front office maneuvers. (I know, Sean Marks said “you’re never really done” but the core of the roster seems to be in place…for now.)

The regular season will start in less than three months, but many storylines are being hotly debated. Do the Nets need another big man? Who can replace Brook Lopez’s production? Will Allen Crabbe make a leap forward as a Net? What emoji best characterizes each Brooklyn Nets player?

But the biggest question, by far has been “Can D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin co-exist?”

Last season, both Russell and Lin were the de facto starting point guards for their respective teams. Both posted usage rates of 26.6%, indicating their control of the offense. Now, the two will play alongside each other in the starting lineup. While the fit may seem awkward upon first glance, the styles of each player and Kenny Atkinson’s offensive scheme can maximize the pairing.

Both players thrive off of dribble penetration, but in different manifestations. Lin excels using his speed, body control and ability to finish through contact at the rim. Russell is slick, possessing a tight handle and tremendous creativity as a playmaker. While the two both need the ball in their hands to be truly effective, their pairing may force defenses to pick their poison.

Two key attacks to watch for the 2017-2018 Nets are secondary motion and drive and kick. Both Lin and Russell can attack off of the dribble and kick the ball out to teammates on the perimeter. This can generate an open perimeter shot or additional movement. Russell and Lin are magnetic enough to draw the attention of multiple defenders, which opens up the defense. The drawing in of defenders, essentially, is a key hallmark of the Nets offense.

Last season, the Nets’ offense took a lot of spot-up jump shots – 2,167 to be exact, per Synergy. Unfortunately, the Nets’ volume of shots did not match their efficiency. Those struggles may stem from the lack of respected penetrators with Jeremy Lin out of the lineup.

Isaiah Whitehead and Spencer Dinwiddie are both solid off of the dribble, but cannot draw in defenses, or speed through them with the gravity that Lin does. Caris LeVert did show some craftiness attacking, and his ability to drive and kick lifted the Nets whenever he was on the floor. Here’s one example of dribble penetration leading to ball movement, and an eventual Jeremy Lin jump shot.

The dribble attack of LeVert and (new Los Angeles Laker) Brook Lopez drew attention from the defense, leading to a Lin three.

The Nets showed beautiful ball movement at least 1-2 times per game last season, driving, kicking and occasionally scoring while swinging the ball. The Nets did pass the ball quite a bit in 2016-2017, eighth in the league in passes per game, but the passing lacked panache at times. With the addition of D’Angelo Russell, the ball movement could become more efficient, moving the chess pieces around the court for optimal strikes.

Here’s another example of secondary penetration. A Jeremy Lin drive spurred the motion. The Warriors defense collapses into the paint, with all five defenders with their attention tuned to Lin. The ball rotates from Brook Lopez to Joe Harris and back to Lin. That leads to a Lin shot. Although he misses, it exemplifies the power of drives – and passes - with conviction.

With D’Angelo Russell, the Nets add yet another ballhandler to draw defenses in. Due to his vision, Russell is effective at finding teammates while probing the lane. While Russell does not possess Lin’s agility, his vision can make defenses pay if they lean in too much. Watch below as Russell manipulates a Larry Nance screen and floats his way to the middle. The defense collapses and Russell tosses a quick pass to Brandon Ingram on the perimeter.

Russell drives off of the screen again, finding a cutting Ingram for the dunk.

And of course, both players can score off of the dribble as well. With Lin fully healthy, he will look to speed into the lane often. On penetration, both Russell and Lin can alter the defensive geometry. Their drives can open the floor up for each other and for their teammates.

Stylistically, Kenny Atkinson can choose to vary his offensive attack with two attacking ballhandlers. If the Nets want to push the pace and pressure the defense into protecting the rim, Lin’s drives can force defenses to shore up their on-ball coverage. This type of attack could be best against teams without an imposing interior presence. With Russell’s smooth game, the Nets could focus on precision ball movement, milking every pass in order to find the best shot. This attack could make defenses lacking in communication or lateral quickness pay. The natural stylistic differences of the two are a wrinkle of the Nets offense that was not seen last season. Lin and Russell could be the @ignisyon (um, sorry – ignition) to the Nets’ offensive engine.

The Tandem Together

Not only do the games of D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin open up the floor for the entire offense, the two can complement each other as well. In an interview during Las Vegas Summer League, Lin compared the partnership with Russell to his partnership with Kemba Walker on the Charlotte Hornets in 2015-2016. That season, the pairing helped push Charlotte to the playoffs. While Russell is a vastly different player to the prototypical Walker, his pairing with Lin could still be fruitful.

Both players may be as effective off the ball as they are with the ball in their hands. Lin’s speed projects well as a cutter, especially when paired with the Nets’ read-and-react style offense. With Russell handling the ball, Lin can capitalize on sleeping defenders and rocket towards the basket. Synergy ranks Lin in the 73rd percentile of players as a cutter, scoring 1.375 points per possession on the play. He also turned the ball over 6.3% of the time as a cutter as well, much lower than his 15.7% overall turnover percentage. Here’s a clip of Lin cutting to the basket with Ben McLemore sleeping, finding Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Russell shows efficacy as a cutter as well, ranking in the 74th percentile per Synergy, and scoring 1.385 points per possession on cuts. On the run, Russell’s passing creativity is on display, making quick decisions while flashing into the lane. Here, Russell cuts to the basket against the Sacramento Kings. Jordan Clarkson finds Russell in stride, finding his way right into the teeth of the defense. He quickly swings a pass to Julius Randle for the easy layup. Pretty.

The two are also developing as spot-up shooters as well. Off of catch-and-shoot attempts, Russell shot a decent 37.0% from three, while shooting 33.0% on pull-ups. Lin shot 39.5% from three on catch-and-shoot attempts. While the two may not have reputations as knockdown shooters, they could see success as catch-and-shoot options.

The benefit of having two distributors on the floor is so both can play off-ball roles. Without an impetus to set up the offense off-ball, the two can focus on making concise, deliberate plays. Russell said that in his podcast interview with Adrian Wojnarowski, saying “When you’re off the ball, as soon as you get it you can make those plays and attack the defense.” Russell also implied that his strength wasn’t necessarily “coming up across half-court with the ball in my hands setting up guys” but “playmaking.” D’Angelo Russell could be more efficient with more decisive on-ball decisions. The tandem with an experienced point guard like Jeremy Lin could place Russell in optimal conditions to score – and vice versa.

Two Pilots

In an interview with The Vertical’s Chris Mannix, ESPN Draft Analyst Fran Fraschilla commented on the NBA’s trend of having two ballhandlers…

“We’ve seen the league evolve. More than one player is a good thing. Two or three, which the Warriors have sometimes, that’s even better and very few teams have that. Would you get on a plane from Boston knowing there was only one pilot in the front? My point is, it’s OK to have two pilots, because sometimes, one of those guys needs a rest.”

Fraschilla later went on to point out the fatigue that James Harden noticeably showed after handling so much of the ballhandling load in Houston last season. With the Nets’ trend of fast pace and a large volume of possessions, having multiple ballhandlers on the floor is both a stylistic and talent decision. Fraschilla’s overarching point was that having multiple ballhandlers on the floor is good, and teams may shift to that trend in the future.

With D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin, the Brooklyn Nets now have their “two pilots” firmly in place. The pairing has been subject to much debate on fit, but not from Nets higher ups. Basketball luminaries Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe both indicated that management is looking forward to experimenting with a Lin-Russell backcourt. Although a remnant of the past, the Nets still own the “Brooklyn’s Backcourt” trademark. The pairing of D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin could propel the Brooklyn Nets to success in 2017-2018.