Small ball is taking the NBA nation by storm. Gone are the days of two post-oriented big men, for the most part. Slow-footed bigs are almost unplayable in late game situations, with teams isolating and attacking teams with shaky perimeter bigs. The pick-and-roll is king, point guards are dominating, and tight ends disguised as small forwards take over games at times.
The Brooklyn Nets have embraced the trend towards smaller, position-less basketball under the vision of Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson. The team’s favor of two-playmaker sets and a four-out offense were big stylistic changes in 2016-2017 compared to previous years. This offseason, the Nets shored up their guard and wing depth by trading for D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe. DeMarre Carroll, a 6’8” wing, may slide over to the power forward slot. Even on the fringes, Yakuba Ouattara, Jeremy Senglin and Milton Doyle are all versatile wings.
What’s missing is length.
Yes, the Nets drafted Jarrett Allen as their first round pick in the 2017 Draft. But Allen is still a raw prospect – physically and experience-wise. Aside from Allen, Timofey Mozgov is the only Net taller than 6’9”. The Nets ‘ frontcourt is athletic, yes. But the team could struggle defending the bigger lineups in the NBA and scoring amongst the trees.
On the offensive end, the Nets will – almost definitely – shoot lots of threes. (I’d like to trademark “three for all” but I feel like a restaurant chain named an appetizer sampler after that.) An onslaught of threes is good! But when shooters run cold, the Nets will need to rumble to the basket. The Nets ranked first in drives per game last season, per NBA.com/stats. That could have been a result of the torrid place they played at. Driving to the rim with conviction could pay dividends.
The Nets were seventh in the NBA in free throw rate in 2016-2017, a Moreyball imprint on the offense. But the team’s leading free throw shooter (the player that shot the most free throws per game), Brook Lopez is no longer on the team. Several returning and new Nets will have to pick up the load from the free throw line.
Part of the progression of D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe’s game could be driving to the rim – and converting free throws. Jeremy Lin’s drives to the rim often end up with trips to the free throw line. Spencer Dinwiddie’s baiting of defenders to draw fouls may be seen in greater volume this coming season. To combat a lack of a true post bucket-getter, the Nets’ perimeter players will need to be aggressive in driving to the rim when the shots aren’t falling.
The Nets could also employ more action off-ball to draw defenders out of the paint. Kenny Atkinson’s typical offensive sets involve lots of movement on the perimeter, with a power forward usually stationed at the top of the key. Adding wrinkles like backdoor cuts and pindown screens may be enough to draw big men out of the paint and open up driving (and dishing) lanes. Even playing a more pick-and-roll oriented game could capitalize on slower frontcourt players. D’Angelo Russell excelled at times as a pick and roll ballhandler (often with Timofey Mozgov) and Jeremy Lin noted that he would like to see more pick-and-roll heading into 2017-2018.
The defensive end is where the lack of height may be most evident. The Nets lacked a fearsome rim protector last season outside of Lopez. No other Net averaged more than 0.8 blocks per game in 2016-2017. Timofey Mozgov has never been a great shot blocker, although his large frame could at least provide some intimidation to players looking to score in the restricted area. Jarrett Allen could develop into a Reed Richards-like shot blocker, but his developmental time frame is still an unknown.
The Nets may fight their lack of length with cohesion. Basketball defense, especially on the NBA level, relies greatly on communication and chemistry. Defensive rotations – and how the Nets rotate out of pick and roll and on drives might be an area of focus for Kenny Atkinson and the Nets’ coaching staff. While the 2017-2018 Nets may not have the length to compete against unicorns like Kristaps Porzingis and Joel “The Process” Embiid, the team could grind and overplay bigger opponents and deny the ball as a team.
In 2016-2017, the San Antonio Spurs were the NBA’s most efficient defensive team, ranked first in defensive rating. The team did have a defensive stud in Kawhi Leonard and a long rim protector in Dewayne Dedmon. But the team’s other key players – Pau Gasol, David Lee, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and a 40-year old Manu Ginobili – are far from defensive stoppers. The team relied on (Leonard’s brilliance) and cohesion. When the Spurs were at their best defensively, they moved as a unit. The Nets are hoping to emulate that defensive unity without much length in the frontcourt.
Brooklyn’s lack of rebounding was an issue at points last season, with teams often scoring on second and third chances after offensive rebounds and deflections. Part of the Nets’ early offense gameplan included leaking out early for fast break chances and mismatches. But that often led to some Nets trying to outrebound two or three opposing players.
The Nets, again, will look to a team effort to stave off second chance points. Early offense leak outs may need to be scrapped in order to safely secure rebounds. The team rebounding effort was seen at times during Las Vegas Summer League. Perimeter players Isaiah Whitehead, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert pulled down five or more rebounds in several games, crashing their own glass to prevent second chances.
It’s not picture perfect, but it’s still worth the picture. The Brooklyn Nets will surely see their fair share of issues stemming from a lack of height in their frontcourt. But if the team works together (this has suddenly turned into an inspirational post), the lack of height may be overcome – at some points. Of course, the Nets could still trade or sign a taller big that could earn a spot in the rotation. The NBA’s biggest front lines may still give the Nets headaches, despite their best efforts. But with a little bit of chemistry, and a bit of aggression, the Nets’ chances may not be totally toast against the NBA’s tallest.