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Nets Defense: The Good, The Bad and The Unknown

Charles Maniego takes a look at where the Nets stand as free agency nears its end. This is Part IV. Monday, he’ll examine the Nets playbook.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

This off-season, the Brooklyn Nets took a few steps in building a future foundation. Although the team lost franchise leading scorer Brook Lopez, the Nets added solid perimeter players. D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe were the two upside youngsters acquired via trade. DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov, two overpaid, but still decent players could be solid stopgaps while younger Nets mature. The Nets’ offense seems ready to take a step forward in 2017-2018.

While the Nets’ offense may see an uptick, the team’s defense is still a question. Towards the end of last season, the Nets’ defense saw an uptick in defensive efficiency, ranking 9th in the NBA after March 1st. The improved defensive effort led to an 11-13 record, much improved after a dreadful stretch at the beginning of 2017. Heading into the 2017-2018 season, Kenny Atkinson is hoping that the Nets’ defense continues their upward trend, despite some personnel changes.

With that in mind, here are a few aspects of the Nets’ defense to keep in mind as the season approaches. It’s the good, the bad and the unknown…

The Good

The biggest asset the Nets have on the defensive end is versatility. The NBA continues to become more perimeter-oriented on the offensive end. Defenses are combating that with frequent switches and more versatility across positions. The lines are being blurred between guards, wings and bigs on the defensive end. Part of the Nets’ offensive improvement stemmed from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert entering the Nets starting lineup. The two were able to defend the perimeter well, switching fluidly alongside Jeremy Lin and Randy Foye.

Above, the Nets’ defensive effort is seen. The Celtics swing the ball a few times, with Al Horford struggling to find a cutter. Jeremy Lin pressures the handoff, forcing Avery Bradley to get rid of the ball right away. The Celtics try to set up the post, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson slides in front of Al Horford to deny the pass.

The Nets’ defense also looked spry in Las Vegas Summer League. Although the Summer League may not be the best place for hard-hitting analysis (only to support a narrative, to be honest), the Nets continued to play fluidly – and lengthily (an actual word) - on the defensive end.

LeVert, Hollis-Jefferson, Spencer Dinwiddie and Isaiah Whitehead played the perimeter fluidly. They frequently clogged up driving lanes with their fluid switches, and help-and-recover schemes. Teams were forced into contested perimeter shots or shot clock violations. The four summer league players could be anchors of the Nets’ bench in 2017-2018. The fluid effort of the Nets should carry over to the starting lineup as well – hopefully.

Additionally, the veteran presence on the Nets should aid the team even through defensive struggles of the youngsters. Jeremy Lin, Timofey Mozgov, DeMarre Carroll and Trevor Booker compete on defense and play that side of the ball intelligently.

Booker posted the best defensive rating on the Nets last season, often-challenging guards on switches. Mozgov, while not a true rim protector, plays defense fluidly for the center position, especially on the perimeter. He also plays physically – Kenny Atkinson mentioned how Jarrett Allen would “feel” the big Russian in practice. Although DeMarre Carroll may have lost a step due to knee injuries, but he could see success as a perimeter switching power forward in Kenny Atkinson’s defense.

And Jeremy Lin is probably the best guard defender on the team. Lin’s ability to help and recover, and his strength to fight around screens bode well in an Eastern Conference full of skilled point guards. Watch Lin contain a Yogi Ferrell drive below…

The Bad

While some of the new Nets fit the versatile mantra, their actual production on the defensive end could be an issue. Allen Crabbe and D’Angelo Russell, while both gifted on the offensive end, were far from impressive on the defensive end. Their poor defensive reputations stem from a lack of effort and a lack of athleticism. Crabbe’s Portland Trail Blazers were the seventh worst defensive rating-ranked in the NBA, stemming from a leaky front line of guards.

On the Los Angeles Lakers, Russell rather infamously noted “I wanted to play defense in L.A., but I felt like I had to score every chance I got for us to be relevant." The Lakers were the worst defensive team in the NBA last season, with a toxic combination of inexperience, lack of effort and lack of talent. Timofey Mozgov’s presence on the Lakers was solid at times, but he was often the last line of resistance after defensive breakdowns.

The duo of Crabbe and Russell will have larger offensive roles this season, but their effort and improvement on the defensive end is what could win the Nets more games.

The Nets’ lack of size in itself is concerning. Yes, undersized bigs like Quincy Acy, Trevor Booker and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson provide a dose of athleticism at the big slots without sacrificing much rebounding. But the sheer lack of size and protection at the rim is troubling. Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen are the only players taller than 6’9” on the roster. Sean Marks has indicated the Nets may take their time in developing Allen.

The Nets were 20th in the league in opponent points in the paint last season. They were also the second worst team in allowing second chance points. A lack of size could lead to teams attacking the basket freely, despite the strength of the team’s perimeter defense. Versatility may be trending in today’s NBA, but jumbo frontcourts take precedent in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors, Wizards, 76ers, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hornets and Heat could all play lineups of “traditional” big men. As of this writing, the Nets’ 15th roster slot is currently open. Rim protectors have the length of trees, but they surely don’t grow on them. (rimshot)

The Unknown

The big unknown for many teams is “how will the pieces fit?” The Nets’ offense – seemingly – is harmonious, and could shoot more threes and take more drives than last season.

On the defensive end, Kenny Atkinson could be banking on internal improvement. Russell and Crabbe have mentioned how they want to play defense on their new squad – but intent may not be the same as production. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has continued to look more confident playing as a power forward, but his discipline on the perimeter has wavered at times. Part of Kyle Kuzma’s Summer League explosion stemmed from Hollis-Jefferson biting on Kuzma’s fakes and unnecessarily overplaying on rotations.

Stylistically, how the Nets defend the pick and roll is also an unknown at this time. Early in the season, the Nets “blitzed” almost every pick and roll, doubling down on the ballhandler to prevent drives. To play a blitz style defense requires cohesion among the perimeter players, rotating to the basket to stave off passes to open men. An example of that is seen below against the Portland Trail Blazers, with the long arms of Quincy Acy and Spencer Dinwiddie forcing a Damian Lillard turnover.

But as the season went on, the Nets played the pick-and-roll more conservatively, electing to switch on the 1-4 (point guard-power forward) pick and roll and dropping back on the 1-5 (point guard-center) PNR. Here’s a Dinwiddie-RHJ switch against the Washington Wizards.

Now here’s a Spencer Dinwiddie-Trevor Booker defensive clip, leading to a Devin Booker (lots of Bookers) mid-range jumper. Booker drops back on the pick and roll rather than switching or blitzing. It’s important to note that Booker was playing the center slot in this lineup against Alan Williams.

The defensive coverage may vary from game to game.

With the Brooklyn Nets 2017-2018 roster seemingly in place for now, it’s time to see how the off-court roster moves manifest themselves onto the court. The Nets’ defense will be versatile, long and athletic – it’s a sign of the times. But questions may arise on the defensive effort of some players and the team’s lack of length. Late October may seem far away, but the Nets’ new style may be starting to take shape.