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Brooklyn Nets Pace and Space ... and Adjustment

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San Antonio Spurs v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Prior to Wednesday’s Nets-Spurs matchup, Gregg Popovich made a point that unintentionally rung true with a dilemma Kenny Atkinson and the Nets currently face.

“Every coach adjusts. If you don’t adjust, you die,” said Popovich. “You go from one player to the next, you look at your crew and see what their skills are and hopefully that’s how you form your offense. You can’t just say ‘this is the way it’s going to be’ and that’s what you do and your team can’t do it. Like, I don’t think we’d be good if we played like Houston.”

He has a point and the Nets should try to replicate what he’s saying, the same way they’re trying to emulate the San Antonio Spurs in other ways.

They’ve emphasized pace and space under Kenny Atkinson, bunching the team with a whole lot of guards and wings. It was their effort to play positionless basketball.

This can only go so far, especially because it’s become very predictable. Teams are beginning to pick Brooklyn’s guards up as soon as they cross halfcourt, forcing them to give up the ball and operate in the halfcourt. The defense hasn’t been good enough to capitalize on mistakes and work in the open floor, thus forcing these problems.

The pros of playing small ball are obvious: You have the ability to play fast and stretch the floor. It’s the “modern” way of playing ball – the way the best teams in the league typically play (i.e. Houston, Golden State).

However, as the Nets have learned, the cons can outweigh the pros of playing small, especially when undermanned. Not only do teams dominate the paint, particularly stretch bigs, but they’re beginning to catch on to Brooklyn’s game plan.

Steve Lichtenstein of WFAN called Brooklyn’s offense somewhat of “Einstein’s Insanity,” which essentially means you do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.

This holds true with the Nets, who shoot the second-most three-pointers in the league (34), but sit at the bottom as the third-worst three-point shooting team at 34.8 percent per game ... just as they did last season. Joe Harris (38.7 percent) and Allen Crabbe (36 percent) are the team’s best three-point shooters this season. After that, everybody dips to 35 percent or below. Before he went down, D’Angelo Russell was at an even 30 percent.

This shouldn’t be lost: The Nets are building a foundation, a system, for the day that coveted free agents and high draft picks join the team and the roster is fit towards their style of play. They probably don’t have the horses to run a successful race no matter what system they run. They are in acquisition mode. Sign them all, let Kenny sort them out, is the front office mantra.

But this is the issue: The Brooklyn Nets aren’t the Houston Rockets. They aren’t the Golden State Warriors. They don’t have the personnel to make up the style of play they’re implementing. The whole idea of Atkinson and Sean Marks’ vision is about the future, so it’s hard to fault them completely.

That being said, coaches must adjust in order to fit the personnel, as Pop said. So far we haven’t seen many adjustments. The Nets continue to chuck a lot of threes – and miss a lot– shooting 33 percent over the last 10 games, going 3-7.

Their vulnerabilities are suddenly being exposed, specifically in the paint. Yes, the Nets take a ton of threes, but they lack a legitimate paint presence who can work the inside-out game, make a solid pass, hit the occasional three.

The offense is, in part, predicated on that. Defenders double the post man who then kicks it out to the perimeter where defenders will be out of position. Add three points.

The Nets entered the season with only three bigs taller than 6’10” – Tyler Zeller, Timofey Mozgov, and Jarrett Allen, the rookie. Then, they added Jahlil Okafor. Other than Allen, they’re all traditional bigs, back-to-the basket types. Zeller is a rim runner. Mozgov is decidedly not. The Nets have hopes for Okafor.

In terms of three-point shooting, Zeller was 0-for-6 from three-point land before joining the Nets, Mozgov 7-of-40, Okafor 1-of-8. None had ever averaged better than 1.4 assists per game. No one knew what to expect from the 19-year-old Allen, the second youngest player to ever wear a Nets uniform. The rest share minutes, but not together.

So here’s where they stand: Quincy Acy is the only ‘big’ that can stretch the floor and he’s only 6’8”. Allen, Zeller, and Okafor cannot spread the floor the way they’d like. Mozgov is out of the picture, having played eight minutes this month. They’re trying to turn the remaining three into rim runners, which does fit the “pace” part of the system, but not necessarily the “space” portion because, again, none are reliable three-point shooters.

This poses an issue with the current makeup, particularly the young core they’re building around. The more space they have when they launch, the better their chances. This is particularly true with two guys in the backcourt.

Caris LeVert is still young and his three-point shot is getting better, but pulling up isn’t his game. He’s best when he can create in the pick-and-roll or in the open court. LeVert is unique because you can throw him in any system and he’ll figure it out. It goes with his versatility.

Then you have D’Angelo Russell, who has a unique skillset, but has also shot below 35 percent from three during his two and a half years in the NBA. Russell clearly works best when driving to the hole, particularly in the pick-and-roll. Off the ball? Not so much. But then again, he’s only 21. There is room for improvement.

Going forward, Okafor can be the paint presence they lack. He can make things happen and help the Nets generate more threes by bringing attention inside and then kicking it out. It’s a small sample size, but in the nine games he’s played (12.6 minutes per game), he’s shown something that no other Nets big has shown: the ability to attract double teams in the paint ... and pass out of them. Despite what you heard from Philly fans, there will always be a need for a paint presence in this league.

We haven’t seen this since Brook Lopez was on the team. Of course, Lopez had the ability to stretch the floor, but even he struggled to pass out of double teams. Okafor is young and can learn with Atkinson’s development.

What about Allen? He is still developing. He is not a traditional big, that’s for sure. He should thrive in the era of high-octane offense. But for now, he’s mainly a lobs-and-blocks guy.

Insert: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He’s thriving at the 4 in the small ball lineup, but he’s another liability from deep, like his bigger teammates. Brooklyn’s offense requires four players that can stretch the floor in order to get the spacing they crave. And unless they go super small, they rarely have that.

It’s difficult to figure out where the roster is going since Marks has constantly said the Nets are going to remain “fluid” no matter what and they are in that talent acquisition mode, position-less basketball, etc. Clearly, they aren’t done with making moves and they’re going to need to find players that fit their style of play. (It is interesting to note that the Nets signed a stretch-4 James Webb III to a two-way this week, but he’s a development project.)

With that, though, the question remains… Is it on the coaches to adjust to their personnel or is it on the players to develop and adjust to the system? Marks said back in July that “We’re still trying to get best available, talent acquisition. Kenny and the staff have done a great job of fitting guys together.”

But under these circumstances, aka the losing, perhaps some sort of adjustments might be worthwhile. Indeed with DLo back, they will have to make some adjustments. Lots of young backcourt firepower need the minutes. Will it go beyond that?

They have made some adjustments. They have different styles of play with different units. The first unit seems to come in and push the pace at a top-5 rate in the league. Then, with the likes of Okafor and even Russell, the pace is going to slow down because they’re players that need the ball in their hands in order to make things happen. The ball doesn’t move as much, but both Russell and Okafor have the ability to attract double teams, which in essence, would open up the perimeter among other areas.

In lesser words: IT MAKES THEM LESS PREDICTABLE.

This isn’t worth getting crazy about… right now. It’s still early in the Nets rebuild. Marks recently suggested that the Nets aren’t going to acquire a veteran just to get wins now. So, while they should go get another stretch big to lessen the hefty responsibilities off Acy, don’t expect anything dramatic to happen that will suddenly fix their problems. It’s incremental and it’s about talent acquisition.

They have players that can work in pace and space and then they have players that need the ball in their hands to create. In a system where everybody gets virtually the same minutes, wouldn’t it work to their advantage that they have two different styles of play?

It’s all about the future, but in order to develop this culture, there has to be some open-mindedness. Nobody is saying abandon pace and space, but meeting in the middle might not be the worst thing for them.

Adjustments are key and it’s part of Atkinson’s learning curve, too.