BROOKLYN, N.Y. – “THE SKY IS FALLING!” the anonymous Brooklyn fan screamed at his television before burrowing his head into a nearby pillow. Memphis’ Jae Crowder – a career 33.8 percent three-point shooter on his fourth team in four years – had just hit a trailing game-winning three-pointer to sink the team from Brooklyn with big playoff dreams.
In the span of four seconds, everything that had plagued the Nets during this somewhat disastrous start to the 2019-2020 season had risen to the surface; a missed free throw, a whiffed box-out, and poor transition defense ultimately led to an unsavory 134-133 overtime loss to the tank-tastic Memphis Grizzlies.
With his TV still blaring, that disgruntled Nets fanatic slowly removed his face from his feathery shield. His anguish quickly turned to unadmonished fury. Lurching to his left, he grabbed his smartphone and opened that trusty Twitter app. Hastily, he jammed his index finger onto the blue feather-pen icon located at the bottom right corner of the home page. What’s happening?, his Kyrie Irving avi asks, smiling ever-so-slightly as if he’s aware of the impending hot takes soon to come.
Laughing, the estranged fanatic sends off a tweet…
“It’s time for this coaching staff to go!”
Cackling maniacally now, he hammers out another…
“There are mannequins at Bloomingdales that show more life than this defense!”
He’s almost done…
“The Brooklyn Nets SUCK.”
Whooh, he sighs. With a couple of key strikes, he’s dispatched some of that fiery anger found in his stomach. Still needing a distraction, he leashes up his dog and heads out the door for an evening walk, kicking garbage cans and screaming at cars and trees all the way….
“GOD DAMMIT, THE PUNDIDTS WERE RIGHT!”
I understand if many of you can relate to our hypothetical protagonist. With a buttery soft first-week schedule, going 1-2 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the New York Knicks and the Memphis Grizzlies – three lottery teams last season – is certainly less than ideal. But at the end of this spooky tunnel, there is a silver lining to it all.
The Brooklyn Nets’ offense is humming at full, unadulterated midseason form. Not all of Kenny Atkinson’s sets have been run to perfection. But the ones that have, well, they should be labeled “Rated X.”
… because they’re straight pornography.
This one is delicious. First, Jarrett Allen sprints toward the right wing with (what seems like) the intention to set a screen. But not so fast! Before making contact, he slips the side pick-and-roll and sprints toward the middle of the floor, thereby pulling New York Knicks’ center Bobby Portis farther away from the basket. Kyrie Irving strikes willingly, driving down the throat of that suddenly vacant lane before zipping a gorgeous skip pass to the left corner. Pop! The ball sits in Caris LeVert’s mitts for a mere millisecond before swinging to Joe Harris’ wide-open hands. Without watching any video, I’m sure you can guess the rest. Bang. Three-points, Brooklyn.
Brooklyn’s offense has picked up right where it left off last season, ranking 12th in the league per Synergy – something to marvel over, given the multitude of fun, new pieces, including a bonafide superstar. A couple of things stand out: Kyrie Irving’s creation (6.2 assists per game) has been even better than advertised. Caris LeVert has taken a noticeable jump in all aspects of his playmaking (19.7 points; 4.2 assists). The entire team is connecting on 39.7 percent of their total threes.
Sure, things have gotten a little wonky -- if not stagnant -- during late-game situations. But, folks, we’ve already been blessed with a Kyrie Irving game-icing step-back three-pointer. And plus, here’s a nugget to think over: All of these forced end-of-game looks from Brooklyn’s supporting cast? Soon (we all hope), they’ll be replaced by midrange daggers from the Nets’ soul-devouring near-7-foot dynamo, Kevin Durant. Now that’s a frightening thought for the rest of the league.
Alas, my readers, the tide is about to change in this so far glowingly positive article. While things have appeared encouraging for Kenny Atkinson’s buzzing offense, there are unfortunately two sides to that 94-foot basketball floor.
This is not the first time you’ve heard this and it certainly won’t be the last… Brooklyn’s defense is bad!
How dismal, you may ask? Synergy statistics rank Brooklyn as “below average” or worse in each of the following categories: stopping transition (25th overall), guarding spot-ups (20th) and defending hand-offs (26th). All of these problems stem from the same central flaw… nasty, nasty ball-watching from lazy Brooklyn defenders.
Unfortunately for Brooklyn’s coaching staff, there isn’t a singular catalyst to blame; this lethargic philosophy has become a team-wide cancer, infecting even some of the team’s more diligent defensive studs. After Brooklyn’s narrow victory against the crosstown rival New York Knicks, Kenny Atkinson was slammed with questions about his decision to sit star-in-the-making guard Caris LeVert in favor of Spencer Dinwiddie.
In typical Kenny Aktinson form, he kept it simple.
“I just felt comfortable with Spencer. More from a defensive standpoint. We went from our gut.”
Choosing to pull Caris LeVert for Spencer Dinwiddie because of defense is, um, interesting. But make no mistake, Kenny’s justification certainly came with its fair share of merit; Nine Knick points resulted from Caris’ flat-footedness on D and ensuing lack of hustle. See for yourself.
The second clip from the video above is particularly offensive. It’s one thing if a player gets completely leveled by a screen.. but to completely give up on the rest of the play? Shoot, that’s just unacceptable, and it appears Atkinson felt the same.
Kudus to Caris LeVert, he turned things around on defense versus Memphis. But -- in what appears to be a trend with this year’s Nets – when one player rises, another must come crashing down.
In totality, Taurean Prince’s short Brooklyn tenure has been a wonderful experience thus far. His shooting stroke? More than fiery. His post defense? Stonewalling (just ask Julius Randle). The man even flaunted a glimmering new Eurostep on Sunday to the delight of Nets Nation.
Yet, for the very first time, against Memphis, we started to see some of the flaws in Prince’s game. Those lapses on defense that the smarties in Atlanta once warned us about, well, they came up loud and clear.
Dillon Brooks and Jared Jackson Jr. are reputable shooters in their own right, canning threes at 37.5 percent and 35.9 percent, respectively, last season. Why Prince gave the tandem ample daylight from the perimeter?... I really can’t explain. Both Grizzlies appreciated his gesture, though, and finished a combined 5-for-10 from deep.
What’s troubling is that Memphis barely ran much of anything prior to each of these set-shots. In clip number one, Brooks walks – not even kidding, he flat-out strolls! – four steps from the right corner to the wing for a wide-open three. Not even a flinch from Taurean. Clip number two is even more blasphemous: Jaren Jackson Jr. barely budges an inch while catching and shooting from the break – all with Prince standing helplessly in the painted area, starring at JJJ blankly. In clip number three, Prince (ugh) triple-teams a jogging Dillon Brooks instead of covering the stagnant Jaren Jackson Jr. located in the right corner.
For the most part, Brooklyn’s team defense has been prone to sagging away from the perimeter. It doesn’t matter what the team is running… zone, man-to-man… opposing shooters can’t stop basking in the light of day.
For those of you who drool over numbers, here are some tasty treats. Per Synergy, the Nets are allowing 1.371 points per possession on opponent catch-and-shoot looks – 29th out of all 30 teams. Big yikes, not good. Brooklyn has also allowed 59 total ‘wide-open’ three-pointers – fifth-most in the entire league – and opponents have connected at a 37.3 percent clip. Double yikes, double not good.
Allowing opposing shooters to enjoy all-inclusive vacations on the perimeter is a problem that only worsens when Brooklyn’s bigs are involved. Systematically speaking, this is to be expected. Kenny’s preferred “drop” coverage is designed to take away shots at the rim. It’s one of the big reasons we saw Jarrett Allen jump to the front of the line as a league-leading shot-blocker last season. What it doesn’t entail is centers guarding the three-point line. And as such, so far this year, that drop-back strategy has mostly backfired in the faces of Brooklyn’s suited staff.
Look, man, I hate harping on certain players. I blasted DeAndre Jordan last week for his antiquated defensive coverage, and now here I am… becoming a repeat offender. It’s one thing if he doesn’t feel like guarding out to the perimeter, but can he at least try to contest two-footed jumpers inside the paint?
Dillon Brooks wasn’t the only Grizzly who eagerly fired in DeAndre’s presence. Jonas Valanciunas canned 3 of his 5 three-point looks with the former Defensive Player of the Year “guarding” 15 feet away. Something needs to change. And fast. With the number of three-point-capable bigs growing on a what feels like a daily basis, it might be time for Atkinson to update his policy. Perhaps all five Brooklyn defenders should defend the arc.
Another problematic area of defensive coverage… The Nets are allowing 0.95 points per possession while defending pick-and-roll ballhandlers – 6th worst in the league.
If I had Kenny Atkinson’s confidence in Spencer Dinwiddie’s defense in, like, anything, I’d be a very different, more accomplished person. Prior to Sunday’s game, Atkinson referred to Dinwiddie as an “elite pick-and-roll defender.” Certain stats certainly defend that notion; last season, per NBA.com, offensive players shot a mere 43 percent with Dinwiddie as the main on-ball defender.
What this doesn’t take into account is the number of times he’s firmly jostled out of the play by a big-man screen. There’s no way to put this… Brooklyn’s backup point guard just never sees them coming. It’s been a problem since, well… ever since he entered the league as a professional.
To Dinwiddie’s credit, he isn’t the only one who has repeatedly fallen victim into careening head-first into screens. There are a couple of ways to fix this team-wide concern: increased communication on defensive (especially from Brooklyn’s centers, as they have a better vantage point of the half-court due to pure stature alone), heightened individual awareness and, quite possibly, a switching defense.
Take this clip for example. Notice how Joe Harris gets hung up on both of New York’s double screens. Obviously, a really nice play drawn up by head coach David Fizdale. But imagine if Harris and Taurean Prince had switched the second Harris made contact with Marcus Morris – pushing Prince to pick-up the still-curling Wayne Ellington. Could have this corralled Ellington’s open three? Perhaps. We’ll never know.
Don’t get me wrong, this is asking a lot from two individual defenders. Switching in a flash with the game on the line is as difficult as trying to beat Super Mario Bros with one single life. But I mean hey, it certainly can’t get any worse, right? In my eyes, a switching defense is the quick-fix solution to Brooklyn’s seemingly endless issues with navigating screens. It’s certainly something that deserves experimentation.
It’s very easy to have an end-all, be-all approach when looking at this year’s Nets. Trust me, I’ve been there. But, reflectively speaking, things can only improve in Brooklyn. With more reps and increased familiarity between teammates, Brooklyn’s ugly space-outs on defense will soon be replaced by crisp rotations and clutch lock-down stops. All the while, Kenny Atkinson and his staff have a plethora of systematic changes to mull over and quite possibly enact on.
Call me crazy, but the ceiling of this Brooklyn team still has no bounds.
- Nets’ shaky defense is ruining Kyrie Irving’s brilliance - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets’ experiment with unique lineup could continue - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Kenny Atkinson’s small-ball approach working on offense for Nets - Greg Logan - Newsday
- ‘City Game’ Podcast: Breaking Down Nets’ First 3 Games (Audio) - Steve Lichtenstein - WFAN