So, this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you things can’t get worse, right? Something about the grass, it’s greenness and another side? Well look, depending upon the health of one specific max-money blade of grass, yeah, I think some cautious optimism is due in the near future.
This past week has yielded a gauntlet of challenges: the Utah Jazz, the Philadelphia 76ers (twice), the Demigod Milwaukee Bucks, and by no coincidence at all, four straight losses. One more painstaking defeat is *probably* on the way (with the West’s best Los Angeles Lakers coming into town). Yet soon, the Nets will be gifted a trip down the sub-.500 Yellow Brick Road; Brooklyn is due to face the trade deadline yard sale that is the Detroit Pistons (twice!), the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls in a “race” for the 8-seed, the Phoenix Suns, the Washington Wizards in a potential audition for Bradley Beal’s services (kidding, kind of) and the league-worst Golden State Warriors.
To prepare for (hopefully) the easiest stretch of the season, let’s recap the pluses and minuses of the last two weeks in the latest “Trending Up, Trending Down.”
Trending Up: Nicolas Claxton
Nicolas Claxton is the shiny new toy in the recently dark and depressing room of Nets-land. Every success, mistake and learning experience earns oohs and ahs aplenty from the fans. He’s simply a different look for the Nets, a breath of fresh air with springy legs and unrivaled excitement, and is receiving his first real floor time as a rookie. Those feelings of elation, that confidence that he’s finally “making it” translates easily across television screens to heavy Brooklyn hearts. Everyone, and I mean everyone, seems to have rooting interest in the kid and, well, he’s honestly making the most of his opportunity.
With DeAndre Jordan sitting with a dislocated right middle finger, Claxton has eagerly provided the Nets with a window into the future. As the full-time backup center, “Slick Nic” (as Ian Eagle refers to him) has slotted in beautifully to compliment the full-time starter, Jarrett Allen. From a macro perspective, both bigs offer the same palette of skills that fit nicely into Kenny Atkinson’s schemes; they block shots from the weakside like frantic madmen, they can step to the perimeter on occasion to challenge smaller players and they roll hard to the rim with ferocity in anticipation of big-time alley-oop slams.
Where Claxton starts to gain some separation is on offense. In his last two contests, Claxton has averaged 14.5 points per game on 65 percent shooting, outscoring his center counterpart (Allen) by 11 total points in 24 fewer minutes. While “The Fro” is more reserved by nature, rarely stepping outside of his comfort zone, Claxton is quite literally his polar opposite. To Claxton, every offensive rebound belongs to HIM, so don’t you dare argue otherwise. Just ask the super-sized Bucks who learned this the hard way on Saturday, as Claxton leapt into the frame to steal away an easy rebound from Milwaukee’s real life Greek God, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Breathtaking athleticism – rather than finesse – fuels the early makings of Claxton’s inside game. There are those precious moments when the rookie center cradles the ball like prime Todd Gurley, hanging in the air that extra second and shielding the defender away with his number-2 pencil frame, before finishing through outstretched arms.
His misses are just as exhilarating. Versus the Milwaukee Bucks, he took on Brook Lopez during a second-quarter low-post battle… and lost quite handily, his jump-hook sent the other direction (leading to a Milwaukee fast-break). And honestly, WHO CARES?!? Just getting a semblance of NBA skillfulness from a second-round pick in an uber-weak draft is a win-and a-half for Marks and the front office. Right now, Claxton’s process, his tenacity and willingness to exceed expectations is worth moderate celebration. Atkinson said it best, Claxton’s got a “big-time hunger, (he) wants to be great” and it’s why – in Claxton’s words – he “can play at the highest level.”
Trending Up: Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie’s two-man game
This might raise some eyebrows. I’ve been the chairman of the “Caris LeVert, Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie can’t play together” board since about week three of the 2020 season. Which, by the way, is a position I still hold, as all three players do the same sorts of things on the floor and require high dosages of usage to do so.
Yet still, there are moments when I see the vision in pairing Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving in the backcourt. The early returns have been promising. With Dinwiddie and Irving sharing the floor, Brooklyn has scored 2.2 more points per 100 possessions than it has allowed. The idiosyncratic point guard pairing has shot a combined 49.3 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from three during the 146 total minutes shared.
Interestingly enough, it’s been Dinwiddie – and not Irving (the purer shooter of the two) – who has been utilized in the spot-up off-guard role. Kenny Aktinson’s been fairly creative with his half-court sets, utilizing Dinwiddie as the curling fire-starter in that patented staggered screen play that’s typically run for Joe Harris.
In other instances, Dinwiddie’s benefited from Irving’s improvisation brilliance, finishing plays from the wing…
Or knocking down threes from the top of the key. Notice how Irving keeps the ball on a string, sucking in (count ‘em) three Philadelphia defenders before finding the open Dinwiddie. I guess that’s the benefit of playing next to a probing championship-caliber floor general.
Utilizing Spencer Dinwiddie in a more auxiliary role has greatly benefited the 26-year-old’s outside shooting percentage (40 percent from deep since Kyrie Irving’s return). While he’s still a wishy-washy off-the-dribble shooter (just 8-of-23 on pull-up threes in his last 6 games), Spencer Dinwiddie is knocking down catch-and-shoot three-balls with relative frequency (46.2 percent in his last 6 contests). It’s early, but I dig the slight change.
Trending Down: End-of-game execution
Having you ever witnessed a car crash in slow motion? No, no, not a real vehicle accident ya sicko. You know, those crash test videos for new automobiles? With those unassuming blank-faced plastic dummies strapped in, unaware of their impending doom?
To get an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s pick one at random from YouTube. Hmmmm. Wait, oh! Here’s a good one. “Crash Test 2019 Pickup Trucks: F150, Ram, Tundra, Titan.” (I can already smell the smoldering testosterone reeking from this one.)
Skip ahead to 1:38. That split second before the airbags deploy, before that pickup truck engages in a head-on collision with an unforgiving block of steal, before those poor stand-in dummy drivers are sent flying, their necks bent like wobbly Jenga towers. That moment when the air is sucked clean from the room (err, car) in nervous anticipation, THAT is how Kenny Atkinson must feel watching his Nets enter the fourth quarter. Similar to that crash test point of impact, Brooklyn’s crunch-time collapse is coming; it’s inevitable; it’s just a matter of when. And how. And why, oh why?
Because my memory can only juggle a certain number of brutal defeats, and recency bias is a real thing, let’s turn back that time-machine just a hair and backtrack to Brooklyn’s most recent implosion: a heartbreaking loss against the Philadelphia 76ers in which the Nets led by as many as ten points late into the third.
Opening up the “Brooklyn Nets Collapse” folder on my computer (yes, that’s a real thing), the first clip from Monday’s fourth quarter paints a clear picture of where things were ultimately headed. The possession begins with Spencer Dinwiddie pushing the pace in transition, hitting Joe Harris in stride for what looks to be an open three. Not so fast, though! Ben Simmons flies into the picture, causing Harris to pause for a mere half-second, giving Simmons’ teammate, Matisse Thybulle, enough time to streak in and hawk Brooklyn’s premier shooting talent at the arc. (Seriously, that duo of Simmons and Thybulle is something to behold on defense.)
With Simmons now lost in the corner after flying in like a F-16 Fighting Falcon, Brooklyn is suddenly gifted with a 4-on-5 advantage. A swing-swing from Harris to Dinwiddie to Taurean Prince places Raul Neto in a precarious situation, tasked with guarding Prince on the wing and Garrett Temple in the nearby corner.
And you know what Prince does? He pump fakes. He effing pump fakes, giving the tireless Thybulle time to lurch toward Temple in the corner, ultimately resulting in one of Brooklyn’s 10 (ahhh!!!!!) fourth-quarter turnovers.
What’s even more discouraging is that the blame for Brooklyn’s collapse can’t just be attributed to one single player. Nothing screams “2020 Nets” like having each rotational piece exhibit his most glaring flaw in the final minutes of a close game against a former playoff rival. For Rodions Kurucs, this meant over-dribbling – and getting his pocket picked clean – by an All-Defensive caliber player in Ben Simmons.
Jarrett Allen, meanwhile, flashed his dearth of an offensive repertoire, foolishly attempting to slam home a dunk on Al Horford instead of laying it up softly. (Seriously, a nice little 2-foot floater could have greatly altered the winds at the Barclays. Instead, Horford expanded upon his ever-flowing end-game confidence during this signature turn-back-the-clock two-way performance.)
But worst of all? The stagnation. Oh dear lord, Brooklyn’s stagnation in the final two minutes has taken a couple years off my life. It’s a problem when Joe Harris, the least athletic player on the court, is the only Net in the half-court that’s willing to bail out lifeless possessions, while his teammates stroll around the perimeter completely disinterested. (And no, Taurean Prince’s half-assed lift from the corner to the wing doesn’t qualify as “movement.”)
Same thing just one possession later. Notice how Spencer Dinwiddie (who looks exceedingly exhausted with every passing day) stands to the side, hands on his knees, outright surveying the play. Of course, it doesn’t help that his teammate, Caris LeVert, catches a terrible case of tunnel vision, flashing his bad habit of pump-faking his way into the afterlife, allowing Horford to send Caris’ prayer of a layup into the crowd with chagrin and a feisty mean mug.
Fourth-quarter collapses are becoming regularly scheduled programming for Brooklyn’s basketball team. For the sanctity of wishing good health and prosperity on their fanbase, the Nets should, you know, stop that.
Trending Down: Joe Harris
Let’s trim away the fat and cut straight to the bone: the unflappable Joe Harris is shooting just 40 percent from the field and a mere 31.1 percent from three during the month of January. Said Atkinson on Wednesday about Harris’ struggles, “he’s not as spry as he normally is. He’s grinding through it.”
While fatigue could be the catalyst for Lumberjack Joe’s recent lackluster stretch, the film tells a different tale.
As of now, the scouting report on Joe Harris is out: Crowd him on the three-point line at all costs and force the 27-year-old to create off the dribble. Given that Brooklyn isn’t exactly stacked to the brim with plus shooters (28th in percentage as a team), Sir Buckets is typically left with two “meh” decisions: either drive to the rim and force up a tough shot or kick-out to a sub-par shooting teammate. That’s a capital “W” win for the opposition, regardless of Harris’ still-intact finishing skills (he’s shooting 50 percent off drives during the month of January).
No one has felt Brooklyn’s squeezed-out offense more than the fan-favorite Harris, who is turning the ball over on 10.3 percent of his total driving possessions. During the first of the two Sixer games, Harris had himself a particularly dismal showing for his standard, scoring just 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting along with 2 turnovers and 0 assists.
As the season progresses, Harris’ upcoming free agency continues to become an increasingly fascinating talking point. Logic says: Bring this guy back regardless of the hurdles. But with every crammed possession, and with Harris’ percentages plummeting month-to-month, would you at all be surprised if it came out that Harris was – I don’t know – a little unhappy? Is that a crazy thing to ponder?
Again, logically speaking, the Nets should retain Harris for a price tag of $12-to-15 million annually. He’s a pivotal pillar of everything Marks has built, who could fit snuggly next to the all-world talents of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Yet as the months pass and should the Nets continue to struggle, will Brooklyn’s management continue to earn support from ownership that this specific core – the two max superstars plus Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince and Jarrett Allen – is a unit worth diving deep, deep, deep into the luxury tax for?
I guess there’s nothing to do but wait and see.