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FILM STUDY: Is Steve Nash’s defense something we ‘haven’t seen before?’

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NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Hall of Fame Press Conference Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Defense, defense, defense. That’s all we heard from the Brooklyn Nets after the first group practice of the 2020-2021 season.

Steve Nash led the way, stating he expected the Nets to be an “excellent defensive team,” pushing a “competitive spirit and connectively.” The rookie head coach continued, “you have to continually seek a deeper buy-in... If you’re not a great defensive team, you’re not connected, and if you don’t have a competitive spirit collectively, a championship is not in your cards. That’s for sure.”

This isn’t the first time Nash has emphasized the importance of sharpness on defense. From Brian Lewis, Nash noted “we realize that we’re trying to compete for a championship, and we have to be excellent defensively. It’s going to be a process.”

A lot of that responsibility will fall on Jacque Vaughn’s shoulders, who Nash touted as his lead defensive coordinator. Here’s more from Steve Nash on Vaughn, courtesy of Lewis.

“The defense last year changed in the bubble. Jacque started to put his imprints and adjustments into the defense in the bubble,” Nash said. “I think that many of them were similarly aligned with the way I see things, so we’ve had a really enjoyable process going through the film and looking around the league and figuring out what suits our team and the game the way it’s played nowadays.”

Nash continued...

“There will be some commonality with the roster, and there will also be some differences and adjustments. But I think JV’s adjustments in the bubble were going toward where we’ve landed with it, and at the same time, it is a work in progress. It’s something we’re going to build all year.”

Joe Harris doubled-down on the idea of making use of Vaughn’s “bubble” adjustments.

“It’s a little more comparable to the... defensive philosophy we had in the bubble where it’s not so much a 2-on-2 scheme, centerfield; it’s a little more aggressive. We’re trying to make the offense play unbalanced and out of rhythm, and play a little more aggressive, use the length and athleticism that we have. And the good rim protectors that we have allows the guards to put more pressure on the offensive ball-handlers.”

Landry Shamet went a level even deeper, discussing his role within the aggressive scheme as well as the team’s defensive philosophy as a whole.

“Where the league is going, I’ll be everywhere. I’ll be in switches. I’ll be guarding mismatches. I’ll be off the ball in help. I’ll be on the ball in pick-and-rolls. Be smart in whatever position (I’m) in,” Shamet said of his role.

And here’s where it gets interesting...

Shamet detailed Nash’s defensive scheme in its totality, mentioning that it features “a couple kinds of nuances and changes that I haven’t seen before––that are exciting because they are a little outside of the box and forward-thinking.”

So, a lot to unpack! Let’s begin with this: Steve Nash has stressed, time and time again, the importance of “connectivity.” It’s more than just a buzzword; connectivity with what is essentially a new team appears to be a major sticking point for the Nets this season. The thing about running a defense that is “aggressive” by nature and expects its players to “be everywhere,” is that it must include three things: top-notch communication, versatile players, and speed.

Joe Harris said it himself. The Nets want “to put more pressure on the offensive ball-handlers.” Nash is looking to have his team shut down opposing sets from the point-of-attack. Traps, blitzes, full-court pressers... all of these things could fit under that general philosophy of aggressiveness at the point of initiation. This is where the communication aspect comes in. Say the Nets send two to the ball, like they did below against the Portland Trailblazers with a triangle-and-2 defense in the bubble...

Playing at a 3-on-4 disadvantage on defense requires pristine talking, sharp decisions, and lightning quick movement. The Nets do a pretty good job at all of those things here as all three of their backline defenders commit early: Jarrett Allen tags Jusuf Nurkic on the short-roll (he’s Damian Lillard’s outlet), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot “splits the difference” decisively by picking up Carmelo Anthony at the wing, and then Allen does a decent job lunging toward C.J. McCollum’s corner three in the “x-out” with TLC.

....And here’s the flip-side of that equation from one of Vaughn’s first games as the interim head coach against the Los Angeles Lakers in March. Joe Harris and DeAndre Jordan show visible miscommunication as to whether the team is switching or not, leading to a wide-open Anthony Davis three.

Plays like the one above are unfortunately a negative side effect of running a defensive scheme that sets the terms of engagement, rather than responding to them. Recovery behind the point-of-attack will have to be snappy: roller tags will need to be almost preternatural, “stunts” to unnerve loading-up shooters will have to be incredibly forceful, and all-out recovery with communication between the three backline defenders will be of the utmost importance at all times.

To make all of this happen, the Nets must be in great shape. Plain and simple. Miami, which ran a similarly aggressive scheme a season ago, has long been lauded for its conditioning. Mike Prada put together a wonderful film study on how the Miami Heat wielded an incredible collective motor to stomp the light out of the Milwaukee Bucks’ playoff hopes. To get there, the Nets need to work their tales off in camp to run a blitzing defense for all 48 minutes of big games.

Now of course, the Nets feature a much different roster composition compared to last year’s Miami Heat finalist. While the Heat possessed three big wings to handle business atop their infamous 2-3 zone, the Nets are mostly comprised of smaller guards and rolling centers.

There are ways to take elements from what Miami ran last year and mold it to Brooklyn’s current group of guys.

The nice thing about working with guards is that it’s (usually) easier for them to jitterbug and weave around screens. Picture this: The Nets attaching themselves to the opposition’s ball-handler near mid-court, with guards on guards coming in waves, weaving around on- and off-ball screens, and switching 1-through-4 to thwart any form of attack with the support of a superior shot-blocker dropped back in the paint. It’d be like watching an army of ants drag away a large piece of food, working together in unison to slowly push and prod that delicious morsel into their anthill home.

There is a way to make all of this work... to build a defense with bite-sized contributors that produces gobs and gobs of deflections, encourages double-teams, and works off non-stop recovery and quickness to clean up the loose ends. Of course, we’re a long ways away from that. Through training camp, the Nets need to get ready to get out and freaking run, they need to get used to communicating with one another, and they have to build a culture of accountability and support for one another.

Maybe then, we can see something we’ve “never seen before.”