clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Brooklyn’s lineup flexibility is the new sheriff in town

I keep coming back to one word when musing about the Nets’ roster: optionality.

After a summer in which moves and acquisitions trickled in like warm sunbeams between two curtains, brushstroke by brushstroke, Sean Marks’ masterpiece eventually reached completion, his signature coiled away in the corner, and a roster built for any sort of test is hard at work in San Diego for training camp.

For those needing a reminder, here’s what the Kiwi GM accomplished over what was a very busy summer.

Marks retained Bruce Brown and Blake Griffin, two fan favorites and irreplaceable glue guys from last season. Landing LaMarcus Aldridge was a no-brainer after his five games of prosperity a season ago, provided he gained medical clearance (which he did). The draft has already proven to be fortuitous thus far in our journey, as Cam Thomas, Kessler Edwards, and even Day’Ron Sharpe could all reasonably compete for rotation spots.

Marks also scooped up some big and small fish in free agency, highlighted by Patty Mills. James Johnson, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Jevon Carter are all solid depth pieces. Paul Millsap could be one of the bigger steals of the summer, and Marks described the veteran big as “a tough, intelligent, skilled big who’s seen it all... another guy that can play a few positions and stretch the floor or play inside, can pass and play-make and facilitate and understand and be able to fit into any defense.”

Headed into free agency, Marks proclaimed that the Nets “want(ed) to add depth at the big position and that’s going to be important from a defensive and rebounding standpoint” without compromising the general strengths of the championship core. With Aldridge, Johnson, Millsap, and Sharpe rostered, who can all shore up the defense while spacing the floor and filling gaps on the other end, that goal has largely been accomplished, on paper.


To illustrate just how versatile these Nets are, let’s grab a look at some plausible lineups, beginning with what will likely be the starters come opening night.

STARTING LINEUP

POSITION PLAYER
POSITION PLAYER
G James Harden
G Kyrie Irving
F Joe Harris
F Kevin Durant
C Blake Griffin

This was Brooklyn’s regular-degular starting lineup toward the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs. Even when Blake Griffin struggled against the Boston Celtics and Joe Harris faltered against the Milwaukee Bucks, for the most part, Steve Nash stuck steadfastly with this group. While the sample is by no means large enough to make any sweeping declarations, this five-man unit yielded a 140.1 offensive rating and 36.3 net rating in 64 regular season and playoff minutes.

Against certain opponents, the Nets could slide in Bruce Brown or Jevon Carter for defensive purposes in place of Joe Harris. Or, Blake Griffin could be replaced by LaMarcus Aldridge should the Nets want to change their defensive look from switch-everything to drop coverage while maintaining five-out spacing on offense.

That leaves us with the bench, or what I’ve long called the “Harden plus multiple shooters” lineup.

BROOKLYN’S BENCH

POSITION PLAYER
POSITION PLAYER
G James Harden
G Patty Mills
F Bruce Brown
F Paul Millsap
C LaMarcus Aldridge/Nicolas Claxton

Patty Mills is going to absolutely thrive while playing next to James Harden’s gravity in the backcourt; assuredly, pick-and-pops between both players will become a staple of Steve Nash’s playbook. We know about Bruce Brown and James Harden’s chemistry. Spoiler alert, but I’m decently high on the potential of LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap playing together, which I’ll detail momentarily.

Brooklyn could also spruce things up offensively by downsizing a bit, inserting Joe Harris into this reserve unit, and pushing Bruce Brown and Paul Millsap down a peg to the four and five spots, respectively. The idea of surrounding James Harden with hellacious three-point snipers in Mills and Harris is certainly enticing. Here’s what that would look like.

BROOKLYN’S BENCH 2.0

POSITION NETS
POSITION NETS
G James Harden
G Patty Mills
F Joe Harris
F Bruce Brown
C Paul Millsap

Mixing and matching lineups just for the sake of it is a fun exercise, don’t get me wrong, but the secret sauce to this Nets group is that it can carefully game plan for its biggest foes in the association, beyond just schemes and strategy. Brooklyn can roll out a lineup tailored specifically for the Los Angeles Lakers, who many see as the likely NBA Finalist against the Nets. For the record, I’m working under the assumption that The Athletic’s reporting on the Lakers’ starting lineup holds true through training camp.

LAKERS VS. NETS

POSITION NETS LAKERS
POSITION NETS LAKERS
G Kyrie Irving Russell Westbrook
G James Harden Wayne Ellington
F Kevin Durant Trevor Ariza
F Paul Millsap LeBron James
C Nicolas Claxton / LaMarcus Aldridge Anthony Davis

While I’m a little squeamish about Kyrie Irving tangling with the mess of strength and explosiveness that is Russell Westbrook, I do think he’s a better point-of-attack defender than James Harden because of his quickness alone. Kevin Durant can roam around the floor freely to cover up for errors by “shading” off of Trevor Ariza, who will likely be stashed in the corner (a diet of Trevor Ariza corner threes isn’t exactly a death sentence).

Paul Millsap has experience defending LeBron James in the past, with James Johnson waiting in the wings to handle some LeBron reps. I’m pretty high on Nicolas Claxton taking on the beastly Anthony Davis, which, yes, sounds ridiculous on its surface; but Claxton has the required zippiness to stick with Davis and a 7’2.5’ wingspan to contest AD’s jump shots. If that proves to be too tall of a task, Brooklyn can simply slide LaMarcus Aldridge or Blake Griffin in place of Claxton, as funneling Anthony Davis into taking jumpers has always been a prudent strategy, if nothing else.

If the Lakers were to upsize and run one of its more traditional centers next to Davis — Dwight Howard or former Net DeAndre Jordan — the Nets could deploy a twin towers alignment of its own, with LaMarcus Aldridge stepping in for Paul Millsap to play next to Nicolas Claxton in the frontcourt. Aldridge in a drop coverage could shrink windows of alley-oops to mere cracks, while Claxton could continue to pick up the slack against Anthony Davis, or vice versa.

(In general, I find the Claxton-Aldridge duo more palatable than the average NetsWorlder [is that a term?] because of Clax’s fluidity along the perimeter — he can guard smaller players like a 7-foot defensive wing. In fact, he may be better suited at enveloping guards and wings than wrestling with guys at his “position.” Granted, this all depends on the opposition. Teams with high-level stretch bigs [Minnesota and Karl Anthony-Towns, for example] or multiple pull-up shooters [New York, with Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, comes to mind here] are obvious sore spots for Aldridge’s drop defense.)

But what about us?! We’re the champs!” screams a group of suddenly slighted Milwaukee Bucks fans. And don’t worry! The Nets have a battle-tested five-man group to dehorn the Bucks.

BUCKS VS. NETS

POSITION NETS BUCKS
POSITION NETS BUCKS
G James Harden Jrue Holiday
G Kyrie Irving Donte DiVincenzo
F Bruce Brown Khris Middleton
F Blake Griffin Giannis Antetokounmpo
C Kevin Durant Brook Lopez

James Harden’s post defense (77th percentile in Brooklyn, per Synergy) is practically built in a lab for Jrue Holiday’s obstinate bully-ball. Bruce Brown was key to shutting down the smoldering hot Khris Middleton during the final games of last year’s series. Brown held Middleton to 13-of-41 shooting overall (31.7 percent FG), per NBA matchup stats, which was the lowest field-goal percentage that Middleton shot against any of his primary defenders in a 2021 playoff series.

Blake Griffin, of course, takes on Giannis — something he has ample experience with dating back to the 2020-2021 regular season — with support from Paul Millsap and James Johnson off the bench. Kevin Durant can play free safety at the expense of boatloads of corner 3’s from Brook Lopez, which Brooklyn will live with.

If the Nets wanted to further increase their defensive profile against Milwaukee, they could swap in Jevon Carter for Kyrie Irving without losing too much spacing (Carter shot 37.1 percent from deep on 2.5 attempts last season ... and 39.7 over two years as a Sun).

Perhaps my favorite lineup of all is what I’m calling “Truly Scary Hours,” a coalition of five three-point snipers on a mission to strike inconsolable fear in opponents’ hearts.

TRULY SCARY HOURS

POSITION NETS
POSITION NETS
G Patty Mills
G Kyrie Irving
F James Harden
F Joe Harris
C Kevin Durant

Genuine question: Who do you help off of in this lineup should one of Brooklyn’s Big 3 break free toward the rim? Do you just... let the layup happen? Do you hope for the best with a Kevin Durant or Joe Harris corner three? What happens when James Harden snares one of Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, or Patty Mills for a pick-and-pop with a 41 percent (or better) catch-and-shoot specialist flanking the opposite wing?

Obviously, this isn’t a lineup we’ll see against every NBA team. It’s best used against, say, Golden State with Draymond Green at the five or Utah with Rudy Gay manning the center position when Rudy Gobert is forced to sit.

If the Nets wanted to add a devious free safety-type to impede ball movement, a name I could see replacing one of Harris or Mills would be DeAndre’ Bembry. Bembry is, in my opinion, the Nets’ most disruptive off-ball player, capable of flying into the picture for cunning steals. Offensively, he could function as a roller thanks to his impervious at-rim finishing (73 percent FG), or Bembry could even handle the ball in inverted sets (he’s got a quietly fantastic dribbling package).


You could make a pretty strong argument that the Nets are the deepest team in the league, and perhaps the most versatile — able to throw out any and all lineups and combinations to counter the enemy.

But if there’s a singular quibble one might have... are the Nets too big?

Allow me to explain. The Nets have four rotation-caliber bigs — Paul Millsap, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Claxton — all of whom are best-used at center, and all are deserving of 15-to-20 minutes a game. I’m not the first to ponder if the frontcourt is uncomfortably crowded, as Steve Nash addressed this concern head-on during his September 21st presser with Sean Marks.

“As far as the big men, I think we just looked at it as an opportunity. What’s available? What can we add to our team? Will it be tricky at times to find playing time for everyone? Sure. Part of being a championship team is being part of something that’s bigger than yourself,” explained Nash. “We have guys that understand that they all come here knowing that we’re trying to get across the line, and it’s not about the individual’s minutes or touches.

So how will the Nets handle this? Will certain guys sit on certain nights? Or could the Nets pair each of their bigs together in lineups and “size up” holistically? And how does that look?

Building off that idea, the easy part is one Nicolas Claxton, who can work in unison with just about any of his fellow frontcourt members, even LaMarcus Aldridge. Last year, we saw a lot of him and Blake Griffin playing together, so maybe that’s what Brooklyn goes with.

But that leaves Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge together in the frontcourt. Do we feel good about that? Are Millsap’s impressive help defense instincts enough to counterbalance what could be some difficulties switching off-ball screens and navigating traffic against bigger wings? My guess is yes, for now, as the Aldridge and Millsap frontcourt could function as Nikola Jokic/Paul Millsap-lite, with Millsap covering for Aldridge’s immobility.

These are real questions that must be answered — who fits with who and how to keep everyone happy — and that answer may ultimately relegate Kevin Durant to playing the three full-time, at least during the regular season.

Brooklyn has 82 games, of course, to answer these pressing questions — and mind you, they are very, very good issues to have. Boasting too many good players is never a bad thing.

As a Nets fan, there sure will be a lot to watch for.