Brooklyn’s first performance of the 2021-22 regular season did not go as planned.
Brooklyn fell short against Milwaukee, their accursed playoff rival, 127-104 on Tuesday’s season opener, a night in which the energized Bucks brandished their glimmering championship rings in the faces of the Nets before laying down a thorough beatdown. Milwaukee took the lead after the first two minutes of the game and never looked back. It was, in a word, embarrassing. Perhaps a little humiliating.
Safe to say, Steve Nash and crew will have a lot to work from when analyzing footage from the opener. The Nets left points on the table with rebounding, turnovers, and poor half-court spacing, all of which must be improved, but here is the biggest observation I had after game one.
The Nets need to get ‘rolling’
Brooklyn utilized a pick-and-roll “roll-man” 10 times on offense against Milwaukee, which was more frequent than all but 5 teams in the league in their respective season debuts. That’s all fine and dandy until you look at the efficiency; the Nets scored 0.70 points per roll, which was the 3rd worst mark in the league.
This starts and ends with third-year center, Nicolas Claxton, who was entrusted more pick-and-roll possessions than any other Net against the Bucks, per Synergy Statistics. The results were... mixed, as they tend to be with Clax in the pick-and-roll. As a ridiculously fluid athlete with strong, quick hands, it should come as no surprise that Claxton’s catch radius is leaps and bounds ahead of any other Nets big on the roster. James Harden just needs to throw this lob in the general vicinity of the 22-year-old. Clax finishes the rest.
Where Claxton struggles as a pick-and-roll player is on the technical side of things. For starters, just knowing when to set pick-and-roll ball-screens has been an uphill battle for the young center thus far in his career.
In the clip below, check out how Nicolas Claxton stands just below the elbow unsure of what to do as Blake Griffin handles the ball. If you look closely, you can actually see Claxton survey the court in search of marching orders from one of his veteran teammates. Squint your eyes really closely and you’ll see Blake Griffin throw up his right hand in confusion while dribbling the ball as if to say, “What are you doing, man?” to the motionless Claxton.
When Nic finally sets the ball-screen, the Nets have just 10 seconds on the shot clock to make something happen. To make matters worse, Claxton nearly runs into Griffin on his roll to the rim, which drags two players (one of them being the terrifying Giannis Antetokounmpo) into the play, and the Nets are forced to reset.
Beyond misunderstanding its general application, Claxton can also struggle with the finer details of one of basketball’s most understated arts, pick-and-roll screening. The timing of his screens can be off. Sometimes he’s too early. Other times he’s late, resulting in offensive fouls that have plagued his young career. With a slim 225 pound frame, his screens don’t exactly pulverize the opponent — and that’s if he makes contact, which also doesn’t occur with enough regularity.
Popping out of his screens with force can also be an issue. After creating an advantage for the offense with a ball-screen, he’ll surrender that edge by slowly galloping toward the rim for the lob. At times, he’ll get so turned around that he’s running backward toward the basket, opening him up to committing charges.
LaMarcus Aldridge, even at this stage in his career, is a steadier option in the pick-and-roll. That doesn’t mean the Nets should entrust the 36-year-old veteran with more of the pick-and-roll offense; getting Claxton acclimated in the two-man game with Harden will certainly pay more long-term dividends. But it’s undeniable that at this stage, Aldridge handles the job with more familiarity.
Below, check out how quickly Aldridge springs out of his screen, flipping his body 180 degrees straight into a swift sprint to the rim — right in line with the dribbling Patty Mills to fully pressure the defense.
Aldridge has his limitations in the pick-and-roll as well, most of which pertain to his physical tools. LaMarcus isn’t in the same class of vertical athletism as young Clax, nor even remotely close, and a pick-and-roll savant like James Harden will curtail his playmaking to acclimate those athletic restrictions. After Aldridge and Harden engage for a screen-and-dive, notice how low Harden throws this pass, knowing that skying for the lob isn’t exactly in Aldridge’s wheelhouse. Obviously, passes lower to the ground run a higher risk of being batted away by the defense, a big thorn in Brooklyn’s side when running actions that feature Aldridge as a roller.
Ultimately, relying on a heavy dose of Aldridge pick-and-rolls is unsustainable for the Nets’ championship aspirations. There is a good argument to be made that LaMarcus is best used as a pick-and-pop option in sets that combine a screener and a shooter, like “double drag.” He’s also solid from the corners (39 percent over his past three seasons) and wings as a three-point threat. Brooklyn brought Aldridge in to space the floor; it should work dutifully to feature that skillset.
Claxton, meanwhile, is mostly relegated to standing in the dunker spot if he’s not setting ball-screens, which isn’t exactly threatening to a defense. As such a vertically talented athlete, the potential is there for the 22-year-old to become an absolute force on rolls to the rim. If he can take a step closer to his ceiling as a pick-and-roll screener, the Nets might reach theirs, bumps and bruises be damned.