It hasn’t exactly been the most conventional start to the season in Brooklyn.
After what could best be described as an unusual offseason with star guard Kyrie Irving effectively banished from the team, Brooklyn has slow-poked it out the gates with a 4-3 record, good for eigth in the Eastern Conference.
On the bright side, the Nets have made quick work of below-average opponents, recording wins over the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pacers this week. The hallmark of any good team is taking advantage of the “easy nights.”
However, Brooklyn’s performance against fellow contenders is where there is cause for concern. The Nets were walloped by 23 points on opening night by the Milwaukee Bucks and couldn’t crack the Miami Heat’s top-ranked defense, losing 104-93.
It’s early, but the Nets have shown significant progress in certain areas while faltering in others, starting with...
After setting the all-time record for offensive efficiency in 2020-21, the Nets have followed that up with... oh, yikes... a 107 offensive rating, 14th-best in the NBA. Brooklyn’s shot profile has been a big catalyst to the sluggishness on offense. The Nets’ location effective field-goal percentage, which measures expected shooting percentage based on where a team is shooting from on the floor, sits at 27th in the league at 51 percent. Essentially, the Nets are taking a whole hell of a lot of tough shots.
Of Brooklyn’s shots, 34.6 percent have come from the midrange to kickstart the year, sixth in the NBA. That’s a big uptick from last season when the Nets took just 28.1 percent of their total shots from the in-between zone.
That increased midrange diet has, unfortunately, replaced a good portion of Brooklyn’s paint touches. Just 27.9 percent of Brooklyn’s total shots have come within four feet or closer to the cup, third worst in the entire association (Brooklyn ranked 11th in this category a season ago). Unsurprisingly, Brooklyn’s corner three-point frequency has fallen as well from 8.8 percent to 8.0 percent, the difference between spots 14 and 23 on the leaderboard. If you’re not pressuring the rim, you’re not forcing help rotations — thus fewer near-freebies from the corners.
This starts and ends with the engine to Brooklyn’s offense, James Harden, who is averaging the fewest number of drives to the basket (11.4) since his 2013-2014 NBA season. Granted, Harden’s turned it on as of late, shooting 7-of-13 from three, drawing 22 total free throws, and averaging a much more Hardenian 23.5 points on 79.2 percent true shooting. What remains concerning is his rim pressure; in that same time span, he’s actually seen his average number of drives fall to just eight per game over the past week. He’s being more aggressive mentality-wise but getting to the rim less.
Again it’s early, but Harden’s first step isn’t affording him the same advantages as it has in the past. In the clip below, he fails to gain any separation from Kelly Olynyk after a series of crossovers and then gets stonewalled on the drive. He counters by raising up for a stepback midrange look, something that could greatly behoove him well down the road as his athleticism fades. But still, forcing the Nets away from a layup or a corner three-pointer is a win for the defense.
Still, Harden is the only Nets player to record more than 10 drives per game — second in this category is Kevin Durant at 9.9 — which is more of an indictment of the roster than a testament to The Beard’s willingness to pressure the basket. Jevon Carter, Bruce Brown, and Patty Mills aren’t exactly throwing themselves into the teeth of the defense and making plays.
Those paint-averse ball-handlers are paired with a platoon of subpar roll-men in Nicolas Claxton, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and Paul Millsap. The Nets are averaging just 1.03 points on possessions finished by the roll-man, 19th out of all 30 teams. Only one other Harden-led offense has had its roll-men finish in the bottom half of the league in efficiency since Synergy Statistics started tracking that data — the 2019-20 Rockets, which eschewed (and traded) its big man — Clint Capela — at the deadline.
Aldridge has been the only roll-man to grade out as “above average” according to Synergy’s tracking system, but a big part of that sample is bloated by his astronomical performance on pick-and-pops. He’s scored 14 points on 10 pick-and-pop jumpers, which sits in the 100th percentile at his position. When Aldridge actually pressures the basket on hard rolls to the cup, the 36-year-old looks much more mortal, scoring within the 48th percentile per Synergy.
It’s a problem when neither your ball handlers nor rim rollers is warping the defense with downhill attacks.
All of this is compounded by Brooklyn’s substandard spacing. Sean Marks worked hard to improve the Nets' defensive profile by enlisting trusted stoppers like James Johnson, DeAndre’ Bembry and Carter to play alongside existing stalwarts like Claxton and Bruce Brown. A side effect of Brooklyn’s defensive infusion has been a halfcourt that’s clogged like a dive bar toilet, meaning quite gross.
If your instant takeaway from the clip below is that it’s unwise for Joe Harris, of all people, to force up a layup against three defenders, well, I can’t fault you for that assessment.
But watch the clip again and look at the surrounding spacing. Markieff Morris cheats off Brown and walls up the passing lane for the possible floater; Kyle Lowry almost entirely ignores Carter in the corner; and Max Strus sort of rotates down to Carter away from the not-very-threatening Bembry spaced at the wing. Heck, even Bam Adebayo has two feet in the paint, clearly not perturbed by the threat of Paul Millsap’s 3-point marksmanship.
Brooklyn’s 3-point percentage as a team has dropped off by five whole percentage points — from 39.4 percent last season to 34.6 percent so far — and multiple key figures in the rotation have seen their outside numbers crash down to earth. Joe Harris is posting just 36 percent distanced accuracy after leading the league in 3-point percentage two of the last three years. Blake Griffin has entered the season on a 2-for-17 slump after canning 38.3 percent of his deep looks a year ago. Even newcomer Millsap is connecting on the lowest 3-point percentage he’s posted in the last decade, at 27.3 percent.
Look, it’s only been seven games. For that reason, there’s no reason to panic in the Nets World! Plus, there are some modest-to-significant positives. KD is posting 29.1 points per game on the second-best true shooting percentage of his career (66.3 percent). If the season ended today, he and Aldridge would finish with the best midrange shooting percentages of their careers at 62 percent and 70 percent, respectively — and that’s saying something given the pedigree of both of these midrange snipers. Mills has made north of 50 percent of his long-range looks.
Still, in the interim, Brooklyn has its work cut out. The Nets cannot live in a world in which its ball-handlers fail to pressure the rim, its big men don’t create any sort of vertical gravity, and its spacing is compromised by rotations that feature multiple non-shooters. One or more of these things must change for the Nets to reach new heights. But it’s not all so bad, which brings us to...
In flipping the back-end of the roster, the Brooklyn Nets also flipped their identity. Thus far, Brooklyn has performed at a top-10 rate in defensive efficiency after finishing 21st in this category a season ago. How the Nets go about doing their dirty work is unique. Teams like the Utah Jazz function by funneling opponents toward one other-worldly 7-foot shot-swatter, like Rudy Gobert. The Nets, meanwhile, have leaned into using their guards as the main catalysts for defensive activity. Instead of extinguishing offenses at the end of possessions, the Nets blanket opponents before they can even get started.
In order to do so, the Nets have shifted their scheme. After switching more screens than any other team in the league last season, Brooklyn has settled into a more conventional strategy — drop defense — with the big effectively planted at the free-throw line.
Why? To showcase the team’s biggest strength — a platoon of guards that fight and battle around screens and constraint airspace for opposing ball-handlers. Switching everything at the slightest bit of contact would negate that advantage; dropping the big and letting Carter, Bembry, Mills and Brown do what they do best — navigate picks-and-rolls, face-guard 94 feet, and dominate at the point of attack — has been a fruitful strategy.
In the clip below, Harris revs up to turbo mode to skate around Isaiah Stewart’s ball-screen. All the while, Griffin retreats in a crouching backtrack, staying level with the rolling Stewart while keeping Saddiq Bey up front. Harris then zooms ahead to cut off Bey’s driving lane and the possession eventually stalls out. Great defensive stands like the one below are littered throughout Nets games this season, a big reason why the Nets rank seventh in the league at deterring pick-and-roll ball-handlers.
We’ve also seen the Nets work well on a string, piecing together harmonious possessions with multiple defenders covering each other’s tracks. Below, after Mills gets beat off the dribble, Bembry rotates over as the low man to meet Cory Joseph at the rim. All the while, Bruce Brown sinks down to Bembry’s original assignment, Josh Jackson in the corner, and Mills fills the lane by picking up Brown’s man, Trey Lyles. If Kelly Olynyk wants to jack up step-back threes, by all means.
Granted, it’s fair to say the Nets are due for a bit of regression on defense. Based on their shot profile, opponents have been expected to score at an efficiency that would place the Nets in the bottom half of the league (19th overall). Instead, those opponents are shooting the ball 3.8 percent worse than expected, ballooning the Nets' overall efficiency up to fourth in opponent’s EFG. Essentially, teams are missing shots they’ll eventually make and it’s skewing the numbers favorably for Brooklyn, at least statistically speaking.
The Nets are not a team that forces a ton of turnovers (12.3 per game, 27th overall) and have had some struggles with transition defense and rebounding, depending on the night. Brooklyn hasn’t exactly walled off the paint entirely — 35.2 percent of opponents' shots occur four feet or closer to the basket, 24th in the association. That puts a lot of pressure on Brooklyn’s rim protectors, one of whom is 36 years old and the other has barely seen the floor due to a non-COVID illness. The remaining two, Griffin and Millsap, are both undersized.
To put it bluntly, Brooklyn will have to dig in deep to keep opponents shooting just 42 percent from the field, third-best in the association behind Utah and Miami, both of whom coast off Defensive Player of the Year-caliber centers.
Is Brooklyn’s early defensive performance fools gold? Or can Brooklyn maintain its strong start on that side of the ball? Until Brooklyn puts the pieces together on offense, it's imperative that the answers to those two questions remain “no” and a very firm “yes.”
As Steve Nash said the other day...
“I think we’ve got a ways to go. In many ways, we’re trying to still analyze how we can make some adjustments and refine what we do,” Nash said. “Finding a certain direction is maybe more difficult than it looks from the outside when you look at it.
“Having said that, we’ve got some really great pieces to work with and it’s just trying to find the balance between the different styles and backgrounds so they can find connectivity and connection out there with one another. That’s a process, and it takes time for coaches and it also takes time for the players.”
All statistics unless otherwise noted are courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning The Glass, and Synergy Statistics. Stats current through November 2nd, 2021.