Before the Nets season began, there were rumblings that the Nets had too many bigs and not enough wings. Now, though, nearly a quarter of the way through the season, the Nets 4 and 5 positions have been hit with a variety of issues — injury, illness, disappointment — that have kept things unsteady upfront.
As happened last season, the Nets have made a change at the 5. And in both cases, the key player has been LaMarcus Aldridge. After the Nets signed him back in April, Aldridge replaced DeAndre Jordan at center and even after LMA retired due to a heart condition, Jordan never returned to the rotation, being replaced by Blake Griffin.
Now, after a woeful start on offense, Griffin has been sent to the bench in favor of Aldridge and like he did in his short stint back in April, the now 36-year-old Texan has excelled. Not only was he pulled from the lineup at halftime vs. the Cavs on Monday, he didn’t play at all on Wednesday vs. the Celtics, both wins. Aldridge scored 38 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in those two games while shooting 17-of-27 overall (63.0 percent) and blocking a shot in each game.
Will Griffin suffer the same fate as Jordan?
“We just need to look at different things,” Steve Nash said Wednesday. “I think it picked up our pace. [Aldridge is] not the fastest guy on the floor, but we played with pace. We played with ideas. We weren’t stagnant. We moved the ball. I thought we defended well. “
Then, Saturday, Nash added that he has talked with Griffin.
“I have spoken to [Griffin],” said Nash. “For now, we’re experimenting, and I’m looking at other things and giving other guys opportunity. He’s been great. I really appreciate it.”
Still, if Aldridge continues to play at this level, it’s hard to imagine him going back to the bench. Indeed, before he was inserted in the starting lineup, he spoke about the difficulties of coming off the bench, something he’d done only 28 times in his career.
“You’ve been one type of player or a certain type of player your whole career. It’s definitely different coming off the bench and not playing much. So it’s been difficult,” said Aldridge. “I’m still trying to figure it out and navigate it and find my spots — It’s an ongoing battle.”
Kevin Durant said Friday it will be about production going forward, laying out what he thinks a Nets big should bring to the Nets table. He thinks Griffin will have a role to play down the line.
“Somebody that can space, knock down his shot and just a big body that can rebound and protect the rim,” Kevin Durant said Wednesday. “We’re gonna need all our bigs the whole year, no matter what. I know Blake wasn’t in there, but we need him to stay ready to be the team we want to be.”
Griffin is leading the league in charges and has proved a defensive presence as well as an on- and off-court leader. “Hard hats and steel tips” is his thing. But offensively, he’s been surprisingly ineffective. He’s averaging a career-low 5.5 points shooting just 31.8 percent overall and a shocking 16.1 percent from 3-point range. In his 26-game stint last season, Griffin averaged 10.0 points and shot 49.2 percent overall and 38.3 percent from deep.
Furthermore, Nic Claxton’s situation has clouded the Nets frontcourt. He’s missed 15 straight games to an undisclosed illness which he admitted sapped his stamina, led to a loss of weight and a need for “reconditioning” that could require a stint with Long Island before he returns to action. It’s easy to forget that before he went down, the 22-year-old was the Nets starting 5, not Griffin, not Aldridge. (There have been reports by both Zach Lowe of ESPN and Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report that the Nets could dangle Claxton in a trade if Irving, as expected, doesn’t return.)
The best possible scenario for the Nets of course would be for Griffin to return to form and Claxton to return to good health, giving Nash more options. In the meantime, James Harden spoke about how Aldridge can affect the game.
“I told him in the game, one thing about him I don’t ever have to worry about him making or missing shots,” Harden said of LMA. “He’s got over 20,000 points. So I don’t know the last time he started — he’s probably got to get used to starting again — but it’ll get there. And obviously sure enough he did that. But I don’t worry about that.
“He’s going to get going, and once he gets going that just brings a different element to our game on the offensive end. Our offense will come and we’ll continue to grow and get better. … Now with LaMarcus in our starting lineup, he gives us a different role sometimes with his pick-and-pop jump shot. So the bigs now aren’t able to sit in the paint and crowd the paint.”
Or as Ime Udoka, the Nets assistant last year and now Celtics head coach said, “He brings a bring a different dynamic to their team.”
Meanwhile, despite the change upfront and other issues — like Kyrie Irving’s continued absence and Joe Harris’ injury — the Nets keep rolling along. At 14-5 overall and 8-2 on the road, they are enjoying the best overall start in franchise history, NBA or ABA. They lead the league in road wins and have established a defensive identity.
- Nets’ Blake Griffin faces shrinking role after LaMarcus Aldridge shines - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets’ Steve Nash: Blake Griffin’s reduced role not changing ‘for now’ - Mark W. Sanchez - New York Post
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- Nets give thanks for following their game plan to the top of Eastern Conference - Greg Logan - Newsday
- Winds of change surround Nets in blowout win at Celtics - Alex Schiffer - The Athletic