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FILM STUDY: A crowded frontcourt could complicate things for Bruce Brown

Matt Brooks takes a deep dive into Bruce Btown’s game as he faces his old Motor City team Saturday.

2020-21 Brooklyn Nets Content Day Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

In a compressed, airtight season, the sudden ebbs and flows of transactional periods leave you feeling all the more woozy as the games fly by faster than you can say “PCR Test.” A mere month ago, the Brooklyn Nets were needling through the haystack, searching for just one big man to stabilize things in the frontcourt and sharpen up Brooklyn’s rebounding and interior presence. With starting center Jarrett Allen moved to Cleveland, in came names like Noah Vonleh and Norvell Pelle... guys who will most likely be used as a temperature check for true Nets fandom in just a few years' time. “You’re not a real Nets fan if you don’t know who THIS is,” will be the caption of Twitter posts with pictures of Pelle. I can it now.

Fast forward and the Nets have landed Blake Griffin, with rumors of holding interest in Andre Drummond and P.J. Tucker. The frontcourt, once Brooklyn’s biggest weakness, is shaping up to REBOUND (get it?!) into a bona fide strength.

Hypothetically speaking, let’s just say the Nets land Andre Drummond as a buyout pickup and trade for P.J. Tucker (I’ll let you all deduce what that trade may look like). Suddenly, Brooklyn’s frontcourt could be stuffed with options of *deep breath*...

A Crowded Frontcourt!

Kevin Durant FORWARD
DeAndre Jordan CENTER
Nicolas Claxton CENTER
Andre Drummond CENTER

That’s without accounting for rookie big man, Reggie Perry, who just returned from his time in the Orlando “Gubble” (is that what we’re calling it?), and Bruce Brown, who we’ll get to in a second.

Again, this rotation is hyp-o-the-ti-cal, but the Nets go at least three deep at every position. Well, potentially four with Blake handling center duties, or even five if Nash were to dig into small-ball lineups with Jeff Green manning the five.

There are ways to make this work. Fortunately for Brooklyn, 4 of its 7 frontcourt members can capably space the floor. Kevin Durant is... Kevin Durant. Jeff Green is clipping a career-high 42.5 percent of his threes. P.J. Tucker shot a combined 36.9 percent from deep in the three full seasons he shared the floor with James Harden (it’s no coincidence Tucker’s three-point shooting has fallen off a cliff this season without “The Beard”). Even Blake Griffin, probably the poorest marksman of the bunch, is a career 33.1 percent three-point guy, which although isn’t exceptional, at least merits defensive attention.

This gives the coaching staff some breathing room with what appears to be an L-Train-packed frontcourt. Certain sets combining the spacing talents of the players named above with the rolling gravity of Claxton, Drummond, and Jordan come to mind. Horns, for example, could be a good use of the double-big alignment, with a pair of frontcourt players positioned at the elbows, ready to screen and dive to the basket or pop to behind the arc, and two players spaced in the corners to occupy help defenders. Provided is a (poorly) photoshopped screenshot with Claxton and (a very sassy) Blake Griffin located at the elbows, ready to screen for Harden.

Other things can be run... roll-replace sets. Double-drag, which I detailed in this video, in Brooklyn’s devastating 1st-ranked transition. With a coaching staff this loaded, ingenuity has become an instance of regularity. They’ll make it work.

Where it gets tricky, however, is working in small-ball lynchpin Bruce Brown, who has truly taken the blogosphere by storm with a career-year of 8.4 points on 57.4 percent shooting from the floor, even in spite of just 26.5 percent from three in a league where guards are practically turned away at the door like a cliquey college party based on floor spacing abilities. Bruce has, as I’ve been putting it, gone mainstream in the last month, earning callouts on Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post podcast, Kevin O’Connor’s The Void miniseries, and elsewhere for his abilities in the short-roll.

And truth be told, Brown’s emergence, at least impartially, came from the Nets’ chasm in the frontcourt. Against Golden State on February 13th, for example, Bruce Brown started at freakin’ center alongside a small-ball lineup of Joe Harris, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. By far the most willing ball-screener of the group, it’s no surprise Brown dropped a cool 18 points on an uber-efficient 8-of-12 shooting in his breakout performance.

However, with Claxton returning to the fold after his year-long layoff with a variety of injuries, the Nets are now playing a non-shooting center (Clax or DeAndre Jordan) for nearly all 48 minutes —— most importantly, alongside Bruce Brown, who needs all the painted area he can grasp to put up analytically friendly short-rangers.

“I think Bruce is our swiss army knife. He can guard multiple positions. He can offensively fill the gaps by being intelligent with his rolls, playing in the dunker, or cutting off the ball. Screening,” said Steve Nash on Friday. “He’s really been outstanding at figuring out ways to affect the game offensively with the players we have, with the group we have, that allows him to have an impact defensively, on the boards, and with the energy and competitive nature he has. I wouldn’t say that automatically goes away because we have more depth. I think he still can serve many purposes for the team and that’s why he’s such a valuable piece for us.”

While Nash is spot on about Brown’s impact as a hellacious defender, part of Bruce’s magic comes from his center-esque shooting percentages inside the paint (shooting 63.4 percent from two-point range!). Uncorking his quirky floater and taking loads of contact during powerful layups has allowed Brown to stay on the floor and compensate for his iffy spacing.

Pair Bruce Brown with, say, DeAndre Jordan, who tends to hover in the two “dunker spots” near the basket when he’s not setting screens, and Brown loses out on his precious driving lanes. Here, Brown sets a ball-screen high up the floor for James Harden, who laces a bounce pass to Brown hurling his compact 202-pound frame to the basket. Given that Brown is the one handling screening, this means that DeAndre Jordan is relegated to dunker’s spot duties, as he can’t exactly space out to the corners. This makes for a fairly short rotation for Daniel Theis, who sliiiiides over in front of the basket and greatly bothers Brown’s finish.

Same play a few minutes later.

Brown Brown screens for Kyrie Irving, Irving slips a pass to the streaking comet of a guard/center/whatever-the-heck-BB-is, and Theis rotates away from DeAndre Jordan to force Brown into an awkward extendo layup. Fortunately for Brooklyn, the Celtics just outright forgot to box out, and DeAndre Jordan licks his fingers and gobbles up the free sample. But this is another example of how cramped the floor can appear in certain instances for Brown when sharing the floor with a non-shooting big.

“Maybe I’ll have some guards guarding me,” said Brown after Thursday’s practice. “I think I’ll still do the same thing, depending on who is on the floor with me. I can still play that four-man, so I don’t think anything will change.”

Things may not change in terms of the results themselves –– the Nets will still be great –– but Bruce may have to evolve along the way to remain as integral as he has this season. A counter to defenders helping over and halting his drives is by honing into those point-guard roots and making plays as a passer, though out of the short-roll. Cutting his rim-runs in half to make early decisions can greatly keep the defense on its toes.

Below is the same setup as the previous clips, with Bruce screening for Harden, turning, and rolling to the basket. However, he stops a beat early as Theis eagerly prepares to swat his shot to Brighton Beach, and Brown eeks by a pass to Jordan in the dunker.

Jordan, well, adeptly displays why that spot of the floor is called “the dunker.”

There are other counters to suddenly narrowed windows of spacing. That floater, which has become Brown’s bread and butter at 59.3 percent accuracy (per NBA stats), can remedy for help defenders attempting to beat Bruce to his spots. This should be a familiar scene by now; Bruce Brown screens, James Harden slides in a bounce-pass, Brown catches and rolls, and Theis rotates over. But this time, Brown flicks a crispy floater that sails through the twine.

“They told me to get to the floater a lot,” said Brown of the coaching staff. “Because I was trying to attack Theis at the rim, which I don’t know why. I make my floaters. So they kept telling me to shoot the floater. I make it at a high-rate so I gotta keep doing that –– short-roll.”

It’s tough to find fault with the optimism from Nash and Brown after Thursday’s practice. Bruce Brown will carve out means of success as Brooklyn’s swiss army knife, and there’s a good chance things “don’t change” holistically speaking. But with reinforcements possibly on the way, including another big or two that may limit the painted area to mere crawlspace, Brown will need to alter and improve his game on-the-fly to continue to remain a net-positive. Mixing in more floaters, pumping out a greater number of snappy assists in the short-roll to his bigs in the dunker spots or to shooters in the corners, or even finishing with his off-hand will be of the utmost necessity going forward. Bruce Brown has accomplished a heck of a lot this season. This next chapter will be just another challenge to add to his resume.