Bruce Brown has been a revelation this season for the Brooklyn Nets. Of that, we can be sure. How’d it happen? With a big dose of help from ... James Harden.
The Nets came out of the Draft Night deal for Brown like bandits. Acquiring him from the Detroit Pistons for bench player Dzanan Musa and a second round pick (that wasn’t even theirs), was indeed a steal, seeing as Brown is in the midst of a breakout season.
His role has literally been flipped on its head. Once a full-time point guard with the Pistons, Brown has become a pseudo-center in Brooklyn, going from 1 to 5 in a flash. He’s rolling to the rim, operating in the short roll, and finding opportunities at the rim, even with a traditional center like DeAndre Jordan on the floor alongside him. (Thus, the “pseudo” part of “pseudo-center.”)
James Harden’s mid-season arrival in Brooklyn has played no small part in his development. Harden is one the NBA’s premier facilitators and has been looking to get his teammates involved in Brooklyn more than ever; he’s passing on seven of every 10 touches, a career high mark, per Second Spectrum.
Brown is high on the list of those profiting off Harden’s creation for others. In Detroit, Brown had to create offense for himself in the pick-and-roll and off the catch. As a result, only 48% of his field goals were assisted, per NBA Stats. In Brooklyn, however, a whopping 78% of his made baskets are coming off of direct dimes from teammates.
And which of those teammates is helping Brown the most? None other than James Harden himself. Brown receives 27.4 percent of his passes from Harden, by far the highest of any player on the team (Kyrie Irving is in second place at 18.9 percent).
Now that the stats make it clear that Bruce Brown is a clear beneficiary of Harden’s passing prowess, we need to dive into the film to examine how this is all happening.
Pick and roll finishing
Like I said earlier, Brown has adopted a pseudo-center type role as a Net. Part of being a center is finishing in the pick-and-roll as the roll man. The Harden-Brown connection pick-and-roll connection has been lethal, and per Jared Dubin of FiveThirtyEight the Harden-Brown pairing ranks first in points per direct screen among the 232 pairs of teammates that have combined for at least 80 pick-and-rolls in the first half of the season!
In the clip above, the Nets are able to manipulate their 4-out 1-in offense with four elite shooters along the perimeter - Joe Harris, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are all shooting north of 40 percent from behind the arc. Both Andrew Wiggins and Juan Tascano-Anderson stay with Harden on the initial screening action, so Brown is able to slip into the paint for an easy dunk and a sweet behind-the-back dish from Harden.
The Nets won’t always be running lineups exclusively made up of long-range shooters, though. Often, Brown will be on the floor with another, more traditional, “big” like Jordan. D.J. will camp down low in the paint, which can crowd things for Brown. Still, two defenders will often trap Harden in the initial pick-and-roll action, giving Brown space in the 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 short roll (more on that later).
In this example, Bruce Brown does in fact get that 2-on-1 advantage in the paint after P.J. Tucker (his man) and Victor Oladipo (Harden’s man) stick with James Harden too long. Justin Patton stays with DeAndre Jordan, and Brown is able to soar for an easy finish.
Now, back to the short roll. Instead of having an elite off-the-dribble scorer like Harden coming off of a screen, defenses will “trap” him in the pick-and-roll, forcing any other player to beat them. Brown, acting as the screener, will “short roll” to give Harden a quick outlet to give up the ball. Now, two defenders are out of the picture and Brown can attack an already backpedaling defense. This is reminiscent of how Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have operated in the Warrior pick-and-roll for years. Defenses would trap Curry, and Green could float a pass over to the center in the dunker spot for a lob finish.
Here, Brown and Jordan connect in similar fashion. Brown plays the Draymond role, and Jordan makes himself available for the dunk.
Brown isn’t scared to take the shot himself, though. If the defense commits to Jordan and stays home on the shooters along the perimeter, he’ll take the contact going to the rim or throw up a floater.
That floater is quickly becoming his signature shot. He’s shooting 59.3 percent on floaters in total and 62.3 percent on two-pointers assisted by James Harden, per NBA Stats. When asked about how skillset adjusts to the change in role, Brown said it hasn’t been all that different...
Bruce Brown says that creating as a short rolling "center" and pick-and-roll ball-handler hasn't been all that different. At the end of the day, he's using his floater to manipulate the help defense.— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) March 1, 2021
He later added
“The guys on the floor make it easier for me. There’s usually wide-open layups for me. In Detroit, I couldn’t shoot any floaters, but now I can show I can do that. That’s always been the issue.”
Though he’s not too shabby from the corners, Brown is still categorized as a “non-shooter.” Defenses will gladly leave him open from behind the arc in the postseason. To counter that, Brown has developed into a smart and opportunistic cutter. He’ll time his cuts to sync with Harden’s bulldozing drives to the rim, often taking advantage of a rotating, out-of-sorts defense to make his move towards those the basket.
Here, DeMar DeRozan is forced to step up and contest Harden, leaving Trey Lyles in a difficult position on the weak side. Lyles has to “split the difference” between Brown and Irving. Lyles stays with Kyrie in the corner, and Brown takes advantage of an open lane to the basket for the tough finish. Two points for the good guys.
This next play is akin to the last one, in that Kyle Kuzma is being forced to make the same “split the difference decision.” Marc Gasol leaves Brown to protect the paint from a Harden drive. Kuzma chooses Harris in the corner (I don’t blame him, Harris is knocking down 49 percent of his corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass), giving Brown an opening to the paint. Gasol is still there to stifle rim attempts, but It doesn’t matter as Brown is able to drop that newly patented floater over his head.
I’d be remiss not to mention The Beard’s beautiful “touchdown” passes to Brown after made baskets. The pair caught the Sacramento Kings sleeping on multiple occasions in recent weeks, and Brown’s hustle combined with Harden’s court vision made for a laughably effective play.
Bruce Brown has taken on an entirely new role as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, but it’s been all smooth sailing so far. If he and James Harden continue to be a dynamic tandem in both the half court and full court, the Nets will be one step closer to making the NBA Finals ... and bring the trophy home to Brooklyn.