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Film Study: Brooklyn’s front court is suddenly in flux after Aldridge retirement

Stop me if you’ve heard this before but the Brooklyn Nets big man rotation is full of questions. We look at the impact of LaMarcus Aldridge’s sudden retirement on the team.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Credit to LaMarcus Aldridge. After a storied 15-year career with five All-NBA selections and seven All-Star berths, the Dallas native did the right thing.

With perhaps his best opportunity to date to come away with glimmering hardware — rings, trophies, recognition, and all the rest — Aldridge chose a life of family, friends, security, and good health over the glory. LaMarcus listened to his body, that harrowing sense of fear he so distinctly described during his retirement letter, and chose to avoid pushing through a heart condition. That in itself deserves the same level of recognition we’ve paid to his other accomplishments — you know, the things he’s done on the court.

What he leaves is a Nets team going under — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — a bit of an identity makeover. Yes, that’s right. A changing dynamic once again.

In a season in which Sean Marks swung for the fences and landed supernova offensive force James Harden, only to undergo a period of trial-and-error by 10-day contract (to eventually unearth effervescent forward Alize Johnson), to then parse through the buyout market and nail down some pretty glitzy names (hello, Blake Griffin!), the Nets have been searching for consistency, something to build on. The downpour of untimely injuries certainly hasn’t helped much of anything, and the ebbs and flows of young players rising and falling out of the rotation have only complicated matters for rookie head coach Steve Nash, just 17 games away from his inaugural playoff birth.

What I’m saying is: We have no idea what Brooklyn’s rotation will look like come the postseason, especially in the frontcourt. Sure, the Nets enjoy a talent advantage over most if not all of Brooklyn’s Eastern Conference rivals. But still, consistency and familiarity are a real thing. Reps are needed.

The implications of losing LaMarcus Aldridge are fairly straightforward; he was Brooklyn’s best high-volume spacing big that provided credible rim protection on the other end of the floor. Opponents shot 7.4 percent worse at the rim when LaMarcus Aldridge was hanging around, 97th percentile at his position. Tucked snuggly into a Kenny Atkinson-esque drop coverage, Aldridge was able to focus on his strengths (a seasoned defensive IQ and, um, being really freaking big) while shying away from his weaknesses, namely mobility.

That aforementioned floor spacing took Brooklyn’s offensive ceiling a couple of levels higher up the elevator, nearing that top floor. This highlight made waves across the internet, and for good reason; it hilariously looks like a clip from an All-Star game thanks to all that top-notch talent, the melding of five veteran playmaking minds, and that delicious five-out spacing.

Brooklyn’s fellow floor-stretching 5s, Blake Griffin and Jeff Green, don’t exactly provide the same level of oomph when attempting to swat shots inside the paint. DeAndre Jordan and Nicolas Claxton, meanwhile, provide some glitz and glamour on defense but don’t project as much more than vertical spacing lob-catchers. It’s a newfound catch-22 without LaMarcus in the fold, a tradeoff of circumstance due to roster composition; Nash can pick and choose lineups that trend larger but cramp the court like an 9 AM subway ride, or he can toss out as much shooting as humanly possible and just hope the defense remains palatable.

The bright lights will be turned up once more on Jordan, who always seems to find his way back into that starting center spot, time and time again. To his credit, he’s been noticeably more active during his two most recent performances, particularly against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

Long were there murmurs that Jordan was perhaps Brooklyn’s best option against the remaining star bruisers in the league, and pushing Embiid off his spots and into contested jumpers on Wednesday only confirmed that. We know what Jordan can do in space (hint: not much!), but forcing an MVP candidate like Embiid into 14-of-36 shooting (38.9 percent) is certainly something to build on and appreciate.

With Jordan, consistency is key. Remember his resurgent comeback performance against Domantas Sabonis and the Indiana Pacers on February 10th, right after he got chewed out into a spirited discussion on the bench by James Harden in Detroit? Well, Jordan eventually fell back into that seeming malaise that had consumed him early in the season, recording a cumulative -64 plus-minus during the month of March. Yikes! Part of me wonders if Jordan’s issues are stamina-related; he’ll look so forceful, so energized in some games while looking completely lethargic in others. Who knows. I’m not a part of the training staff. What I do know is that Nash has a tall task ahead of him.

The precautionary measures the Nets are applying with Nicolas Claxton — perhaps they should be applied to Jordan as well, limiting his minutes and exposure so that he appears spry and jovial whenever his sneakers do touch the floor. Even during Wednesday’s game against the 76ers, Jordan’s effectiveness waned as the game went on (Embiid ending up finishing with 39 points). There is a sweet spot with DJ’s minutes, though it’s not clear the coaching staff has stumbled on it.

Speaking of Nicolas Claxton, the young man has been tested as of late. He’s fared... okay? Courtesy of Cleaning the Glass, this chart tracks Claxton’s individual “game scores,” which provides a rough measure of a players’ productivity in a single game. As you can tell, Nic’s impact has tailed off as of late.

Charts and statistics are not end-all-be-all, and context must be applied to better understand what we’re looking at. For as bright of a spot as Clax has been throughout his short but sweet Nets tenure, this week taught us some things about the weak points in his game.

Lakers center Andre Drummond gave Claxton trouble in the very limited sample when the two players went head-to-head, causing the coaching staff to immediately yank the 21-year-old after he picked up a quick foul while guarding Drummond during the second quarter. That tight leash remained during Brooklyn’s battle for the top seed against Philadelphia on Wednesday; Nic was only matched up with Joel Embiid for 43 total seconds according to NBA’s (sometimes unreliable) matchup statistics. It appears the coaching staff doesn’t feel particularly comfortable with the lanky 21-year-old guarding bigger-bodied centers — his playing time certainly suggests that. Given how enormous the playing field is... the Lakers, the Bucks, the 76ers, etc... you have to wonder how that shapes Claxton’s playoff destiny.

This leaves us with Blake Griffin, who may have the most to gain of any frontcourt player. Blake has been GOOD since slipping on one of the Nets’ polychromatic throwback uniforms, providing a sense of levelheadedness and a jack-of-all-trades skillset that the Nets have long desired. Blake has taken 2.3 three-pointers per game since landing Brooklyn, canning 38.1 percent of them, and you have to wonder if that volume creeps up with LaMarcus’ spacing capabilities now out of the picture. Aside from Jeff Green, who has quietly shifted over to the four, Griffin is now the only “center” on the roster that can score from beyond 3 feet. He’s a commodity in that sense, different from any of his frontcourt teammates. In a way, that necessitates him.

Sean Marks could peruse the remaining market of centers. But do names like Tyler Zeller, Noah Vonleh, or Thon Maker really move the needle? Are any of those dudes better than what Brooklyn already has? If you had to think for a second, then the answer is probably “no.” There’s also Reggie Perry who the Nets like, but who’s unlikely to see many minutes as the games get bigger.

For now, Brooklyn will be forced to roll with the punches. Its talent is unmatched; its versatility suddenly isn’t. Without its starting center that could snipe threes and block shots on the other end, the Nets will suddenly have to pick and choose depending on the matchup. That isn’t a death sentence, of course, but it’s still an adjustment.