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FILM STUDY: Hold up, there might be something here with this Nets defense

Brooklyn Nets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

There are many ways to describe the 7/11 era in Brooklyn. “Defense” probably wouldn’t be one of that word cloud.

The Nets have never finished better than 21st on defense in the two seasons that both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have stepped on the floor. The early sample of the preseason wasn’t exactly encouraging in terms of defensive growth. The Nets allowed 65 and then 61 points in back-to-back first halves against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Miami Heat. For as much promise as Brooklyn’s brand-new offense showed, its defense was equally underwhelming.

Then came the trip to the great Midwest.

The Nets allowed a mere 96.7 points per 100 possessions against two title contenders in Milwaukee and Minnesota, a great way to build renewed optimism about the defensive chops of this Brooklyn team.

Much like the offense, there’s a sense of balance with Brooklyn’s defensive approach; not everything feels so rigid and automatic.

Two seasons ago, the 2020-21 Nets led the league in switches, though the outcome of this scheme was a fairly consistent stream of disadvantageous mismatches. Last year, the Nets shifted to a more conservative look, defending pick-and-rolls in drop coverage by having their bigs hang back in the paint to deter lobs and layups while the guards chased over the top of screens. Historically speaking, drop coverage has been fairly successful in the regular season, and the Nets had the right personnel with toolsy point-of-attack defenders like Bruce Brown and DeAndre’ Bembry to execute the scheme. But even the 2021-22 Nets suffered from inflexibility, running drop against teams like the Golden State Warriors or the Phoenix Suns, who featured ample pull-up shooting to destroy drop at will.

To switch or not to switch, that is the question,” could very well be the guiding principle of the 2022-23 Nets.

The preseason game against Milwaukee was a great sampler as to how that may play out. Brooklyn was selective in its willingness to switch; the goal was to either maintain specific defensive matchups or avoid ones that could hurt them.

“We’ve got to utilize it, but not in a lazy way. Point switching, or switching just to switch, stuff like that,” said Kevin Durant about Brooklyn’s switching after Monday’s practice. “We want to be locked in and focused on staying with our guys, but also know we can switch.”

For example, Brooklyn made it clear that it wanted to keep Ben Simmons glued to Giannis Antetokounmpo at all costs, and in the first clip from the video below, Royce O’Neale fights around Giannis’ backscreen for Jrue Holiday while Simmons hedges for a brief second instead of just swapping assignments altogether. Why? Though O’Neale is excellent at guarding up a position, Simmons is just better suited for Antetokounmpo’s freakish size, strength, and speed.

In the second clip, the Bucks run Chicago action, and Brooklyn responds by staying true to its matchups, with Patty Mills fighting around Serge Ibaka’s pindown screen and Sandro Mamukelashvili’s dribble-handoff to stick with George Hill. Brooklyn could’ve just switched this action and had Kevin Durant grab Hill up top, but this would’ve run the risk of the smaller Mills guarding either member of Milwaukee’s backup frontcourt.

That said, the Nets are ready-made to slide into a more switch-heavy look. In the first clip from the video below, the Nets switch on this Jrue Holiday and Serge Ibaka pick-and-roll, and Nic Claxton does an excellent job backtracking to shadow Jrue, planting his right foot to halt his momentum and then rising up for the contest on the pull-up.

Speaking of Clax, he’s been just as hellacious as ever as a switch-big despite putting on about 7-to-10 pounds of muscle in the offseason—mass that could’ve weighed down his distinctive twitchiness. Against the Timberwolves in the video below, he completely blows up this play with an improvisational switch and tremendous contest after Anthony Edwards shakes loose for a drive when the Timberwolves run Scissors.

Brooklyn’s roster has been given a bit of a makeover, revamped with ample length that nearly eclipses the totality of the halfcourt. The Nets boast three extremely fluid near-7-footers in their starting lineup: Nic Claxton, Kevin Durant, and Ben Simmons. This allows the group to toggle between coverages with ease, resolving the pressing “to switch or not to switch” moniker depending on the situation.

Below is a great look at this Nets supercomputer snuffing out opposing actions in real time. Initially, Minnesota goes to Pistol action, with Jaden McDaniels receiving the handoff from D’Angelo Russell and flying into a ball screen from Karl Anthony-Towns. Ben Simmons begins the possession on Towns, and when Kevin Durant gets clipped ever-so-slightly by KAT’s screen, Simmons picks up the slack and switches onto McDaniels. Durant-on-Towns is a matchup the Nets can certainly survive with, and Ben Simmons guarding, shoot, anyone is A-okay as well.

Minnesota then flows into handoff action with Rudy Gobert initiating, but this time, Brooklyn refrains from switching Simmons onto Gobert and Claxton onto McDaniels. When the Wolves counter by running a high pick-and-roll between Gobert and Russell, the Nets feel more than comfortable unleashing Claxton on Russell after a switch, given that Minnesota has just 8 seconds on the shot clock to create offense. There you have it: two switches and one non-switch in the same possession.

Here’s another look at the Nets flashing multiple pick-and-roll coverages in the same possession, this time against the Bucks.

Initially, the Nets ICE this Jevon Carter and Giannis Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll, with Kyrie Irving angling his body to send Carter down the sideline while Ben Simmons hangs back in drop. Milwaukee responds by having Giannis rescreen while Jevon Carter spins and changes directions to drive middle. Carter’s move is successful as Irving gets tangled on the screen, and so Simmons counters by hedging the ball screen and stepping up to take away the midrange pull-up as Irving recovers. Simmons then retreats back to the rolling Antetokounmpo once Irving gathers his bearings, thus extinguishing the snug pick-and-roll action.

A little hot potato between Carter and Bobby Portis gives Carter a potential opening down the sideline, but Kevin Durant’s last-minute switch forces the turnover when Carter steps out of bounds. For those keeping track at home, yes, that’s four different pick-and-roll coverages—ICE, drop, hedging, and switching—in 24 seconds of clock.

(Here’s a video breakdown with a voiceover of the possession above for those that prefer visual/aural analysis.)

On the topic, the frequency that the Nets are ICEing ball screens has certainly stood out in the preseason. Sending ball handlers down the sideline appears to be a primary source of coverage versus something that’s sprinkled in here and there like it was in previous seasons.

Of course, all of this schematic versatility wouldn’t be possible without the aforementioned revamped personnel. That begins and ends with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, who has almost immediately made a wholesale impact on Brooklyn’s defense. His work against Giannis Antetokounmpo was headline-worthy, using his strong base and core, and his 7-foot wingspan, to dislodge and bother Giannis on numerous post-up bouts. He’s by far Brooklyn’s best option against the two-time MVP to date.

Knowing that Ben can hold his own against Giannis just gives the Nets more optionality defensively. One of Milwaukee’s pet actions is having Giannis screen for Jrue Holiday because it places the Greek big closer to the rim to dig out space for post-ups, especially if the defense switches. That’s exactly what the Nets do here, switch, though instead of giving Giannis a tasty matchup against a smaller defender, he’s served up—oh, that’s right—Ben freakin’ Simmons on a platter, who swaps from Jrue at the point-of-attack to the rolling Giannis.

We can’t leave out mention of Royce O’Neale, already looking like a grade-A steal for Brooklyn after being acquired for the least favorable of the Nets’, 76ers’, or Rockets’ 2023 first-round picks. I’ve already compared the Royce pickup to Brooklyn’s version of the Bucks snagging PJ Tucker at the trade deadline before winning the 2021 NBA championship. A lofty comparison, to be clear, but one with some legs.

Much like Tucker, O’Neale is more than comfortable guarding up two, sometimes three positions, if needed. He has a strong case for being Brooklyn’s best player at fronting the post thanks to his low center of gravity and muscular frame, evident in the first two clips from the video below.

Brooklyn used O’Neale as the primary defender on Jrue Holiday in the Bucks game, an alignment I found to be particularly permissible. Holiday is one of the most physical guards in the league, dominating with strength instead of speed, which falls right into O’Neale’s trap. In the third clip from the video below, you’ll notice Royce absorb Holiday’s shoulder forrays like a sponge before executing the perfect strip steal.

Most importantly, there’s buy-in from the top-down. Brooklyn’s superstar duo, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, has been especially pesky defensively in the final two showings of the preseason.

Irving—in a contract year, by the way—and his defensive effort have leaped, jumped, and bounded off the page. He’s thrown himself around screens like it's a game of Ring Around the Rosie, sliding his feet and using his elite hand-eye coordination to bother opposing ball handlers with regularity. Durant, meanwhile, has been especially tenacious while defending off-ball—a telltale sign of his defensive focus. In the third clip from the video below, Durant stunts brilliantly from the strong side corner to smother KAT’s drive before sliding back to his man in the corner.

It’s tough to come away from the final two games of the preseason without some degree of optimism about Brooklyn’s defense. The Nets are toggling between coverages with more sensibility, and they have a rangy personnel that fits the modern NBA like a glove thanks to the additions of Royce O’Neale and Ben Simmons. The roster isn’t without its holes; old-school post-up bigs like Joel Embiid could feast against the Nets’ still-slender center rotation, and though Simmons and O’Neale have vaunted Brooklyn’s overall defense, they’re prone to getting dusted on the perimeter by jitterbugging quick guards like Tyrese Maxey, Trae Young, or Darius Garland.

Still, there’s a world in which we’re looking at a top-10 defense thanks to the alterations made by the front office and coaching staff. This, combined with potentially a top-5-level offense, could almost automatically thrust the Brooklyn Nets into contender status.