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Film Study: a look at the early changes to the Nets offense

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Brooklyn’s performance in its first preseason game was nothing to write home about. The Nets quickly found themselves at a 42-26 deficit after one-quarter of play against a Philadelphia 76ers team that was without Joel Embiid, James Harden, Danuel House, and PJ Tucker. “The game was all over the place,” said Nicolas Claxton on Wednesday, as the Nets worked out the kinks of a brand new offense that prioritized perpetual movement and a fairly democratic creation burden.

It was almost night and day watching the Nets perform offensively on Monday. Gone were the stagnant one-to-two pass possessions, and in came detailed, multi-action sets. Though the execution in dress rehearsal No. 1 was all but crisp, eager fans got a glimpse at how the coaching staff planned to utilize the widely diverse talents of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons alongside a bevy of sharpshooters.

Sean Marks spent the offseason enlisting a cadre of troops that threaten defenses from the corners, assuredly a plus for a team whose All-NBA-level point guard has perennially been atop the leaderboard in corner three-pointers generated.

But excavating corner threes goes beyond just finding the right personnel. Specified actions must be put in place, as NBA defenses are hardwired to deny perhaps the most profitable shot in basketball. It’s (very) early, but the signs are promising that Brooklyn’s coaching staff delivers on making the most of its sharpshooting talent. Exit screens, or screens set to generate corner threes, were commonplace during Brooklyn’s first exhibition matchup.

In this first clip below, Brooklyn runs Patty Mills off wide action (more on this play in a second...) before flowing into what’s known as Chicago, which combines a pindown screen with a dribble handoff. So here, that entails Joe Harris screeching around a Simmons pindown screen and receiving the rock off a Day’Ron Sharpe dribble-handoff.

Now, while this is happening, watch the weak side of the floor. Rather than just standing still like the Nets would’ve done a season ago, Royce O’Neale sets a screen for the cutting Mills, who then readies himself for a three-point shot in the corner. O’Neale’s screen is known as, yes, an exit screen, an action that has gained popularity in the league over the past couple of years, and one that appears to be a fulcrum of Brooklyn’s playbook.

Here’s the beauty of Brooklyn’s new offense, though. It’s no longer deliberate. The team isn’t just spamming the same general play over and over and over. Suddenly, Nash’s playbook has been flushed with a medley of pet actions that are placed in different orders and combinations to stymie opposing defenses. Specific actions, like exit screens, will sometimes be used to conclude possessions. Other times, they’ll be components in the process and used to divert the defense's attention away from shots the Nets are actually looking to generate. It’s like watching a magician who has perfected his craft with pristine sleight of hand.

If this sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo word vomit of NBA terminology, how about we take a look at an example?

Below, Kevin Durant flies off a zipper screen from Claxton to get a touch at the left elbow. Claxton then sets a backscreen for Irving to clear space at the top of the key for Durant, and KD flows into a pick-and-roll with Claxton that the fourth-year center slips.

Okay, so remember how I was saying the Nets were using specific actions in different orders depending on the possession? Cool, watch Irving in this possession. After coming off Claxton’s back screen, he then cuts to the corner around an exit screen from Simmons, which occupies Philadelphia's defense on the strong side. All the while, Claxton rolls into open space, which forces a single side tag from Tyrese Maxey.

Royce O’Neale, seeing that Maxey is stuck in the predicament of choosing between him and the lob-hungry Claxton, lifts up the three-point line from the corner to the left slot. Though he isn’t able to connect on the look, this type of movement—lifting during pick-and-rolls—was a relative rarity a season ago.

NetsDaily asked Steve Nash about the structural changes to the offense, to which he provided a fascinating response.

“We wanted to do a lot of that last year,” said Nash about implementing more off-ball movement and screening, “and for various reasons, (we) didn’t quite get the buy-in a lot of times. So this year, we’ve got a group that seems bought in, that’s willing to work with different philosophies, different concepts offensively, we’ve been putting in more offense. But like I said earlier, the team usually tells you what stays and what doesn’t stay, but we have to also be diligent, making sure that we are willing to execute. Having said that, the pieces of our team are set for a team that plays quick and plays random a lot. So we have to find the right balance and that takes time, it takes commitment, buy-in, and so far guys have been great.”

It’s early, but it appears the Nets have made it a priority to get the ball to the stars at specific areas on the floor. As we saw above, for Durant, this meant receiving touches and making plays for his teammates from the elbows. That’s exactly what happens here, with Durant getting a left elbow touch and the Nets flowing into a post split for Irving with Claxton screening.

Speaking of Irving, Brooklyn utilized his off-ball talents as a play-finisher in numerous possessions of its first preseason game. 41% of Irving’s made shots were assisted by a teammate in 2021-22 compared to just the 35.6% that were self-created, and Irving’s perennially been an off-ball marksman, stroking 42.6% of his catch-and-shoot threes as a Net.

Brooklyn busted out some wide action for Irving, a play the Nets have run for Joe Harris since the days of Kenny Atkinson, with Irving coming off the semi-transition wide screen from Claxton, receiving the touch, and then making the read to the rolling Claxton for the dunk when the defense converged onto Brooklyn’s 50/40/90 threat.

Ben Simmons had his own pet actions, too, as the Nets made use of his playmaking skills from the post. The ATO — after timeout — below was an intriguing look at just how lethal Brooklyn’s offense can be when Simmons surveys the floor from the post, utilizing his top-tier vision and 6’11” size to scan and pinpoint holes in the defense with precision.

The clip above is a double-whammy: We also get a glimpse at Brooklyn’s increased utilization of “dummy actions” to distract opposing defenses, with two of Brooklyn’s most threatening offensive players, Durant and Irving, combining forces on a stagger screen look... Durant flies off the pair of screens from Irving and Claxton, but it’s all a ruse to sidetrack the skittish Sixers! Maxey gets caught ball-watching, and O’Neale once again rises up from the corner to the wing for his first bucket as a Brooklyn Net.

Even Brooklyn’s centers are being asked to do different things in the pick-and-roll. Last year, their role was fairly straightforward: set ball screens for Brooklyn’s creators and either roll hard, slip the screen early, or pop to three. Now, the Nets have begun tinkering with veer screens, the centers first setting ball screens for one teammate and then moving elsewhere to set an off-ball screen for another.

Here’s an example of a play against the 76ers featuring a veer screen. Day’Ron Sharpe begins by ghosting (or faking) a ball screen for Simmons before quickly bouncing into a pindown screen for Harris. The result? A wide-open three-pointer for one of the best shooters on planet earth, something the coaching staff assuredly has to be happy with.

Starting center Nicolas Claxton commented on his role within the offense and how the coaching staff has emphasized continuous movement and flow.

“A little,” said Claxton about his role on offense changing. “We are playing offense right now, the ball is not sticking and we’re just trying to have more motion. That’s gonna make us a lot tougher to guard — we have the talent, we have the shooters.”

To the surprise of many, the Nets even unveiled some Spain pick-and-roll late in the first quarter, which amalgamates a high pick-and-roll with a back screen. Sharpe begins by slipping a high ball screen for Irving in typical pick-and-roll form, but the special twist comes when Durant sets (or really, “sets”) a back screen on Sharpe’s man, Montrezl Harrell, and then popping to three. The Sixers, of course, screw up their rotations when Isaiah Joe converges onto Irving instead of swapping assignments with Georges Niang and picking up Durant. Though Durant is unable to capitalize, again, the coaching staff has to be pretty pleased with an open three for perhaps the most threatening offensive player in basketball.

All in all, it’s tough to come away from Brooklyn’s first preseason game without feeling incredibly enthused by the changes the coaching staff has implemented thus far. The team has carved out specific spots for its stars to attack from. Moreover, even in its infancy stages, Brooklyn’s offense already features far more diversity and sophistication than last year’s sluggish approach. It’s almost as if the Nets have moved away from Donald Judd minimalism to an abstract Jackson Pollock-like attack, its halfcourt offense splattered with off-ball movement, multi-layered actions, and ample screening.

Preseason takeaways are fickle, if not foolish, but from a process standpoint, the Nets are off to a great headstart.

In other Nets news...

After the conclusion of Wednesday’s practice, Nash mentioned that Irving and his wife welcomed his second child into the world. Nash was unsure if Irving would be able to suit up for Thursday’s preseason game against the Miami Heat, but he did add that everyone in Irving’s family was doing well and felt excited about the new baby.