Before the Nets and Cavaliers tipped off on October 25, head coach Jacque Vaughn envisioned a deep team that would prioritize the transition game behind Ben Simmons’ lead.
While all the preseason punditry and fan discussion was on defense, defense, defense, Sean Marks and co.’s offseason focus on athleticism and 3-point shooting has stolen the show. The offense is looking better by the game and Jacque’s gameday thoughts on Opening Night night — a fast-paced offense reliant on depth and open fastbreak threes woven with consistent effort — is now looking prescient.
“Repeated efforts on the floor,” Vaughn said on Oct. 25. “For us that’s going to be on both sides of the floor. Everyone talks about multiple efforts and being able to do that consistently. I’m gonna ask these guys to play extremely hard. That has to be who we are.”
On Tuesday, Brooklyn beat Orlando by 20 on the shoulders of Spencer Dinwiddie. They’ve weathered a storm early with sporadic injuries to key players, namely Cam Johnson and Nic Claxton early — now Cam Thomas and Ben Simmons.
Entering the Magic game, the Nets averaged 22.8 fastbreak points on 40.7% shooting from three with Simmons in the lineup. They dropped to 33.3% and 11.3 fast break points without him. For what it’s worth.
“He’s probably one of the fastest players in the league up and down the court, and there’s so much money to be made playing off of that,” Cam Johnson recently said on the Run Your Race podcast. “Our offensive system and defensive system, he’s a huge part of it, but we all got to learn how to play together. It’s not too often you get to play with a guy like Ben, you know what I mean? It’s a different play style, he can open up a lot opportunities, a lot of avenues, a lot of scoring potential for a lot of different guys,”
Simmons season so far is far from perfect. His reluctance to get a bucket hurts, he avoids physicality inside the paint, and the worst of it all, he’s injured... again. It’s been a vicious cycle for a couple years. Still, Brooklyn’s pace is better within Jacque’s run-and-gun approach when Simmons is on the floor. He’s a 6’10” guard who rebounds the ball and creates fast break opportunities on misses, heck even on makes.
“The dudes that suit up, we’re gonna figure out a way how to use those guys,” Vaughn said about finding consistency with and without Ben before Tuesday’s game. “But it’s two different teams. We were top-five, top-six in transition with Ben, bottom-five without Ben, better executing in the halfcourt without Ben. So it’s two different teams.
“We got to mesh this thing together where we’re not shooting late in the shot-clock and playing halfcourt basketball. Can’t happen. We still need to push the pace, and that’s multiple ball handlers pushing the pace and getting us opportunities early in the shot clock. That still has to be who we are. But we do have to execute in the halfcourt to maximize each possession.”
They did just that on Tuesday, scoring a season-high 31 fastbreak points and shot 19-of-39 (48.7%) from deep — the second-most threes and second-highest three-point FG percentage.
Consistency is key for Brooklyn. They’re one game above .500 but they haven’t strung together enough wins to pop just yet. Still, players have bought into the next man up mentality. The cohesiveness and team-first identity is officially in full swing.
Cam Thomas helped them in halfcourt sets before he went down, averaging 27 points and 5.3 points per game in isolation — the fourth-most in the NBA after Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, and De’Aaron Fox. Ben on the other hand, helps them push the pace.
Simmons’ injury carries a huge question mark because where it ends is unknown. The status report is no longer just about the hip. It was updated Tuesday to include his most vulnerable spot (his back), which is unsettling. Thomas’ injury is an ankle sprain. We don’t know much more than that, other than the 22-year-old saying it’s getting better. Of course, he’s still in a walking boot.
The Nets have always held their cards close to their chest, whether you like it or not. But as far as the season is concerned in the wins and loss column, Brooklyn is exceeding expectations despite a list of bad breaks, thanks to the depth, versatility, and cohesive basketball. That’s the way the team was built and the way Vaughn intended to play from the start.
They’ve got a good foundation with good players who have seemingly bought in. The rest is about consistency and sustainability, a tall task for a team that’s currently missing its starting backcourt — and two players who have controlled the offensive dynamic in their own respective ways.
We’ll hear something in a week on Ben in a week, according to Vaughn. Until then, the ball is in Spencer Dinwiddie’s court. If Tuesday was any sample, Vaughn can more than live with it. He can be comfortable.