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ANALYSIS: Why did Brooklyn Nets change their starting lineup?

The Brooklyn Nets found a successful, symbiotic starting lineup. They shouldn’t have gone away from it.

Brooklyn Nets v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets are in a good space, to be certain. Their 13-11 record isn’t the most surprising development in the NBA through the first quarter of the season, but the Nets are playing well, even outperforming expectations. And the vibes are great. There’s not a player on the roster who hasn’t contributed, as Brooklyn has flexed the depth they planned to in the off-season, the type of depth that wins games.

We saw it in their exhilarating win against the Phoenix Suns, where Devin Booker played 40 minutes and was a +16. How on Earth did the Nets end up winning by four? Well, largely because Trendon Watford, Royce O’Neale, and Dorian Finney-Smith dominated the likes of Nassir Little, Jordan Goodwin, and Drew Eubanks. Brooklyn’s bench made up 20 points in eight minutes, and it swung the game. Welcome to the regular season, baby.

The Nets’ starters, an ever-changing lineup thanks to various injuries, have been more of a mixed bag this season. Well, except for one group, the starting group Nets fans grew accustomed to at the end of last season anyway, the portmanteau of three teams, as Jacque Vaughn frequently called it. Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Mikal Bridges, and Nic Claxton.

So, when Cam Thomas returned from his ankle sprain, he resumed his sixth man role, scoring 26 points in 25 minutes against the Charlotte Hornets. When Finney-Smith missed the next game with a minor injury, Thomas was elevated into the starting lineup. Business as usual. But Finney-Smith hasn’t missed a game since, while Thomas has stayed put as a starter. Why?

A shorter version of this rhetorical question-and-answer did not go over well on Twitter/X. Thomas is, of course, a budding star in the eyes of many Nets fans, and possesses the most seductive skill in basketball: bucket-getting. Any sort of call for him to be benched while averaging 22.7 points is surely heretic, right?

This is not an indictment of his talent, his future, nor even his value to the Brooklyn Nets in the present. Simply put, Jacque Vaughn tinkered with a successful starting lineup to insert an underperforming player. On any other team, with any other two players involved than Thomas and Finney-Smith, this would raise major eyebrows. It should, at the very least, permanently kill the notion that Thomas’ head coach doesn’t yet trust him.

Yes, underperforming. To say nothing of Thomas’ long-term outlook, he’s not having a good season (yet). His defensive EPM, the least imperfect of all one-number metrics, is ninth-worst in the league. It matches the eye test, as Thomas, a passable on-ball defender, is still destructive everywhere else. Here, his mark Trey Lyles relocates to another zip-code without Thomas noticing:

Offensively, the heater Thomas opened the season on is well in the past. Cleaning the Glass measures PSA, or points per shot attempt. Ignore the acronym, it’s a simple counting stat, and measures exactly what it purports to. Thomas’ PSA ranks in the bottom 20% league-wide, only above Ben Simmons and Dennis Smith Jr. within Brooklyn. It’s better than just one player with a comparable usage rate (Cade Cunningham). His 106.1 points per 100 shot attempts is a number that’s fallen precipitously since joining the starting lineup.

The harsh truth? This season, Thomas is a poor defender who scores inefficiently, and when accounting for usage rate (Cam’s is above 30%), he assists as often as Michael Porter Jr.

Now, damage control. He’s in his third season at 22 years old, playing this many minutes for the first time in his career. Furthermore, the Nets still need him! On Wednesday night in Phoenix, Thomas shook off a slow start from the floor to rip off eight straight points for the Nets in a tight game:

Those back-to-back threes came at the start of a fourth quarter, following a mini-comeback from Brooklyn, who had just erased their largest deficit of the night. Momentum was in limbo, the fistfight had paused. When the Nets and Suns dusted themselves off to square up again, it was Thomas who then threw the first punch. He didn’t wave Phoenix goodbye, but he allowed Brooklyn to play from ahead down the stretch.

That’s what bucket-getters do. If they’re not undeterred by the moment, they thrive off it, regardless of what the box score says up to that point. But look at who Thomas is on the floor with there: Royce O’Neale, a very good passer who can catch-and-shoot. Trendon Watford, who will fly around to make a mixture of good and bad plays while providing some ball-handling. Dorian Finney-Smith, similar to O’Neale but trading passing for defense, and Nic Claxton, a play-finishing center who Thomas has shown pick-and-roll chemistry with:

Now that is a bench unit for Thomas to cook with, four capable players that need an alpha scorer, but who can support him elsewhere. If the LSU product checks into the game and rides out the end of the first quarter with that lineup on the floor, he’s going to settle into the flow of the game quickly. Maybe he catches the type of rhythm that leads to those special, 40-point nights.

Here’s what Lakers Head Coach Darvin Ham said about Austin Reaves’ move to the bench during the NBA Cup Championship: “He’s got newfound life. He gets to dominate the ball and give it up whenever he should feel like it.”

Thomas is suited to do the same, but won’t have the opportunity alongside the premier ball-handlers of this team in Mikal Bridges and Spencer Dinwiddie, who justifiably outrank CT in the offensive pecking order. He doesn’t have the quick trigger to fire catch-and-shoot threes that Finney-Smith has showcased this season. DFS is nailing 44% of his threes this season on considerable volume, and his defense is rock-solid as usual:

After a loss against the Sacramento Kings, Jacque Vaughn chastised his squad for settling for too many mid-range attempts, but a Cam Johnson/Bridges/Thomas trio is gonna have a tough time avoiding that. When coming off pick-and-roll and dribble-handoff situations, that’s what they get to.

Brooklyn found a successful starting lineup, the most familiar five-some on the roster, only to go away from it. With Finney-Smith, the Nets’ starting group outscores opponents by five points per 100 possessions; on the flip, the Thomas edition of the lineup gets outscored by the same margin.

Sending Brooklyn’s second-leading scorer to the bench isn’t the punishment it seems, and it’s not a demotion. Vaughn has certainly showed enough trust in Thomas to play him down the stretch if he’s earned it — the starters don’t have to be the closers, of course. Perhaps, in the season leading up to extension negotiations, the Nets want to see Thomas improve his defense and off-ball offense with the starting group before unloading the brinks trucks.

That’s all conjecture though. The facts? The starting five the Brooklyn Nets assembled at last year’s trade deadline is now playing their best ball, a season later. Why go away from it?