This is the third part of a film study series being published during the back-end of the Brooklyn Nets’ All-Star Break; it’s time to analyze what the Nets are working with as they enter the home-stretch. The first two parts were focused on Cam Thomas and Ben Simmons, respectively, whose seasons are each on pause at points that align with reasonable, pre-season expectations.
Cam Thomas has continued to score the ball like nobody’s business in his sophomore year, and is making the case for an expanded role, with fans, national media, and his coaching staff all taking notice. The particulars of his game make his case an intriguing one. Ben Simmons’ long-awaited return from injury, meanwhile, has had enough ups and downs to drop Brooklyn fans’ stomachs. The end of that rollercoaster does not appear to be in sight.
The Nets I’ll be talking about here, though, weren’t even Nets three weeks ago. Pre-season expectations from this fanbase didn't exist for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson. But they all have a sizable track-records in their rearview mirror, which now includes around 100 minutes each in a Brooklyn uniform. It’s time to take a quick look at what each of the four newest Nets are bringing to the table.
Let’s start someplace familiar, with ex-ex-Net Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie burst onto the NBA scene during his first stint in the borough; after cups of coffee in Chicago and Detroit, something clicked for him in Brooklyn. It made you think “Why did it take his third team to unlock him?” It’s not every day you come across a 6’6” guard with legitimate handles and north-south acceleration. Dinwiddie uses those attributes to glide to the cup consistently and, despite sitting at just 34% from deep over his career, create shots for himself. Just ask the Houston Rockets what happens when he starts to feel it.
But Spencer Dinwiddie is playing with a very different Brooklyn team than the ones he starred on in the past. There is no traditional ball-handler alongside him (D’Angelo Russell, Kyrie Irving), nor a funkier one (Caris LeVert, Kevin Durant). Mikal Bridges has been granted the opportunity to grow his game, yes, and Cam Thomas will have some type of role off the bench, but for now, Dinwiddie is the conductor of Brooklyn’s offense. After playing next to Luka Dončić, I’m sure he’s not too upset about that.
But Dinwiddie’s strong-suit has never been playing as a table-setting pacemaker. His decisions will now shape most Brooklyn possessions. Of course, that is a tough ask, not made easier by the fact that he’s making an in-season transition in backcourt partners, from Dončić to Cam Johnson. All of a sudden, there is a ton on Dinwiddie’s plate, and some evidence that not every bite is going to go down easily.
Possessions cannot end up looking like this, for example:
After getting the initial switch vs. Joel Embiid, Dinwiddie spends far too much time sizing him up and reading the floor, and the ball ultimately ends up in a non-threatening situation with seven seconds left on the shot clock. To be fair, this isn’t entirely his fault, as there seems to be some miscommunication about Nic Claxton’s intent to set a screen - no matter the case, though, that can’t happen. On a team already bereft of advanced ball-handlers, Dinwiddie and the Nets can’t shoot themselves in the foot with poor process. For example, when two defenders come to the ball, there has to be an immediate response. Not this:
Again, this whole thing is a monumental ask of Spencer. Yes, he’s controlling the offense, but you don’t want to take away from makes him tick: aggressive, downhill scoring. It’s up to him to combine those threats, to probe has far as he can towards the basket and make the correct decision. We’ve already seen the dangers of over-correcting in his short, second time in Brooklyn. Namely, giving the ball up before a help defender forces him to do so. On both of these turnovers, he shoots himself in the foot; his passes end up letting the defense off the hook:
We know that there’s an optimized version of Spencer Dinwiddie that blends playmaking and scoring, aggressiveness and responsibility. It just may take a bit for the walking quote machine to find that balance every night. Here’s an example of said balance, a strong take to the basket where Dinwiddie changes pace and uses his length to get all the way to the back-line of the Knicks’ defense before kicking the ball out to the weak-side:
The more of that we see, the better. It’s not always going to look perfect, but the truth is this: The Brooklyn Nets are relying on Spencer Dinwiddie more than we’ve ever seen.
So, Mikal Bridges can really shoot, huh? I mean, look at the play from above. Villanova teammate Jalen Brunson makes a solid play to get a real contest on the shot, but Bridges knocks the corner three down anyway. According to Cleaning the Glass, Bridges is shooting a scorching 48% from the corners this season, and it’s easy to see why. He has a such a simple shot that culminates in an ever-so-slight flick of the wrist without much else going on. He’s truly dropping the ball in the basket, and that form helps him in the midrange area, where he does the bulk of his non-three scoring.
Bridges has had a fairly linear path to the offensive load he’ll shoulder in Brooklyn. His three-point shooting quickly improved from good to great in Phoenix. He then added a one-dribble pull-up to his game. Then, he improved his inside-the-arc attack so he could get to a 12-foot jumper, rather than an 18-foot jumper, when defenders ran him off the line. Then, he started hitting just about every jumper he took; last season, he shot an astounding 51% from the mid-range, per CTG. In Brooklyn, it seems that Bridges will continue improving his off-the-dribble game to the point where physical, skilled takes against a defender like Jimmy Butler will no longer be surprising:
That is what more of Mikal’s possessions will look like, now that he’s a Net: pure one-on-one, not as much attacking off the catch. What he does against a set defense has suddenly become paramount for him and his teammates. He proved himself as a long-range shooter, he proved himself as a mid-range assassin. Now, it’s time to make a similar leap closer to the basket. Luckily, he has a lot to work with in this area, and it’s evident after just three appearances as a Net. The blueprint for improvement is there: a strength, and something to work on. Bridges can really pass off the dribble. He just needs to spice up how he completes drives to the basket. Sound on:
Of course, I haven’t mentioned Mikal’s defense yet, which is, after all, half of why he was the NBA’s most hyped 3-and-D trade target for so long. (He still might be.) I’m saving most of the acquisitions’ defensive capabilities for the final part of this mini-series of film analyses, where I’ll focus on Brooklyn’s revamped defense. But rest assured: Bridges can defend. A combination of length, technique, and motor means he can defend a plethora of matchups, and he’s savvy enough to execute any scheme the Nets want to run on that end.
But in both the long-term and short-term, Mikal Bridges’ offensive ceiling is, whatever that may be, is going to drive the Brooklyn Nets forward.
Cam Johnson (who Jacque Vaughn referred to as ‘CJ’ on his first day as Net, if you needed some help differentiating the multiple Cams now on this team) can also really shoot. He’s made just 7 of his first 24 attempts from deep as a Net, but that’s brought his career-average from three down to 39% from the golden 40% (rounded, of course). There is no need to worry about Johnson’s ability to make shots, and it’s been a pleasant sight to see that, on a team hurting for shot creation, he feels comfortable getting up eight threes a game, so far. Bottom line: If he’s shooting a three, it’s probably a good look for the offense.
Every defense he faces is acutely aware of this, and will grant Johnson lanes to the paint after falling over themselves trying to prevent a three. Take a look at these successful drives:
Johnson doesn’t really make a move on any of these. A little head-fake here and there, sure, but that’s about it. And, as evidenced by those clips, when a helper steps up inside the arc, he’s willing as a passer.
But right now, the whole of his offensive game is fairly limited. He does show some promise but promise is scary word to throw around with a player rapidly approaching his 27th season on Earth. Take this highlight CJ gave us against the Heat (and stay for the reaction of the Brooklyn bench):
There’s real positive signs on that drive. It’s a great behind-the-back dribble move, and while the finish was somewhat lucky, it took great body control and hand-eye coordination to even get it close to the rim. But there’s no denying that Johnson put himself in an incredibly tough position, where he often finds himself.
How can a shooter this talented be shooting a putrid 35% on mid-range shot attempts throughout his career, per CTG? It’s not like his shot falls apart when he steps inside the arc (example). Rather, it’s because Johnson drives the ball at one speed: as fast as he can. This often leads to off-balance shots if a teammate doesn’t pop open or he can't get all the way to the rim.
It is important, of course, that he is not a black hole when he puts the ball on the floor; a bent defense sprinting to close out to him is a good thing for Brooklyn. Just don’t expect him to show you a bunch of pull-up jump shots and measured decision-making that Mikal Bridges tantalizes us with. Johnson is on the first part of his journey, and some hand-offs alongside Ben Simmons is probably the most you’ll get out of his ball-handling this season. Considering how potent he is as a movement shooter, that’s not such a bad idea.
Defensively, though, it's already been fun to watch him in Brooklyn. There were questions about his foot-speed out on the perimeter when former Tar Heel entered the draft. To some extent, those concerns have played out; a jab-step or crossover will have Johnson overreacting, biting too hard on the fake and getting him out of position. However, he’s compensated for a relative lack of lateral quickness with a true body-to-body style of individual defending. It’s fun to watch, and the pockets he’s already picked in Brooklyn make a minuscule 2.4 fouls/per 36 minute rate pop out even more:
And now we've gotten to the real “3-and-D” wing in a group that 75% of has been labeled as during their careers. Dorian Finney-Smith, or ‘Doe-Doe’, plays real good defense, and shoots threes. That is truly it. Good, then, that he’s a great individual defender as well as a smart team defender. The three-ball is less magical, although he scraped to that magical 40% mark in each of his last two full seasons. The difference between him and Cam Johnson, though, is that he doesn’t shoot off movement, is less proficient once he’s away from the corners, and is generally more hesitant to shoot. He is probably what you would call an average shooter, for a wing.
The one thing he can’t be doing in Brooklyn though, is this:
If the Nets create a good look, especially from three, it has to be taken. And while Finney-Smith’s occasional reluctance to fire was a problem in Dallas, it helped that the ball could simply gravitate towards Luka once again, who would probably create another good look anyway. This is not the case in Brooklyn. Good shots must be taken; this team, stop me if you've heard this before, only has so much shot creation.
And while I just went on about how Finney-Smith is just a league-average shooter, hoisting a three-ball is a far better option for him and the Nets than putting on the floor, where he has severe tunnel vision as a driver:
An open Cam Johnson three from the corner is probably a better option than Finney-Smith attacking Bam Adebayo at the rim, but nevertheless. That’s what you’re mostly going to get when he does put the ball on the floor. The key for him as a Net will be making quick decisions, hopefully shooting every open shot or swinging the ball to the next man.
That wasn't meant to deride Doe-Doe as an unhelpful player - he’s far from it. The clichés all apply, he makes winning plays with effort and hustle, a guy every coach wants, and so on. But here’s the real fun stuff:
Before the isolation defense even begins, Finney-Smith scares a driver out of taking a shot with a stunt. Then, it’s time to defend Jimmy Butler with no help in sight. He returns Butler’s body bump with a bump of his own. Once Butler collects his dribble, it seems for a split-second as if Finney-Smith is about to take the bait and send Butler to the line after falling for a pump-fake. But no. Instead, Finney-Smith just presses up him to him, extends those long arms vertically, and completes a fantastic possession of defense.
That’s who he is as an individual defender: physical and long. We’ll get to more of the value he provides playing team defense in the next film study, but man, the Nets are definitely happy to have him. Especially on those nights where he hits three threes.
How this iteration of the Brooklyn Nets comes together is a mystery. They have a bunch of wings, and just as many important rotation players that are still introducing themselves to their new teammates. What we do know is that while the 2023 trade deadline will forever, rightfully be looked at as the end of an era in Brooklyn, it was the start of another. The Nets did not beg for (just) future draft choices in return for their superstars, they got four dudes that can really play.
These four will all have bigger roles in Brooklyn than they did on their previous teams. All of a sudden, they’re the bus drivers for the Nets’ final third of the regular season and beyond. Asking them to adjust to newfound roles and responsibilities in-season is a tough ask, yes. But by now, Nets fans are used to seeing their team in a tough position. This one is just a little different.