The Brooklyn Nets play their first post-All-Star-Break game on Friday night in Chicago against the Bulls. Prior to the start of the second “half” — actually the final third — of their season, I’ve looked at what the film had to say about six specific Nets. What do they contribute at this moment and time, and what part of their games should we be looking at as spring nears?
Cam Thomas and Ben Simmons each had their own spotlight, while the Nets’ trade-deadline acquisitions (AKA The Returns) shared one. I talked about what Spencer Dinwiddie, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Dorian Finney-Smith were bringing to Brooklyn individually, introducing them as players. But those four now constitute 80% of the Nets’ starting five; that group is shaping the new identity of this new team. Here, I’ll just share some final thoughts I have about the mechanics of this team heading into the home-stretch.
Much, though, can be gleaned from one up-and-down of their roster. The Nets are full of players that fall under “wing” status, all between 6’6” and 6’9” with varying degrees of ball-handling and shooting capabilities. We know there will be a lot of switching with certain lineups, forcing opposing offenses to beat Brooklyn off the dribble. We know the offense will struggle to flow, particularly when the team isn’t on fire from deep. The Nets will take a ton of threes regardless - but will they come off of one pass without touching the paint, or will Brooklyn be working for the best three upon touching the paint repeatedly. How loose can this offense feel? Forget trying to figure out if there’s actually a point guard on this roster, is there a player who Jacque Vaughn feels good about trusting to run an offense?
Also, per Kristian Winfield of the Daily News, when Vaughn recently “referenced the backup center position, he mentioned exclusively minutes for Day’Ron Sharpe and Yuta Watanabe.” Something to keep an eye on, to say the least.
But what about the good old small stuff?
- I’m a little worried about Spencer Dinwiddie as the fifth starter and closer from a defensive standpoint. There obviously isn’t an alternative, but he could disrupt a system that’s going to rely on activity and communication. Haralabos Voulgaris, some famous professional gambler, was also once what Wikipedia terms “the director of quantitative research and development for the Dallas Mavericks.” He recently tweeted that Dinwiddie is a “low-key a very destructive defender” as well as an “unserious” one. Whether it gives you the ick that a recent Mavs higher-up would tweet that about recent Mavs player — still active, by the way — is up to you, but Voulgaris wasn’t entirely wrong.
Dinwiddie will miss rotations or at the center of a breakdown, like he does here as a help defender against the Miami Heat:
He is the weak-link in Brooklyn’s defense, and perhaps just as worrying as the alternative, the best play to exploit him is off-the-ball. You can have the guy he’s guarding screen the screener in various actions. You can isolate him on the weak-side of the play and force him to manage a two-on-one situation. And if all else fails, you can just make him talk through a bunch of screens.
Don’t get me wrong, it helps that Dinwiddie is 6’6”. We’ve seen him contest some shots at the rim and he can do far more there than any other guard on the Brooklyn roster. (Is Ben a guard?) But this defense is going to rely on what Dinwiddie is weakest at. By definition, then, he’s the weak link.
- Mikal Bridges and Dorian Finney-Smith, though, for example, aren’t. Forget length and athleticism for a second, they are smart defenders are cover up potential when they appear. Here, Dorian-Finney Smith is bodying up to Jimmy Butler, who appropriately responds with a back-cut:
Mikal Bridges reacts to this instantly and switches onto Butler - you can tell by Dorian Finney-Smith’s reaction that this wasn’t pre-communicated. But Doe-Doe doesn’t compound his original mistake by leaving the screener open; he immediately follows Mikal’s lead. No harm, no foul.
That’s how the Brooklyn defense is going to have to operate, by relying on each other. These defenders are going to get into ball-handlers and play physically; it’s extra important that they can cover for each other while doing this. Bridges and Finney-Smith are certainly capable of doing so. Really:
- BONUS: Watch Dorian Finney-Smith on this play:
His defensive reputation is well deserved.
- Also, yes, the length and physicality are nice. Many think of length in a strictly individual sense: “Oh, there are a lot of lengthy defenders they can throw at player X.” But with the Nets, I’m interested in how often they dedicate themselves to taking opposing stars out of one-on-one situations. I hope it is a lot. Doing so turns the chaos dial up on possessions, of course, and increases the chance for a blown help assignment, but the Nets should be able to thrive in chaos:
There, Brooklyn shows an early double to Joel Embiid, just to get it out of his hands. He’s suddenly locked in a chess-match with weak-side defender Finney-Smith, who forces Embiid to make the safe pass. Scrambling behind Finney-Smith though, are Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges, about 14 feet of arms who successfully box in Tyrese Maxey and the Sixers for the rest of the possession.
Two days later, against the Knicks, Brooklyn refused to double against the red-hot Jalen Brunson, who torched them for a casual forty-piece. It doesn't matter that he’s a foot shorter than Embiid. You can use length to make up for a size disadvantage, yes, but you can also use it to harass smaller players. That’s the beauty of having defenders who can cover a lot of space: It’s always helpful! I hope the Nets commit to chaos, and force secondary playmakers to win games.
That doesn't mean that a guy like Jayson Tatum won’t have to deal with Dorian Finney-Smith - he still does. It’s just a more aggressive style of defense - a unique one - that the Nets can use to their advantage.
- This doesn’t just mean doubling stars, but being overly aggressive in the way they run shooters off the line. Take a look at these possessions, initially started by Joel Embiid and James Harden, respectively:
They both end with Nic Claxton contesting floaters, one by Tobias Harris, and one by De’Anthony Melton. The aforementioned forcing “secondary playmakers to win games” in practice.
We’ll definitely see some kinks as Brooklyn irons their defense out. Repeatedly asking opponents to drive towards the paint increases the chance of both party doing something stupid, at some point. It’ll be a challenge for the Nets to contest so many drives without fouling and always be in the right spots, just like it’ll be a challenge for a lot of fourth-best-offensive-player-on-the-court guys to continually make the right decisions. Either way, watching the Nets defend is going to make you feel some combination of exhilarated and tired.
- I wonder how much we’ll see of Nic Claxton at the top of the key, playing off of his wings and guards. Nic Claxton hasn’t shown the passing skills that your standard post-hubs display on the regular (not just the All-Stars, but even like, Mason Plumlee), but he certainly has ball skills. That was kind of his whole thing coming out of the University of Georgia, offensively. Claxton could handle and shoot as an extremely fluid athlete.
Well the left shoulder injury early in his career required arthroscopic surgery, and Clax has admitted to struggles in rebuilding his shot ever since the procedure. We can also see them, of course. But the ball-skills and fluidity are still there, and we’re seeing them, this season, more than ever. Why hello, fake-handoff, euro-step, off-hand lay:
Claxton with a euro and a right-hand finish: pic.twitter.com/h5vyEA8QVv— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 3, 2022
With the Nets scarce on traditional ball-handlers, might they try to siphon off some of Claxton’s talent to hot-wire the offense. More hand-offs and fake hand-offs, more reliance on him being a threat from the top of the key. Sure, it’d help if he still had some semblance of a jumper, but perhaps it is worth a try anyway. If (and there haven’t even been signs of this happening yet) this does happen, it would be the final leap that propels Nic Claxton towards All-Star territory.
In sum: The Nets will be fun to watch when the offense isn’t moving at molasses-levels. It’ll be up to the coaching staff and Spencer Dinwiddie to ensure that doesn't happen. But the defense should be active and loud regardless. This is where a deep roster, one that’s no longer top-heavy, could pay dividends. Guys are gonna have to be moving their butts to cover for each other on that end. So yeah...prediction time?
End of year prediction: The Brooklyn Nets, currently at 34-24, finish with a 46-36 record and the Eastern Conference’s number six seed.