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Can Nets be a defensive juggernaut? They’re trying

Expect this to be a theme throughout the Nets season: will using a defensive commitment to make up for the “Big Three’s” lost offense work?

2018 China Games - Dallas Mavericks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

If the Nets are going to improve over last year’s performance, it probably won’t be on offense. Brooklyn will no longer be able rely on a high-powered offense when they take the floor, an offense that at one point — not that long ago — was the best ever built. But the “Big Three” on offense is gone. So can the Nets replace it with a teamwide emphasis on defense?

The Nets already had some pieces, even if one was out, at the end of last season. Put the team stats aside, Ben Simmons and Mikal Bridges were All-Defense and runner up in the Defensive Player of the Year balloting in 2021 and 2022. Nic Claxton was top 10 in 2023 and was second in blocks per game and third in “stocks,” that combination of blocks and steals, aka stops. It was his defense that got him the fifth most votes in Most Improved Player balloting. Cam Johnson, signed to an extension last week, is also a solid defender and the team (currently) has two 3-and-D specialists in Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale.

This week, we’ve seen some new optimism, even enthusiasm, for a Simmons return to form from both Jacque Vaughn on Friday and Sean Marks on Sunday.

“I think the hope is that he returns to that (All-Star) level of play. I mean, if he was 35 years old, I wouldn’t honestly be able to tell you that. But I think knowing that he’s mid-20s and he has still hopefully not reached his prime, we’ve gotta make sure he can get back out there and get back to that form.”

Spencer Dinwiddie, who was also at Cox Pavilion on Sunday, suggested that a Simmons return could help with team D. Asked by Dennis Scott what the one thing that would improve the Nets next season, he responded quickly.

“The easy answer is Ben. You know, a healthy Ben is an all-Star max level guy. I think he could completely change the complexion of our team and can make us a really exciting group, especially defensively.”

A Simmons return to health would of course be huge for the Nets defense, but the team also added a top defensive point guard, Dennis Smith Jr. who had a solid year at Charlotte, particularly on defense. He, too, was in Vegas on Sunday and talked about the potential.

Asked to describe the “fit” he thinks he has with the Nets, he pointed first to defense.

“Just a whole bunch of guys that can play both ways, I haven’t been able to meet everybody on the team all together. I’m not going to make bold claims because I know how y’all do in New York.” the former said Knick said with a smile. “[But] I think we could be a really, really good defensive team. We got all the pieces in place for it. I think coach is on board with it as well. So I’m looking forward to getting there.”

Smith also said that Nets came after him early in the free agency process.

“It was communicated to me that I was a priority and the direction they were trying to go in was also on the same trajectory that I am in my career,” Smith said. “And I just thought it was a hand-in-glove fit.”

Marks agreed, saying the Nets aimed at him because they knew they were getting an “elite defender.”

“You know what he brings on the court, his defensive prowess, you see how he’s never shied away from anything. I mean, he’s an elite defender,” said the GM. Marks also said he liked that Smith Jr. has overcome a number of hurdles from injury to deaths in the family.

Of course, if Simmons returns and Dinwiddie can push the offense while being an offensive option, how will that fit work? That is a conversation the Nets would prefer over finding enough bodies as they did last year.

Another player with a defensive mindset is also toiling in Las Vegas. David Duke Jr. is for the third year playing for the Nets Summer League team and again with no real guarantee. At the very end of last season, Duke Jr. finally signed a standard NBA contract after being named first team All-G League as a two-way. He led his Long Island Nets to 16 straight wins. But just before agency, the Nets declined to tender him a qualifying offer and once again, he’s free agent. But he’s hoping his defense will get him back in contention for a roster spot.

“I [want to show] little things like being a defensive pest, being a disrupter on the defensive end, and showing that I can do that consistently at a high level, while also making open shots,” said Duke Sunday.

Can Duke Jr. make the final roster? He’d like to think he can.

With all the athleticism the Nets added in the Draft and free agency, the Nets believe they have additional potential on defense. Lonnie Walker IV, signed Monday, has always had defensive potential because of his elite athleticism. Now he’ll be asked to show it. Noah Clowney showed potential as a shot-blocker at Alabama but he doesn’t turn 19 till Friday.

Are the Nets done? Close to done? It seems more like the latter. They have held off on a team option for Edmond Sumner (also a solid defender) for reasons that suggest something is in the works and there have been rumors upon rumors that the Nets are marketing Finney-Smith or O’Neale, perhaps for a first round draft pick or two. If they get back a player, you’d expect the Nets are going to want to add to the defensive mix. They could still use a back-up rim protector and rebounder.