Are the Brooklyn Nets reestablishing themselves as Finals contenders?

Brooklyn Nets, Kevin Durant

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The Brooklyn Nets were the hottest of messes to start this season. But an unbelievably hot run has shown just how their ceiling still is.

After a myriad of controversies — including, but not limited to, a Kevin Durant trade request, a Kyrie Irving suspension, a midseason firing of head coach Steve Nash, and an abhorrently slow start from Ben Simmons — the Brooklyn Nets are now the NBA’s hottest team winning nine straight games, and 13 of their last 14 overall.

How is it that a team that was seemingly dead in the water has returned to life? What makes them this good? And are they now a serious Finals contender in a loaded Eastern Conference?

Depth has been the answer for the Brooklyn Nets

Remember two years ago when the Nets first emerged as likely suitors for James Harden, there was a grand debate about what would be a better team-building strategy: creating a “Big Three” or constructing a roster around two stars and a ton of depth?

It isn’t necessarily fair to pass judgment on the Durant/Harden/Irving era because they only played 16 games together, but it does look like the two stars plus depth formula is a winning model.

The list of meaningful contributors on this roster is expansive. In fact, during this nine-game heater alone, Brooklyn has had fourteen different players record a double-figure scoring game. This depth has enabled them to withstand the revolving door of injuries they have had to endure throughout this season.

Embracing the Giant Ball Revolution

As Mike Prada discussed in his book Spaced Out, the rise of pace and space has caused the surface area of the court to double. Offenses are spreading out further than they ever have before. So, naturally, for defenses to counterbalance this, they need players who can cover more ground in a shorter period of time. They need length. And fortunately for Brooklyn, they have this in spades.

With the exceptions of Irving and Seth Curry, everyone in the Nets’ top-10 in minutes per game is listed as 6-foot-4 or taller, with five of those individuals being 6-foot-8 or taller.

This is a massive advantage because teams can’t pull the stunt the Los Angeles Clippers did on the Utah Jazz in 2020 of going five-out and bringing their lone rim protector (in that case, Rudy Gobert) out of the paint to open up the lane.

Thanks to their size, the Nets almost always have two capable paint guardians on the floor. So even if you manage to lure one of them out onto the perimeter, you still have to deal with the other one.

The Nets are lapping the field in blocks per 100 possessions, sitting at 6.7 per 100, while the second-place Indiana Pacers only average 5.8. Their ability to erase shot attempts has played a large role in their rise into top-10 defensive status. As Stephen Shea noted in his book Basketball Analytics: Spatial Tracking, blocks are a solid indicator of rim protection — which is a strong indicator of overall defensive efficiency.

Now this is what effensive versatility Looks Like

To best understand the multi-dimensional nature of this Nets’ offense, let’s compare them to the faltering Toronto Raptors’ offense we discussed last week.

Both of these teams sit in the top 10 in shots taken with between 22 and 18 seconds left in the shot clock — a telltale sign of high volume transition offense. The Raptors get out and run by forcing turnovers. Meanwhile, the Nets lean on Ben Simmons to push the pace off of misses (and makes) and launch hit-ahead passes to lethal shooters like Curry, Royce O’Neale, and Joe Harris (among others).

However, when transition offense stalls, the Raptors are horrid (28th in halfcourt offensive efficiency), while the Nets are magical (third).

Both the Nets and Raptors isolate a lot — third and fourth in frequency, respectively. But the similarities end there. Where the Raptors are 27th in points per possession (PPP) on isolations, the Nets are third in this measure.

This disparity is likely a side effect of their differing personnel. While Toronto is limited (outside of Pascal Siakam) in the area of self-generated scoring, the Nets tout two of the best isolationists in the gane in Durant (72nd percentile in efficiency) and Irving (93rd percentile).

Not to keep picking on Toronto, but outside of these inefficient isolation (and post-up) escapades, they don’t have too many other avenues for generating halfcourt offense.

Even though they could have serviceable offense sheerly by leaning on Irving and Durant, the Nets have other cards to play too. They don’t shoot a ton of 3s (24th in 3-point attempts per 100), but the ones they do take, they hit at a league-high 39.1 percent.

Their high hit rate is primarily a byproduct of all their great shooters, but coach Jacque Vaughn is also diligent about creating easy catch-and-shoot looks for his players via common actions such as pindowns and ghost screens.

Overall, this Nets’ offense has multiple ways to beat you, and they have the personnel to make each of those methods highly effective.

The front runner in the East?

Historically, teams that make the Conference Finals either possess an elite offense, elite defense, or are balanced on both sides of the ball. As a team that is in both the top 10 in offensive rating and defensive rating, the Nets are shaping up to be a team that fits the criteria for that third category of contender.

Still, based on their current composition, this team is not without its flaws. They are sorely lacking in the area of strength (as evidenced by their low offensive and defensive rebounding marks) and would be vulnerable against classical bruisers like Joel Embiid.

And they also struggle to generate separation via drives (think of the way Shai Gilgeous-Alexander creates advantages). The tradeoff of supreme length is that it is harder for those players to dribble in traffic (hence Durant usually having a high turnover rate for his career), making it less likely that they drive into the paint.

Navigating their way through the East will require some luck in drawing matchups that their roster is better tailored to handle. But this recent stretch of play has shown us that this group is good enough that they won’t need that much luck to make a deep run this postseason.

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