FILM STUDY: Wait, there could be something here with this Nets defense

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There are many ways to describe the 9/11 era in Brooklyn. “Defence” would probably not be part of this word cloud.

The Nets have never finished better than 21st on defense in the two seasons that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have walked the floor. The first sample of the pre-season was not really encouraging in terms of defensive growth. The Nets allowed 65 and then 61 points in consecutive first halves against the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat. For as many promises as Brooklyn’s new offense shown, his defense was equally disappointing.

Then came the trip to the greater Midwest.

The Nets allowed just 96.7 points per 100 possessions against two title contenders in Milwaukee and Minnesota, a great way to spark renewed optimism about this Brooklyn team’s defensive chops.

Much like the offense, there’s a sense of balance with Brooklyn’s defensive approach; not everything seems so rigid and automatic.

Two seasons ago, the 2020-21 Nets led the league in changes, though the result of that pattern was a fairly steady stream of disadvantageous shifts. Last year, the Nets shifted to a more conservative look, defending pick-and-rolls in drop in coverage having their bigs suspended in the paint to deter lobs and layups as guards chased over screens. Historically speaking, drop coverage has been fairly successful in the regular season, and the Nets had the right personnel with tool offensive point defenders like Bruce Brown and DeAndre’ Bembry to execute the plan. But even the 2021-22 Nets have suffered from inflexibility, falling to teams like the The Golden State Warriors or the Phoenix Sunswhich featured plenty of pull-up shots to destroy the drop at will.

To change or not to change, that is the questioncould very well be the guiding principle of the Nets 2022-23.

The preseason game against Milwaukee was a great sample of how this could play out. Brooklyn was selective in its willingness to change; the goal was either to maintain specific defensive clashes or to avoid ones that might hurt them.

“We have to use it, but not in a lazy way. Point change, or change just to change, stuff like that,” Kevin Durant said of Brooklyn’s change after Monday’s practice. “We want to be locked in and focused on sticking with our guys, but we also know we can change.”

For example, Brooklyn has made it clear that it wants to keep Ben Simmons glued to Giannis Antetokounmpo at all costs, and in the first clip of the video below, Royce O’Neale fights around Giannis’ back screen for Jrue. Holiday while Simmons hedges for a brief second instead of just completely swapping assignments. Why? While O’Neale is excellent at keeping position, Simmons is just better suited to Antetokounmpo’s odd size, strength and speed.

In the second clip, the Bucks run Chicago action, and Brooklyn responds by sticking with their matchups, with Patty Mills battling around Serge Ibaka’s pindown screen and Sandro Mamukelashvili’s dribble pass to stay with George Hill. Brooklyn could have just changed that action and had Kevin Durant catch Hill on top, but that would have run the risk of the smaller Mills guarding either member of Milwaukee’s backup frontcourt.

That said, the nets are ready to slip into a heavier look. In the first clip of the video below, the Nets turn on that pick-and-roll of Jrue Holiday and Serge Ibaka, and Nic Claxton does a great job returning to Jrue’s shadow, planting his right foot to stop his momentum, then standing up for the contest on the pull-up.

Speaking of Clax, he’s always been as hellish as a switch-big despite putting on around 7-10 pounds of muscle in the offseason — a mass that could have weighed down his signature contractions. Against the Timberwolves in the video below, he completely blasts this game with a change of improvisation and a terrific contest after Anthony Edwards breaks free for practice when the Timberwolves run Scissors.

Brooklyn’s roster has been given a slight makeover, revamped with ample length that almost eclipses the entire half court. The Nets have three extremely fluid nearly 7-foot players in their starting lineup: Nic Claxton, Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons. This allows the group to easily switch between covers, solving the pressing “to tip or not to tip” nickname depending on the situation.

Below is a great look at this Nets supercomputer snuffing out opposing actions in real time. Initially, Minnesota goes to Gun action, with Jaden McDaniels receiving the transfer from D’Angelo Russell and flying in a ball screen from Karl Anthony-Towns. Ben Simmons starts possession on Towns, and when Kevin Durant is cut off slightly by KAT’s screen, Simmons takes over and passes to McDaniels. Durant-on-Towns is a game the Nets can definitely survive with, and Ben Simmons keeps, shoots, somebody is A-okay too.

Minnesota then moves into transfer action with Rudy Gobert initiating, but this time Brooklyn abstains to pass Simmons to Gobert and Claxton to McDaniels. When the Wolves counter by executing a high pick-and-roll between Gobert and Russell, the Nets feel more than comfortable unleashing Claxton on Russell after a substitution, given that Minnesota has only 8 seconds left in the game. time shots to create the offense. There you have it: two switches and a non-switch in the same possession.

Here’s another look at the Nets posting multiple pick-and-roll coverages in the same possession, this time against the Bucks.

Initially, the nets ICE that pick-and-roll of Jevon Carter and Giannis Antetokounmpo, with Kyrie Irving angling his body to send Carter to the sidelines while Ben Simmons stays behind. Milwaukee responds by having Giannis see again while Jevon Carter spins and changes direction to drive in the middle. Carter’s move is successful as Irving gets tangled up on screen, and so Simmons counters by cover the ball screen and stepping up to take off the midrange pull-up as Irving recovers. Simmons then retreats towards the rolling Antetokounmpo once Irving regains his bearings, thus extinguishing the comfortable pick-and-roll stock.

A little hot potato between Carter and Bobby Portis gives Carter a potential opening on the sideline, but Kevin Durant’s last-minute substitution forces the turnover when Carter goes out of bounds. For those keeping track at home, yes, it’s four different pick-and-roll coverage – ICE, drop, hedging and switch – in 24 clock seconds.

(Here’s a video breakdown with a voiceover of the possession above for those who prefer visual/aural analysis.)

On the subject, the frequency with which the Nets use ICEing ball screens certainly stood out in the preseason. Sending ballhandlers to the touchline seems like a primary source of cover compared to something that’s sprinkled here and there like it was in previous seasons.

Of course, all of this schematic versatility wouldn’t be possible without the aforementioned revamped personnel. It begins and ends with Defensive Player of the Year nominee Ben Simmons, who almost immediately had a huge impact on the Brooklyn defense. His work against Giannis Antetokounmpo was headline-worthy, using his strong base and core, and 7-foot wingspan, to dislodge and disturb Giannis in numerous post-up fights. He is by far Brooklyn’s best option against the two-time MVP to date.

Knowing that Ben can stand up to Giannis only gives the Nets more defensive options. One of Milwaukee’s favorite moves is having a Giannis screen for Jrue Holiday, as it puts the big Greek closer to the edge to carve out space for post-ups, especially if the defense changes. That’s exactly what the Nets are doing here, switch, although instead of giving Giannis a tasty game against a smaller defender, he’s served – oh, that’s right – Ben freakin’ Simmons on a platter, who trades from Jrue to the point of-attack to rolling Giannis.

We can’t omit mention of Royce O’Neale, who is already looking like a Grade-A steal for Brooklyn after being acquired as a 2023 first-round pick by the Nets, 76ers or Rockets. already compared the Royce pickup to the Brooklyn version of the Bucks snagging PJ Tucker at the trade deadline before winning the 2021 NBA championship. A noble comparison, to be clear, but with some legs.

Much like Tucker, O’Neale is more than comfortable guarding two, sometimes three positions, if necessary. He has a strong case for being Brooklyn’s best player to face the post thanks to his low center of gravity and muscular frame, evident in the first two clips of the video below.

Brooklyn used O’Neale as the primary defenseman for Jrue Holiday in the Bucks game, a lineup I found particularly acceptable. Holiday is one of the most physical guards in the league, dominating with strength instead of speed, which falls right into O’Neale’s trap. In the third clip of the video below, you’ll notice Royce soaking up Holiday’s shoulder strikes like a sponge before performing the perfect tape steal.

More importantly, there is top-down buy-in. Brooklyn’s superstar duo Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have been particularly troublesome defensively in the final two screenings of the preseason.

Irving — in a contract year, by the way — and his defensive effort leapt, leapt, and leapt off the page. He threw himself around the screens like it was a game of Ring Around the Rosie, sliding his feet and using his elite hand-eye coordination to disturb opposing ballhandlers with regularity. Durant, meanwhile, was particularly tenacious defending the ball, a telltale sign of his defensive focus. In the third clip of the video below, Durant waterfalls brilliantly from the strong corner to stifle KAT’s drive before returning to his man in the corner.

It’s hard to come out of the final two games of the preseason without some optimism about Brooklyn’s defense. The Nets switch between covers with more sensitivity, and they have an expansive staff that fits the modern NBA like a glove thanks to the additions of Royce O’Neale and Ben Simmons. The list is not without its holes; Old-school post-up greats like Joel Embiid could feast against the Nets’ still-thin center rotation, and while Simmons and O’Neale have touted Brooklyn’s all-around defense, they’re prone to dusting themselves on the perimeter in jitterbugging fast guards like Tyrese Maxey, Trae Young or Darius Garland.

Still, there is a world in which we envision a top-10 defense thanks to changes made by the front office and coaching staff. This, combined with a potentially Level 5 offense, could almost automatically propel the Brooklyn Nets into contender status.

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