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Nets Finally Found Their Shooter In Allen Crabbe

Allen Crabbe could be the key to unlocking Kenny Atkinson’s fast-paced offense this season, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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After suffering a sprained ankle in training camp, Allen Crabbe was one of the last members of the Brooklyn Nets to make his debut this preseason. If the early indications are any sign, the year-long delay was definitely worth it.

Crabbe exploded for 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting from the floor while adding an assist, rebound and steal in just 11 minutes of play. The 6-foot-6 marksman made three of his four attempts from three-point range, quickly affirming the Nets’ decision to trade for the $75 million dollar man earlier this summer.

Of course, the Nets were the team that signed Crabbe to the massive offer sheet during free agency in 2016, but still, it’s clear how important he is to the franchise’s plan moving forward. Following the Nets’ 117-83 romp of the New York Knicks last night, Crabbe gushed about his new role with Brooklyn.

“Just watching the first two preseason games, watching all the shots, watching how this offense flows, it’s the perfect system for me,” Crabbe said. “I just came in with confidence. Like I said, it’s a different feel here. They’re telling you to do more, to shoot more, it’s like the ultimate green light.”

Crabbe isn’t embellishing about that so-called ultimate green light either as the Nets, a self-proclaimed three-point shooting team, were not particularly great from deep in 2016-17. Brooklyn attempted 33.6 three-pointers per game last season, the fourth-highest mark in the NBA, but converted on a basement-dwelling 33.8 percent of them. Needless to say, Crabbe’s first season with Brooklyn has a very well-defined role already: Shoot, shoot, shoot.

It remains to be seen if Crabbe will join Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell in the starting lineup, but his high-volume efficiency can be a boon to the Nets’ fast-paced offense either way. As a role player for the Portland Trail Blazers, Crabbe put up just 8.2 shots per game in 2016-17, a total that was surpassed by Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Evan Turner. But the relegated role didn’t stop Crabbe from achieving one of the league’s most efficient seasons from behind the arc as he finished with a 44.4 percent mark, trailing just Kyle Korver in that regard.

“We targeted Allen and there’s a reason, we said this is a guy that’s really going to fit in our system,” said Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ head coach. “Tonight is a good start and is exactly what we thought.”

Up to this point, Crabbe has yet to be completely unleashed in his young professional career. Due to his perimeter-based supporting role to the superstar duo of Lillard and McCollum, Crabbe was often limited to catch-and-shoot opportunities. His impressive efficiency from deep proved Crabbe’s worth at that position, but the Nets will likely ask him to carry a much larger responsibility in 2017-18 and beyond.

With Atkinson, however, there’s a precedent for turning an other-worldly three-point shooter into an offensive focal point. Before the Nets hired Atkinson, he was an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks, a franchise that shocked the league by winning 60 games in 2014-15 and embracing a team-first philosophy. Between Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and DeMarre Carroll (now playing for the Nets), the Hawks had plenty of willing scorers, but the offense often revolved around the aforementioned Korver on most possessions.

Through a number of delays and screens, the Hawks would free up Korver to either shoot a three-pointer or pick apart an opposing defense when too much attention was funneled his way. As Zach Lowe deftly wrote back in 2014 for Grantland, Korver’s elite shooting and above average passing often made defenses pick their poison over and over again.

“[Hawks’ head coach Mike] Budenholzer also understands that the very best shooters don’t necessarily maximize their value by standing around. Great shooters have a gravitational pull, and they can shift the range of that force around the floor as they move,” Lowe said. “A defense can go haywire if that force collides with another object — a teammate screening for Korver, or a defensive player suddenly realizing that Korver has drilled him in the back with a nasty pick.”

So, Atkinson, a staunch disciple of Budenholzer, quickly put Crabbe to a work in a similar way.

The Nets’ preseason thumping of the Knicks gave us a sneak-peek at how Atkinson plans to use the newly acquired sharpshooter. Crabbe’s first bucket in black and white came in transition, but he often caught fire like that out in Portland. What’s worth noting was Brooklyn’s coordinated effort to get Crabbe open, even on a minutes restriction.

Take a couple of his three-pointers, seen both here and here, and check out the activity around Crabbe. On the first basket, Crabbe starts in the corner before cutting toward the top of the arc, immediately Doug McDermott is hit with screens from both Quincy Acy and Trevor Booker as he fruitlessly attempts to keep up. The second basket is similar, but the first screen comes from Russell before Booker’s dribble handoff sets Crabbe up with all the space he needs.

In between those baskets, Crabbe earned his sole assist by taking Damyean Dotson, who over commits on the close-out, off the dribble before kicking it out to Joe Harris. Even on three simple preseason plays, that gravitational pull was on full display, which is something the Nets will likely lean on all season.

Last year, Atkinson and the Nets tried to run these types of plays, but at no point did they have a shooter like Crabbe to facilitate through. The early injury that left the Nets without Lin for much of the season didn’t help, but Brook Lopez was the team’s leading three-point shooter with 5.2 attempts per game — obviously, these nuanced, quick-paced play calls weren’t a great fit given the center’s flat-footedness.

Before he was moved at the trade deadline, the Nets also tried to get Bojan Bogdanovic involved with some simpler handoff and screen variations, as seen here, but the Croatian forward was much better suited for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Still, even without the right personnel and an extremely inexperienced roster last season, Atkinson’s days in Atlanta had a clear influence on his first-year offense in Brooklyn.

From that Grantland piece once again, Lowe described the Hawks’ style of play in a way that Nets fans will find oddly familiar.

“The Hawks under Budenholzer are not going to pound the ball with isolations and stagnant pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor. Budenholzer wants to build a sort of Spurs East, with the ball whipping from side to side in an unguardable blur of passes, handoffs, and picks.”

The Nets finished the 2016-17 season with the NBA’s worst record at 20-62, but they were undeniably playing a better brand of basketball with Atkinson at the helm. Gone were the plodding days of isolations courtesy of Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, replaced by a faster, more modern offense. But even with Lopez’s sudden development as a three-point shooter and the promising emergence of Caris LeVert, the Nets’ gritty performances were often undone by one of the league’s worst defenses and an inability to score late in games.

Other currently rostered players like Sean Kilpatrick, Harris and Acy made worthwhile contributions from three-point range, but the Nets are getting a major boost in offensive firepower this fall thanks to Crabbe, Russell and a healthy Lin. Even without much effort, Atkinson and Nets will start executing on the same plays they couldn’t quite finish off last season. Will opposing defenses help on Crabbe or choose to stay tight on the quick and crafty guards?

Ahead of Crabbe’s debut, Atkinson reflected on the Nets’ attempt to fix a glaring weakness.

“We knew shooting was an issue for us last year,” Atkinson said. “We felt like we got a ton of open shots but didn’t put them down. We knew we had to address shooting.”

So, with Atkinson’s offensive influences from his days with the Hawks, the question to be asked is this: Have the Nets found their version of Kyle Korver?

It’s silly to suggest that Crabbe could hold the same impact as Korver did during Atlanta’s impressive heyday, but his potential appears to have a high ceiling in Brooklyn. Of course, it’s also an extremely small sample size, but the Nets likely envisioned this role for Crabbe over a year ago in free agency. If Atkinson and the Nets truly commit to creating opportunities for Crabbe, the microwavable shooter could be a game-changer moving forward.

Crabbe’s debut finally came fifteen months after the Nets first attempted to lock him down long-term, but if last night was any indication, the delay will have been worth the wait.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17

Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.

As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.

 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.

The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.

 Andre Roberson

There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.

Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.

 Kevin Durant

Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.

How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.

 Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.

Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.

 Eric Bledsoe

Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.

Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.

 Anthony Davis

Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.

Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.

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Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets

The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.

Moke Hamilton

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It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.

Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.

Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”

After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.

The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.

“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.

“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”

Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.

Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.

“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.

“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”

It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.

When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.

In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.

As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.

Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.

Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.

“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.

“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”

Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.

“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.

But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.

“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.

With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.

Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.

But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.

That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.

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