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NBA PM: Breaking Down The Brooklyn Nets’ Defense

While the Nets’ defense has been caused some concern so far, there have been some encouraging signs. Quinn Davis breaks down the defense that might make or break a legit championship contender.

Quinn Davis

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During the 2000-01 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, finished 22nd in the league for defensive rating. They went on to win the championship, and are still the only team this century to finish outside the top 10 in defensive rating and win a title.

One key caveat for that Lakers team is that they were a quintessential on-off switch team. Ultimately, that switch was stuck in an off position as the veteran group coasted through its title defense campaign. Famously, the switch was emphatically flipped on in the playoffs as head coach Phil Jackson’s team led all 16 playoff squads in defensive rating en route to a 16-1 rampage.

20 years later, the Brooklyn Nets have assembled a frightening collection of offensive talent. The trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving has been nearly an unstoppable force in its short time together. Durant’s mid-range pull-up game remains an outlier in NBA history in terms of effectiveness, as does Harden’s step-back three and a knack for drawing fouls. Irving’s artistry in isolation has only been rivaled by the Jean-Michel Basquiat-inspired court he calls home.

With those three playing at that level, the Nets should be a clear-cut title favorite. Yet there is understandable trepidation due to the other half of the game.

The Nets currently rank 23rd in defensive rating, and that number is even worse if you filter it since the team traded for Harden and lost an interior presence in Jarrett Allen. The alarm bells rang their loudest when the Nets gave up 149 points, including 48 in the fourth quarter, during that sloppy loss to the Washington Wizards.

Going back to the turn of the century, that Lakers team had solid defenders up and down the roster. While effort has been an issue for this Nets team, their defensive talent extends about as far as Kevin Durant’s wingspan.

Barring a major buyout or trade acquisition, the Nets will not be able to suddenly transform into a great or even good defense. That said, they probably don’t need to be a great or even good defense to win a championship. With an offense poised to shatter records, an average defense could do just fine.

Can this team as currently constructed climb to the middle of the pack defensively? It’s tough to say, given the evidence at this point, but there have been a couple of encouraging signs.

Using Cleaning the Glass, the Nets’ worst defensive performances have come against the league’s bottom-feeders. In that shootout against the Wizards, they allowed Bradley Beal and co. to post a 130.9 offensive rating, good for 18 full points above their current mark for the season. The game before that, they allowed the Oklahoma City Thunder to score about 117 points per 100 possessions, up from their 27th ranked 105.6 number for the season.

Meanwhile, they have held up a little better against tougher competition. In their games against the league’s two best offensives, the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, the Nets kept those teams right around their average offensive rating for the season. Those numbers hint that poor effort is certainly a factor.

The most frequently used lineups since the Harden trade has held up moderately well. The small-ball lineup of Irving, Harden, Joe Harris, Durant and Jeff Green has posted a 110.3 defensive rating. The more traditional lineup with DeAndre Jordan in Green’s spot boasts a 108.0 number, per Cleaning the Glass. Better, both of those numbers hover around league-average.

The real issues have come when the team goes to its bench. The Nets particularly lack any depth behind Jordan in the frontcourt. Reggie Perry, usually the backup center, was cut out of the rotation against the Clippers – and more recently assigned to the G League affiliate – as the team went exclusively with either a small-ball unit or Jordan at center.

Due to the personnel, the Nets’ defense has relied on a lot of switching when defending both on and off-ball screens. This scheme requires strict attention to detail and can look stout when the team is in sync but leads to very easy attempts for the opposition when a single mistake is made.

Against the Miami HEAT, in what was likely the Nets’ best defensive performance of the season, the group executed these switches well. Here Durant, Green and Bruce Brown perfectly coordinate a three-way switch against a Miami set play, leading to a Brown steal.

Switching constantly can mitigate the Nets’ biggest weakness, interior defense. It can also lead to miscommunications and mismatches that opponents can hunt.

When the focus isn’t there, a blown switch leads to a wide-open layup or three. Against the Wizards, these mistakes were frequent. Here, based on the reaction after the play, it looks like Durant fails to signal the switch on a pin down for Davis Bertans, concluding in a three and the foul.

The Nets also failed to communicate on this Mo Wagner screen-and-roll with Beal, ending up with a wide-open dunk for the big German.

Switching also can allow teams with great scorers to hunt favorable matchups. This was in full display against the Clippers when Paul George and Kawhi Leonard sought out isolations against Irving and Harris.

On the first play of the game, Leonard gets the switch to Irving. The Brooklyn defense shrinks to help on the potential Leonard drive, leaving Nicolas Batum wide-open for three.

While those downsides are less than ideal, the Nets have shown an ability to outweigh them with solid play when engaged. In the same quarter of that game, Durant and Irving do a great job re-switching to get Durant back to Leonard. The two-time Finals MVP makes a great shot, but the defense was solid.

But when Jordan is in the game, the Nets are forced to rely on more drop coverage. This is when the player guarding the screener drops back into the paint as the guard fights over the screen.

The results have been mixed. Brown is feisty, but the Nets do not have many options when they need to defend smaller guards. If the defender tasked with the guard lags over the screen, Jordan will be defending a 1-on-2 in the paint.

The Bucks attacked this coverage repeatedly using Jordan’s man, Giannis Antetokounmpo, as a screener. The Nets held up well, especially when the right defenders were tasked with the play. Here Durant slithers over the screen and makes a great contest from behind to alter the shot, but Brooklyn was unable to secure the rebound.

The issues with this coverage can come when a team with solid guards attack the Nets’ weak links on the perimeter. Below, the Bucks have a favorable matchup with Jrue Holiday guarded by Harden. Harden fails to stay attached over the screen, resulting in Holiday drawing out Jordan and finding Antetokounmpo for a dunk.

While these issues can be attributed to the roster, some of this can also be blamed on the lack of practice time for this group. Newcomer Steve Nash seems to be switching between different schemes on a quarter-to-quarter basis. The experimentation is a conscious choice, of course, as the Nets would rather be making these mistakes in February than in May.

Another encouraging sign for Brooklyn is their transition defense and rebounding, two necessary fundamentals for a good team. They have been right around league-average in rebounding and even slightly above average in transition defense since the Harden trade, per Cleaning the Glass. The old adage that the best defense is a good offense rings true here, as the Nets keep opponents out of transition by simply making shots.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Nets continue to grow as a defensive unit as the season goes on. They have yet to play a true post-up threat that will test their biggest weakness, which comes in the form of Joel Embiid on Saturday.

It is likely they also grab another interior presence via trade or buyout, and they will certainly be interested in the services of someone like PJ Tucker should he be available.

For now, the team will continue to learn through trial and error – really, it is the only option. The effort will come and go in this truncated season, but the key is the ceiling this team can reach when fully engaged. While there are too many weak links on the roster to construct a great defense, an average one paired with a historically great offense could be enough to reach the top of the mountain.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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NBA Daily: Should Toronto Add A Big?

The Raptors have started to thrive with their small-ball lineup. But, with some intriguing options available, should they look to add a traditional center?

Ariel Pacheco

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After a rough start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have hit their stride. They are now .500 and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve tinkered with their lineups for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to inconsistent play at the center position until coach Nick Nurse decided to just play small.

Aron Baynes’ play has been a huge disappointment. Brought in to be a serviceable replacement for Marc Gasol, but his play has dropped off after a career year with the Phoenix Suns last season. The starter to open the season, Baynes lost his job after failing to produce; his 35 percent three-point percentage from a season ago has dipped to an abysmal 23 percent in 2020-21. Alex Len was also signed to give the Raptors solid minutes but similarly disappointed, as he played just seven games in Toronto before he was released. Len’s defense was an issue and that left the Raptors with only one other candidate at center.

Enter Chris Boucher, who has easily been the best big on the roster. Despite his thin frame, Boucher has been an effective defender on the inside and, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to start him, Boucher has become one of the NBA’s best bench players, averaging 13 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 44 percent from three despite the unique form of his jump shot.

That said, since Nurse won’t start Boucher, the Raptors have turned to a starting five of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. It’s turned their season around and was a group often turned to last postseason. Versatile and easily switchable, defensively, the lineup can also provide significant firepower on offense. Together, they’ve posted a net rating of plus-11.1 in 51 minutes, per NBA.com, Toronto’s best among groups with at least 50 minutes together.

Pascal Siakam, who struggled to start the season, has benefitted from the lineup in particular. Spending more time than ever this season at the center-spot, the Raptors’ versatility has ensured Siakam a favorable matchup in almost any situation, which has helped both his efficiency and overall production.

With that in mind, should Toronto look to add a more traditional center?

In short, yes — but only if the price is right. Boucher has been excellent and, while he’s struggled, Baynes can still impact the game in short spurts, especially on the defensive end. There are certainly some intriguing names available, such as DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond, but neither would seem to be a great match for Toronto. 

Cousins, once at least a passable defender, has become a huge liability. Injuries have sapped his ability and Cousins would not only struggle to stay in front of quicker guards but would provide little rim protection. Offensively, he’s shooting 33 percent from the three-point line, below the league average. Cousins has also struggled to finish around the rim this season, as he’s only made 44 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, per NBA.com.

Andre Drummond is a more intriguing option, but only if he were to buy-in. Drummond is an elite rebounder and the Raptors, dead last in rebounds per game, could certainly use help on the glass. The issue with Drummond, however, is that he’s always tried to do too much on offense, which isn’t his strength. If he could settle into a role, rather than try to be the focal point of the offense, he could be a great fit — that said, he has yet to do that in his nine NBA seasons, so there’s little reason to believe might now. Adding him after a potential buy out, rather than trading for him, might make a Drummond gamble worth it for Toronto.

Their best lineup will always be their small lineup and should give them a chance against just about anyone. But the Raptors, if only to eat minutes throughout the rest of the regular season, will likely need to acquire another center at some point. As for the postseason, being able to throw some size at players like Joel Embiid, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo could prove integral to Toronto’s success as well.

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The Future of ‘Sexland’ in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland started hot but now find themselves in the back of the Eastern Conference standings. What does this mean for the Cavs’ future and for the viability of ‘Sexland’ long-term?

Zach Dupont

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When the 2020-21 season began, the Cleveland Cavaliers were among the hot topics in the NBA. The Cavaliers burst out of the gate with a 3-0 record and even claimed a convincing 118-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. This hot-start was primarily due to the play of their young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Before long, teammate Larry Nance Jr.’s ‘Sexland’ moniker started catching on quicker nationwide.

Since then, and in part thanks to a brutal schedule, Cleveland has faltered, falling to 13th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 14-21. The Cavaliers’ direction has become clear during this challenging season; they’re trying to get younger and better suited for the future. Made evident through their actions this season, like sidelining Andre Drummond until they find a trade partner and acquiring Jarrett Allen from the Brooklyn Nets in the massive James Harden trade.

In terms of a successful rebuild, the first point of discussion has to be about star guard Collin Sexton. Now in his third season, Sexton leads the Cavaliers in scoring, putting up 23.8 points per game and doing so efficiently with a 58 true shooting percentage. Sexton has already proven that he’s a legit NBA starter, but can he lead a playoff-caliber team with his scoring? Sexton’s three-point shooting is already at a high level, hitting on 39.2 percent so far and 40 percent this season, but what he offers off the dribble is what will elevate him to superstar status.

Sexton is shooting 46 percent on pull-up jump shots this season and 48 percent on step-back jump shots, per NBA.com. Compared to the rest of the league, Sexton is 14th in the NBA in field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, among those who shoot more than five per game. This scoring puts Sexton in elite company with the likes of the NBA’s best scorers, better even than Paul George, Jaylen Brown and Stephen Curry. Sexton is also a skilled finisher at the rim and, despite being just 6-foot-1, the guard has a field goal percentage of 60 from within five feet of the rim.

Sexton’s game is not without issues though, some of which hold him back from being an elite offensive engine. Perhaps Sexton’s biggest weakness on offense is his lack of passing skill. With Drummond – and his 30 percent usage rate – no longer playing, Sexton now has the greenest of lights and sports a 26.7 usage rate. Sexton’s offensive package of dribble pull-ups and attacking the rim naturally means he needs to have the ball in his hands, but his assist percentage of 20.3 is 107th league-wide. So far, Sexton isn’t a player who creates many shots for his teammates and that might hinder some of the overall development.

Sexton’s partner in crime is second-year guard Darius Garland. The Vanderbilt alum operates as the feature distributor, leading the team in assists per game at 5.9. Like Sexton, Garland is a shooting-oriented guard with 288 of his 398 shot attempts coming on jumpers. Further, Garland struggles to get offense generated at the basket. And worse, he’s only shot 107 layups all season and tallied a 53.2 percent field goal percentage from within five feet from the rim.

Incapable of reaching the free throw line, Garland only shoots 1.8 free throws per game, 123rd in the NBA. Of course, Garland is a more willing passer than Sexton but still has the same shoot-first mindset, which puts the Cavaliers in an odd spot.

If Garland improves to become a consistent 40+ percent three-point shooter and Sexton unlocks the ability to shoot from deep at a truly elite level, the pair could have a real dynamic shooting threat. On the flip side, running two undersized guards, neither of whom are elite offensive playmakers, could be a recipe for disaster… and that’s often been the case this season.

The Cavaliers have the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA at 105.4, beating out only the Oklahoma City Thunder. This inadequate offensive production isn’t all on Sexton and Garland, as Cleveland’s lack of depth –some due to long-term injuries – and poor shooting outside of their guards, has them 24th in field goal percentage and 27th in three-point percentage. While Sexton and Garland are both talented offensive weapons, the duo hasn’t thrived together as an offense. 

Playing the undersized backcourt has problems offensively, but defensively it’s been an issue as well. Garland and Sexton are both 6-foot-1 and sub-200 lbs, making them two of the smaller players in the league. In short, Cleveland has the 10th-worst defensive rating in the NBA at 113.7. This combination of lousy offense and lackluster defense gives them a net rating of -8.3, the worst league-wide. 

It’s safe to say that Sexland isn’t currently working down in Cleveland, but that doesn’t mean the franchise is destined for failure. The Cavaliers are a very young team and three of their everyday starters are younger than 22 years old – Sexton, Garland and newcomer Isaac Okoro. If you include Allen, that’s four, despite the massive payday he’s due this upcoming summer.

Kevin Love, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman and the currently-injured Larry Nance are all serviceable rotation players, but the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired. Until their next high lottery selection, the likes of Dylan Windler, Okoro, Allen and Prince will be given every opportunity to grow and succeed.

While the ‘Sexland’ pair may not be a serious competitor right now, the former is a talented player with All-Star potential and the latter has dangerous sixth-man written all over him. Sexton took a huge leap this season compared to last and, if he continues to improve, it’s not unreasonable to think he could be competing for All-NBA awards and championships down the line.

Garland’s shooting potential and ability to pass would make him a quality option on any second unit. Of course, he owns the potential to be a reliable starter himself, just not on a team that already stars a different 6-foot-1 point guard.

Although ‘Sexland’ will struggle with many of these enduring factors moving forward,  Cleveland has managed to build an impressive group of young players and will only continue to add to this core over the coming years.

Cleveland is far from competing right now, but the groundwork has been set for a competitive team to emerge from this core one day in the future. 

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