Brooklyn Nets in pregame
December 20, 2023: Brooklyn Nets Cam Johnson, Royce O'Neale, and Nic Claxton in pregame before the game vs. the New York Knicks. Image via the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets’ December Struggles Speak to Larger Issues

The Brooklyn Nets learned the hard way in December that bad moments can leave a lasting impression.

Throughout October and November, fans witnessed Brooklyn starting to figure some things out. The Nets had areas to improve on, but fans saw the contours of a team in decent shape. They peaked when they beat the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 13 in Phoenix. Since then, though, things have been going downhill at an alarming pace.

Following that win, Brooklyn went 2-7 to end the month. The two lone wins came against the Detroit Pistons, who were in the midst of a historic losing streak. One of those seven losses was the 2023 home finale against the Milwaukee Bucks. Usually, a loss against a title contender would not be a big deal. However, the Nets set off a firestorm in the media and among the fanbase by resting many of their players that night. The loss also began a losing streak that carried into the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024.

What has been the cause of Brooklyn’s troubles? As it turns out, an old bug-a-boo has reared its ugly head.

Indefensible Nets Defense

The Nets’ gains on defense this season have been washed away in a deluge of three-pointers. Since the Suns game, Brooklyn has allowed 122.7 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-worst in the NBA. Teams are shooting 42.9% from three against Brooklyn, the second-worst in the league.

There are lapses in the Nets’ defense that simply should not happen.

Communication is essential to any good defense, and too often the Nets have been lacking in that area. After their New Year’s Eve loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Nic Claxton spoke about what was going wrong

“Just not enough resistance, not being on the same page, individual defense when we go down,” Claxton said.

Jacque Vaughn changed the starting lineup to get more defense back on the first team. That swap has led to Cam Thomas coming off the bench, and although his offense stands out and is much needed on this team, his defense still has room for improvement.

After a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, Jacque Vaughn had this to say:

Something the Nets must correct immediately is the turnover department. Simply put, they do not force nearly enough turnovers, and it has made things more challenging. In December, the Nets were No. 26 in opponent turnover rate and struggled to get out in transition and score easy baskets. The Nets do not have many players who can consistently get their own shot in the halfcourt, so forcing turnovers on defense and finding easy points on the break will open things up for everyone on the roster.

Nets Player That Needs to Step Up: Mikal Bridges

December 2, 2023: Brooklyn Nets guard Mikal Bridges shoots free throw against the Orlando Magic. Image via the Brooklyn Nets

Nets Republic shouted Mikal Bridges out as the Nets’ best player last month—and when one is the best player on the team, one assumes responsibility when things are going poorly. In December, Bridges led the team in scoring at 20.3 points per game on .438/.372/.807 shooting splits. That is OK, but a step down from his play in November. Brooklyn’s defense has continued to struggle, and Bridges has not made the impact on defense that fans have come to expect from the potential All-Star. As the leader of the team, the pressure falls on his shoulders, but he understands, where the fans are coming from.

”I’m not playing where I wanna play, but it’s just trying to figure out the system I’m in and offensively, defensively trying to find my groove,” Bridges said. “I feel Nets fans on me a little bit, I feel it… a lot them just care so much and they care about winning as much as I do.”

Despite those struggles, Bridges did have some high-scoring games. He scored 42 points in a Dec. 2 victory against the Orlando Magic and thoroughly outplayed rising Magic star Franz Wagner.

As a team, Brooklyn doesn’t get to the rim as much as their opponents do. They have to find a better way of generating downhill pressure and getting easy baskets at the rim. If Bridges can regain his shooting touch, find those easy buckets and create trouble for defenders, he can take his game to a new level. It will also have a multiplying effect and make things easier for the rest of his teammates as they try to get going on offense.

Games to Keep An Eye On

Kevin Durant of the Suns and Nic Claxton of the Nets
December 13, 2023: Kevin Durant of the Phoenix Suns and Nic Claxton of the Brooklyn Nets embrace. Image via the Brooklyn Nets

Jan. 11 vs. the Cavaliers

This one is an international affair as the game will be in Paris, France, the first game in Paris for the Nets since the 2008 preseason. For the Nets, they will be facing a Cavs team that is the walking wounded. Darius Garland has been out with a fractured jaw while Evan Mobley has been sidelined due to knee surgery. Trade rumors are once again circling Cavs star Donovan Mitchell, but so far it does not appear anything is in the works. Cleveland (19-15) is still solidly in the playoff race, and this game will play a big part in what both teams look to do as the trade deadline draws closer.

Jan. 23 vs. the Knicks

The last time the Nets came home from a West Coast road trip, the Knicks were waiting for them at Barclays Center and came away with a confident victory. The teams will have the same circumstance this time around—with a twist. New York will look plenty different as it traded RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn before 2023 ended. The trade gives the Knicks more three-point shooting and a player in Anunoby that can guard some of the best players in the game.

Jan. 31 vs. the Suns

Nets fans will get to say hello to an old friend. Kevin Durant makes his return to Brooklyn, and it promises to be an emotional night for everyone at the arena and watching at home on ABC. While he was a Net, Durant balled out and did his best to lead the team to the promised land. Although Brooklyn fell agonizingly short, KD repped the team, fanbase and city with pride and will go down as one of the best to ever don Nets colors. The NBA is a fraternity, and even when players change locations and move to new cities, the relationships and friendships they make last forever. There might be a few boos, but Durant should receive a warm ovation from the ‘Clays crowd.

Meanwhile, the Suns have started to turn things around and it should make for a fun, highly competitive primetime affair to end the month. A game like this will go a long way in understanding where the Nets’ defense is and what the team needs to address before the trade deadline.

Player to Watch: Nic Claxton

Claxton has found his footing and is adding more to his game by the day.

Brooklyn’s defense has to be better, and that comes with figuring out what strategy it will deploy. Claxton spoke about being on the same page, and fans have seen the club start to move away from the drop defense it employed in training camp and the start of the season. With more switching comes more opportunities for Claxton to slow opponents down on the perimeter. He is an incredibly smart defender and can time his help defense perfectly to assist his teammates.

His blocks also serve as a kickstart for the fast break and can get the team much-needed easy points.

As Brooklyn enters a crucial juncture of its season, they’re going to need Claxton playing at his best if it wants to get out of the hole the team has dug itself into. Nets fans have watched Claxton grow each year and can see the full range of his game. It is a welcome development and a sign that he is someone that the franchise has big plans for in 2024 and beyond.

The time is now for the Nets to pick themselves up and get back to their winning ways.