Image via the Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn Nets Season Check-In: Trends, Top Players and December Games to Watch

A team finding its footing in the NBA is never easy, as evidenced by tough competition and a slim margin for error. As the Brooklyn Nets move into the next part of their season, looking back at the first portion can be helpful.

November 3, 2023: Brooklyn Nets huddle before the game against the Chicago Bulls. Image via the Brooklyn Nets

In October and November, the Nets went a respectable 9-9—and could have gone 10-8 had they not let a winnable game against the shorthanded Charlotte Hornets slip away. Brooklyn’s offense was No. 10 in the league in offensive rating at 116.8 points per 100 possessions. The Nets are buoyed by their three-point shooting; if there’s an opening from deep, they will fire. Brooklyn was No. 6 in three-point attempts (39 per game) and second in efficiency (39%).

The Nets are in decent shape in a treacherous Eastern Conference landscape–sitting at No. 9 in the East. On top, there are contenders like the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks looking to make it back to the Finals. The Orlando Magic have surprised everyone and pushed themselves into that top tier thanks to their defense.

The Nets are a few tiers below them, but they are in playoff contention. The team has the talent necessary to compete and plays with the grit and toughness that endears them to the Brooklyn community.

The Nets Get Defensive

The big question surrounding the Nets has been on the defensive end. Going into training camp, there was talk of the Nets playing more of a “drop“ defense. In any defense, some opportunities have to be given up. For the Nets, it is above the break three-pointers. Jacque Vaughn recently spoke about that dichotomy.

Journalist Steve Lichtenstein also made an interesting observation in his newsletter:

More importantly, Vaughn has to hold his players more accountable for all those open shot attempts against. When you watched Miami and Philly, they closed out significantly harder to the three-point line than Brooklyn and executed the ensuing rotations more precisely when the ball moved. With the Nets’ general length, they should be in positions to both apply help if needed while also staying attached to opposing shooters. There’s been too much ball-watching.

When screened, the Nets need to match their opponents’ physicality; it’s not a good look when you can’t get through Miami’s Duncan Robinson on an off-ball pick. To play effective drop coverage, the screened defender has to stay in the play and not get pinballed out to midcourt; otherwise, it’s a two-on-one against the dropping big man. The Nets have generally leaner body types, but they could still employ more of a hit-first mentality on defense.

The Nets certainly have the talent to be a good defensive team; they have athletes up and down the roster and know the importance of succeeding on that end. The team has not been forcing turnovers at the rate it needs to, and it needs to fix that. By generating more turnovers, it will allow the Nets to get out on the run more often and get easy baskets.

Most Valuable Player: Mikal Bridges

Mikal Bridges has accepted the challenge of being the Nets’ top player since he joined the team last season. Bridges had big shoes to fill at the small forward position but has done well as the top dog. With this being his first full season in Brooklyn, a lot is expected of him–and he has played up to expectations.

In October and November, Bridges averaged 21.8 points on .472/.349/.855 shooting splits. Fans know he’s great on the move, and that excellence extends out to the three-point line, where he will make you a defender pay if he falls asleep on defense.

Bridges’s ability to find offense for himself is vital and can save the Nets when they are stuck in the mud. Having a player like Bridges who can score in the painted area, midrange and three-point line matters greatly. It allows for more versatility for a team’s star and opens things up for his teammates.

Bridges has spoken about the need to get better on defense, mentioning that he needs to improve. Understandably, his work on that end has slipped some due to the workload on offense, but that should lessen going forward.

Runner Up: Cam Thomas

If Thomas did not miss time with an ankle sprain, there is a good chance he would be the Nets’ Most Valuable Player so far this season. Even with that, Thomas has been magnificent when he plays.

Opponents cannot afford to sag off of him or play a drop coverage against him because they leave themselves susceptible to this:

Next to Bridges, the Nets have another dynamic scorer who can heat up at a moment’s notice and take over a game. Thomas has gradually improved and has room to continue to grow now that he is healthy following an ankle sprain. Having Thomas back will help take the workload off of Bridges and give him a bit more energy to excel on defense.

Speaking of defense, that has been a big point of contention early in Thomas’s career. However, he has made gains on that side of the ball. Thomas spoke about Jacque Vaughn’s impressions of his defense with Cam Wolf of GQ Magazine in late November:

“He’s definitely been very, very happy with how I’ve been guarding because most teams get me on their best player and they try to score,” Thomas said. “So me just being able to get those plays shows that he can trust me in a game to defend and get a key stop if he needs it. So I feel like that’s been a big thing, just gaining that trust on both ends. Offensively, it’ll take care of itself, but gaining that trust defensively was a big thing for me.”

Thomas is ready, and he is ready now. It is great to see him get the full opportunity to showcase his skills and grow his game.

Games To Keep An Eye On

Kevin Durant at 2021 Practice in the Park
Kevin Durant at 2021 Practice in the Park

Dec. 13 at Phoenix

For the first time, Nets fans will get to say hello to an old friend. Kevin Durant is back to playing at an MVP level in his first full season with the Phoenix Suns. When the Suns were in town to play the Knicks on Nov. 26, Durant was asked about his time in Brooklyn, and more specifically about the summer when he tried to force his way to the Suns.

We will see what the reaction is like when the Suns visit Barclays Center in February.

On the other end, the response for Bridges and Cam Johnson in Phoenix should be overwhelmingly positive. The “Twins” helped guide the Suns out of their decade of mediocrity and were key members of their 2021 Western Conference championship team. The evening should be emotional all around.

This game is the second of their road trip and the first of a back-to-back. When the Nets leave Phoenix, they immediately fly to Denver for a game against the Denver Nuggets on Friday night. Chances are the Nets might sit some players in Denver, so they might max out to get the win in Phoenix.

Dec. 20 vs. the Knicks

The Nets will be greeted by their crosstown neighbors upon returning from a five-game road trip. The Knicks (12-7) have been solid to start the season, standing at No. 5 in the East, and are led by Villanova star Jalen Brunson, who has continued his rise and has been one of the best guards in the league since coming to New York.

For the Nets, this matchup will be a good test for their defense. Guard play is king and being able to slow down a player as dynamic as Brunson will go a long way in determining how far Brooklyn can go this season.

It will also be a big battle on the interior, as the Knicks were among the best rebounding teams in the NBA in October and November. Mitchell Robinson is a big part of that success, averaging an astronomical 5.6 offensive rebounds this season. With a team that has shooters like Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo, giving them extra opportunities is an invitation for danger. The Nets’ bigs will need to bring the physicality and intensity to win this key matchup.

Player to Watch: Nic Claxton

November 15, 2023: Nic Claxton and Spencer Dinwiddie during the Brooklyn Nets vs. Orlando Magic game. Image via Brooklyn Nets

Claxton has been progressing over the past year. The Nets big man has continued to add moves to his arsenal and is making a strong case to be named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team.

Claxton led the NBA in blocks at 2.8 per game during October and November. Though he missed time due to an ankle injury, he returned at the end of November and is back to playing excellent ball. The big guy has adjusted to his assignments and has grown as a player and leader. His play will hold a key role in the Nets’ present and future.

The Nets’ start to the season included young stars starting to shine and the team putting out good effort each night. Even with their early defensive woes, the Nets have the talent to improve quickly. Brooklyn will need to continue to build on those traits to fight its way up the standings in the East.