The 2021 Brooklyn Nets subverted most traditional qualities of a superteam—in the regular season, at least.
For starters, they were just your regular old good team most of the time. The “Big 3” have appeared together in just eight games heading into the playoffs, as all of Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant missed sizable chunks of time throughout the season. On many a night, you’d look up and it’d be Irving and a bunch of solid, if unspectacular dudes taking it to the Indiana Pacers.
In that supporting cast, though, we find more un-superteam-like qualities. And it’s not just that the Nets relied on those players heavily to snag the No. 2 seed. It’s that all types of players—from the bubbly young prospect in Nic Claxton, to the ex-star having his redemption arc in Blake Griffin, to the dude who was playing in Europe last month in Mike James—have recurring roles. These aren’t seasoned vets walking out of the role player factory and onto the court for Brooklyn.
But the weirdest, most captivating, least super team-like individual of the year has to be Bruce Brown.
Forget potential concerns about his playoff impact. There may not be an adequate comparison throughout NBA history for the path Brown took to becoming not just a reliable, but necessary piece for a title contender, even if it was just for the regular season. For a guy that averaged about 9 points and 5 rebounds, that might seem like hyperbole.
But it’s not just that Brown isn’t the modern archetype of what a role player should be. There have been impact players on great teams who aren’t 6’7″, who don’t simply catch and fire threes. It’s that, in a season where he was traded to his new team a month before opening night, with a shortened training camp and a transformative midseason trade, Brown re-shaped his identity as a basketball player. If there was a learning curve, it was too small to pinpoint. He was a fish out of water who grew legs and started running as soon as he hit the sand. In a season that was constantly in flux, but never in doubt, nearly every Net deserves major credit. But no amount of praise is too high for the job Bruce Brown did this season.
Throughout his college career at the University of Miami, and his first two professional seasons with the Detroit Pistons, Brown operated as your standard guard. He was his own player, of course. His jumper was subpar, but his on-ball defense and rebounding were excellent for his position. When Brown wasn’t bringing the ball up the court, he was stationed on the perimeter, facing the basket. Your typical guard behavior. So, it was difficult to imagine a consistent role for him with Brooklyn. How could he fit alongside ball-dominant stars as a shorter player who can’t really shoot the three?
The answer to that question became “re-wire his basketball brain.” Brown has become a rotation mainstay, not through an ability to space the floor with outside shooting, but because he consistently roams the paint and cuts, dives, or slips into whatever crack makes the most sense. All that, of course, comes in addition to his sturdy defensive profile and (cliché alert) all-around grit.
“Getting to a spot” often refers to on-ball creation and shot-making, but Brown has mastered getting to his spot without the ball. Here’s an example of how Brown impacts the offense with his off-ball ability, and how skilled he’s become at doing so:
KD gets doubled, and Brown recognizes that as his opportunity to fill the paint. His cut sucks in the Chicago Bulls weak-side defense, leaving the skip pass to Joe Harris open. When Harris attacks the closeout, Brown resets his three seconds in the paint by floating away from the basket. That movement also creates an easier passing angle for Harris, which leads to two free throws.
Brown has transformed from a classic outside-in guard to a UFO with a knack for the subtleties of the inside-out game. The baseline cuts Rodions Kurucs scrounged easy points from, injecting life into the Nets fans of 2019, are second-nature for Brown. He’s 6’4″, playing a completely new style of hoops, while as comfortable working the dunker spot as anybody. And knowing that he’s not a deep threat, he punishes sagging defenders by jolting into handoffs:
Between handoffs and other screening-type actions, Brown has developed an ability to thrive alongside his All-Star teammates. He and Harden developed a screener/ball-handler chemistry that was significant in the mid-season run Brooklyn made to the top of the Eastern Conference. Trap Harden at the level, and he has every pass in his bag to hit Brown in the paint for a look at the rim, or for a kick to a three-point shooter, a skill Brown improved over the season.
His finishing in the paint, though, really made all this possible. One of the enduring images of the 2021 season, one that Nets fans will be able to access every time they close their eyes, is Brown’s right-handed, bunny-hop floater. Cleaning the Glass marks Brown as finishing 66 percent of his opportunities at the rim this season, and 48 percent from the “short-midrange.” Those are marks that land Brown in the 62nd and 79th percentile, respectively, for his position group, which CTG classifies as forward. His contemporaries in those categories are the likes of known scorers Tobias Harris, Brandon Ingram, and even the midrange god in DeMar DeRozan.
And Brown’s volume on these shots is absurd. 59 percent of his attempts are at the rim, which leads the league for ‘forwards’ that receive more than spot minutes. His “short-midrange” rate is at the 89th percentile for the same position grouping. The Nets figured out early that he wasn’t an outside threat, but they didn’t let it deter them from utilizing his talents. For that, the coaching staff deserves credit. But it’s Brown that deserves the lion’s share for remodeling his game entirely to make it work.
Before I finish here, we have to marvel at Brown’s offensive rebounding. Of course, he contributes greatly on the defensive glass as well. Brooklyn’s switch-all defense often leaves them exposed, with smalls boxing out bigs, a challenge Brown can handle better than any other Nets guard. It does not go unnoticed. But Brown is a different animal on the offensive glass.
Part of his gaudy numbers are a function of him inhabiting the paint. But that doesn’t explain it all. More clichés, but it’s his physicality and will to fight anyone for a loose ball that makes second-chance opportunities likely. His 2021 regular season was one of the best offensive rebounding seasons for a player of his stature:
At just 6’4″, Brown was the only player in the top 50 of the NBA’s offensive rebound percent leaders (percentage of his team’s misses he grabbed while on the floor) below 6’7″. There is no stat that better indicates his attitude on the floor. He mixes it up with anyone and everyone, wherever, whenever. And a superteam needs that, no matter if it comes from a rockstar in Dennis Rodman or someone the casual NBA fan is still getting acquainted with.
Sure, there are questions about how Brown’s game may translate to the playoffs. His defense and rebounding ability are above reproach, but there have been instances where his lack of height inhibits his ability to finish in the paint. And, after all, that is his primary function on offense. In a playoff environment with increased physicality (and the big bodies potential playoff opponents in the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers can throw out there), how Brown’s impact changes is something to monitor.
But we’re past the question of if he deserves the chance to try. He’ll try as hard as anybody tries to do anything, because that’s what he does. Not as a typical, defensive-minded guard with questions about his shooting, but as a player who was reborn in Brooklyn as an amorphous hound that gives opponents hell however he can.