There are a lot of factors that have led to the strong recent play by the Brooklyn Nets, but one factor that goes less noticed when looking at things from a strictly statistical perspective is the way the Nets have used screens as a way of creating things on the offensive end.
The NBA keeps track of screen assists, defined as screens that lead to made field goals. Think of them as…well, as assists. In the same way that a well-time pass can help a player get open at the basket or space behind the arc to hit a three, a well-timed screen can help open up space for a shooter on the outside, or can help create space for a player to drive to the basket.
Jarrett Allen currently ranks seventh in the NBA in screen assists per game with 4.4, while Ed Davis ranks 21st with 3.2 per game. That gives the Nets two players in the top-21 in the category. Only the Clippers and Pacers have multiple players in the top-20. Overall, the Nets rank third in the NBA in screen assists per game with 10.8, with just the Hornets (11.3) and Warriors (11.0) ahead of them. Those three teams are tied in points per game off screen assists with 26.2.
Let’s look at some examples of how the Nets have used screens from their big men effectively over their strong recent run:
Jarrett Allen’s Screening
In the modern NBA, having a big man who can move out away from the basket can be a huge help for a team’s offensive, because it helps open up the paint and allows driving. But Jarrett Allen isn’t much of a three-point shooter — he’s hitting just 16 percent of his shots from deep on 0.6 attempts per game — and Ed Davis is 0-for-2 on the year from behind the arc, so you aren’t going to get defenses moving out to defend against either guy if you try to use him like that, but you still want to find ways to create that necessary space to get your ball-handlers into the paint. That’s where screens can become incredibly useful.
Let’s take the play above, for example. D’Angelo Russell brings the ball up the floor, then passes off to Joe Harris in the right wing. Allen is right there beside Harris when he gets the ball, and he uses his body to set a screen that shakes the tight coverage that Kevin Huerter is playing. Huerter ends up having to come around Allen’s body and playing catch up on the play, and this also ends up with Dewayne Dedmon switched onto Harris. Harris has the speed and the dribbles here to get to the bucket, and while Dedmon is arguably the best defensive presence on this team, he’s not going to win in space against Harris.
I’ll be honest with y’all — I’m not sure exactly how the NBA decides what is and isn’t a screen assist, but this play probably doesn’t count as one. Still, Allen’s so active and so ready to do the dirty work to free up Brooklyn’s guards that it’s worth watching even on a play where the screen isn’t the best and the space created isn’t the best either.
Allen does get his body in between Russell and the defender, Trae Young, and it does create a little room for Russell, who ultimately scores on the floater here. If we’re grading the execution of this play, it’s not heading to the Dean’s List or anything, but it works, and Allen does a good job after the screen to get close to the basket and put himself in position to rebound what was almost a shot that bounced out.
How about a play where Allen’s screen opens up a shooter from deep instead of opening up a driving lane?
Spencer Dinwiddie has the ball here, with Allen just kind of lurking at the top of the key. Joe Harris runs around the three-point arc — I mean, it almost looks like he’s doing some kind of training drill with how he traces the length of the arc from the right corner to the left wing. Kevin Huerter gets a little tripped up on the right wing and has to take a new path to try to stay with Harris, but that path leads him right into a Jarrett Allen screen. Harris gets the pass from Dinwiddie, and while it’s obviously impossible to know for sure, it looks like the slight amount of time that getting by Allen took helped Harris get the shot off, because otherwise Huerter is probably right there to either heavily contest the shot or force Harris to pass it back out.
Ed Davis’s Screening
When the Nets signed Ed Davis, he was coming off a year where he played 57 percent of his minutes at the four and the rest at the five, and that split had pretty much been the same for the past three years. But the Brooklyn Nets don’t have much use for power forward Ed Davis with the way the team is built, and that’s showed this year in Kenny Atkinson’s rotations, as Basketball Reference lists Davis as having played 100 percent of his minutes at the five. The Nets haven’t played the two of them at the same time this season.
This also means that if the offense is doing what you want it to do with Allen on the floor, it makes sense to try to emulate those things when Ed Davis is on the floor. And, well…what do you know:
Davis starts this play out in the post, then runs up into the play, setting a screen at the top of the arc to help create space between Russell and Brad Wanamaker. That also puts Russell driving to the basket in space against Daniel Theis, and, well…if D’Angelo Russell decides to stop and fire the jumper, Theis isn’t going to be able to do much against that.
On this play, Davis has the ball at the top of the arc and because he’s Ed Davis at the top of the arc, no defenders are on him, so when he hands it off to Russell and screens for him, it helps create a path to the basket because there’s space between the Davis’s closest defender and Russell.
There are a lot of things that differentiate Allen and Davis. Allen is far more of a threat to shoot the ball, and while that shot isn’t quite falling this year, it’s still a thing defenses have to be aware of. On the other hand, Davis is a better rebounder, and that naturally means you want to have Davis closer to the basket. Looking through the play-by-play data for the Nets, you notice a lot more instances of Allen screening early and out on the perimeter, with Davis doing more of his work closer to the hoop or, as the first clip above shows, at least starting closer to the hoop. Allen and Davis are different players, but both have shown a willingness to do the dirty work for this team and help to open up opportunities for other players.
It’s also clear to see how Allen and Davis screening helps this team by looking at the team’s three-point shooting. Allen Crabbe and Joe Harris both rank in the top-10 in the NBA in three-point shots made per game without taking a dribble, and the Nets use a lot of screens to create these catch-and-shoot situations. And Hoops Hype‘s Bryan Kalbrosky wrote a piece back in December about Harris where he mentioned that Harris ranked third in the NBA in points scored per game off screens, with the team as a whole ranking third in possessions per game that ended with a shot off a screen. Kenny Atkinson using this duo in this way helps open up a ton of things offensively for this team, and it’s been a very underrated part of their success this season.