One of the takes that I see circulating the most on Twitter these days is some variation of this: The Nets really need to figure out the four if they want to continue getting better. It’s been phrased in different, sometimes aggressive ways, but the take away is this: Plenty of people in Nets world think the team is lacking consistency at the four and think that it’s an issue that can really hurt this team down the stretch.
And I’m (mostly) with y’all on that.
Power forward is the biggest hole on this team. You’ve got four starters who can hold their own against any team — D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen — and then you have whatever’s going on beside them. Let’s talk about the various guys who’ve been asked to man that position this year and the pros and cons of those guys being the team’s power forward.
(A quick note: I’ll be using Krishna Narsu’s offensive and defensive position data as a way of talking about who has played the four and for how long.)
The “Traditional” Power Forward: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
The closest thing this team has to a traditional power forward is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but we’ve seen lately that Kenny Atkinson doesn’t seem content to play Hollis-Jefferson at the four. RHJ was a healthy scratch against the Hornets on Saturday, and that says a lot about what this team plans to do down the stretch run of the season — they want the four to be manned by someone who can stretch the floor and open up the middle for Allen and for the team’s young guard duo of Russell and LeVert.
Hollis-Jefferson is shooting 20% from three this season on 0.9 attempts per game. Despite entering the league as a small forward, he looks a lot more like a traditional four — he doesn’t have an outside game, he posts up more than anyone else on the team, and like other players who play like an early 2000s power forward in 2019, he’s seen his minutes fluctuate and drop as the team realized he just wasn’t cutting it in the 2019 NBA.
I still like Hollis-Jefferson and think he’d be useful as a backup five, but I understand why Atkinson is going with Treveon Graham in the starting lineup and with DeMarre Carroll off the bench at the four. RHJ has had a negative net rating every year of his career, and this season his net rating is the team’s lowest. His effective field goal percentage? Second-lowest, behind only Dzanan Musa, who’s played just eight games. The team’s played better this year with Hollis-Jefferson off the floor, and it looks like Kenny Atkinson has finally reached the point where he’s comfortable not playing Hollis-Jefferson.
The Young Guys: Rodions Kurucs and Treveon Graham
Kurucs held down a starting spot for a good chunk of the year, but the promising rookie has been relegated back to the bench in order to keep Treveon Graham in the lineup.
Kurucs has been a versatile option for the Nets this year, and he’s logged at least 20 percent of his offensive minutes at every position except for center according to Narsu’s tracking data, while he’s defended the four about 25 percent of the time. As for Graham, almost 50 percent of his offensive minutes have been logged at the four, while he’s defended power forwards 34 percent of the time. I think the fact that Graham lacks Kuruc’s ability to contribute at different spots on the floor is part of why he’s currently being used in the starting unit.
Another reason? The Nets have played better on the defensive end with Graham on the floor. The team’s defensive rating is nearly four points better with Graham on the floor as opposed to not on the floor, and while the amount of minutes he’s played makes it tricky to know how much truth we can extrapolate from that data, it makes sense why the Nets would keep Graham in the starting rotation.
The most-played lineup with Graham but without Kurucs is the Russell/LeVert/Harris/Graham/Allen lineup, and while it’s played just 44 minutes so far, the early results have been promising — an 8.5 net rating as opposed to the version of the lineup that switches LeVert for Kurucs and has a -6.4 rating in 150 minutes.
Injuries have really kept the Nets from putting out consistent enough lineups to glean enough from to make some definitive statements about who should be on the floor, but so far it’s looking like the team excels a little more with Treveon Graham despite his struggles from outside.
But those struggles from outside are important to take note of for both guys. Neither is doing anything from deep. Kurucs is shooting 30.4 percent. Graham is shooting 27.4 percent on 3.7 attempts per game.
To bring us back to the question in the title, these two are both promising players, but neither feel like the answer for a team that wants to make noise in the future. Kurucs could be, but his numbers this season and how he’s fallen off after a hot start suggests that he may be a liability come playoff time.
The Veterans: DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley
In addition, a pair of veterans have seen playing time as that stretch four guys this season. One of them, Jared Dudley, opened the season as the starter, but Dudley has played just once since January 9th, missing time with a knee injury and then not seeing the floor for the last two games after returning. Dudley provides some veteran leadership, but Dudley feels a little too limited. Offensively, 63.7 percent of his attempts come from behind the arc and he’s still got the ability to be a good catch-and-shoot option, but I’m not sure he can keep up defensively if he has to do too much. PerBBall Index, Dudley ranked in then 55th percentile last season in their perimeter defense talent grade, but in the 19th percentile in their interior defense talent grade. Dudley’s a liability if he ends up switched onto a big inside, and he’s ended up on a center around 10 percent of the time this year.
(Just to be clear here, I love Jared Dudley, and I think he’s a little more playable than others do. I worry about how low his catch-and-shoot field goal percentage is, though, as he’s made just 32.2 percent of catch-and-shoot threes.)
Carroll is probably the most solid option out of any of these, even with his shooting slumping off this year. Carroll was actually in the 74th percentile in interior defense last year per BBall Index, and while his perimeter defense numbers weren’t as great, he still gives the Nets a three-and-D guy to play at the four. Carroll is shooting his lowest mark from three since the 2012-2013 season and his lowest overall mark from the field since 2010-2011, but of all these options, he’s the one I most trust in a playoff series. He’s shown his ability to be a top catch-and-shoot guy before.
So, The Power Forward Position?
There are definitely holes that the Nets need to fill, and I would have liked to see them do so at the trade deadline. They didn’t, and now they’re pretty much set on this current rotation for the playoff run. That’s fine. There are guys here who can be productive. Graham and Kurucs have a ton of promise. Carroll has a history of playing well despite some shooting woes this year. Dudley can work in a pinch, and while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s had a rough year, he gives the team an option down in the paint and could be useful when teams go small.
But this Summer? Power forward is definitely the biggest position of need on this team, and the front office will need to try to find a longterm solution. Three of these five guys won’t be in the picture for much longer with Brooklyn (Dudley, Carroll, RHJ), and the other two might best project as bench pieces. Kurucs, to me, works better as a jack of all trades sixth man than as a starting four at this level. Power forward is a definite area of concern.