A fitting comparison I’ve been seeing recently is of NBA big men to NFL running backs. The stars of the position, the Dalvin Cooks and the Joel Embiids of the world, are too talented not to get force-fed the rock. But as each league continues their Information Age transformations, the positional value of backs and bigs continues to shift with them. Teams are repeatedly prioritizing flexibility at these spots. It’s the codependency problem these bruisers face; their ability to impact the outcome rests heavily on their teammates’ performances. A lack of elite, NBA post-offense, and therefore post opportunities, means most modern bigs aren’t cooking their own meals; it’s on the ball-handlers to provide. The best lob-catching, rim-running big can’t throw passes to himself. Similarly, even demigod Derrick Henry can’t be his own lead blocker.
The simplified language used to describe the non-stars at these positions showcases the environment for these players. They are defined, mostly, by a singular trait. The NFL employs herds of “goal line” backs, as well as pass-catching ones. Meanwhile, if you’re tall and can shoot the Spalding, you’re a stretch big. If you can’t, you’re likely a rim-runner. And I hardly need to mention the delegation of rim-protectors. But it makes sense. While some players are simply too dynamic to get boxed in, they, by definition, are few and far between. Yet, in every football game, there’s a situation where a running back needs to hold up in pass protection, or claw for a 4th-and-1, or handle a screen pass. NFL teams are realizing those responsibilities can fall on three different players. Especially if their salaries are one-third of the typical running back.
The Lakers proved a related principle in their championship run. Their stable of tall men included Markieff Morris, Dwight Howard, and Javale McGee, rostered for a combined $8.3 million. (Or, $2 million less than what Brooklyn will compensate DeAndre Jordan next season.) Their first round foe, Portland, leaned on a twin towers lineup featuring Hassan Whiteside and Jusuf Nurkic. Javale McGee ended up recording double-digit minutes in all five games, something he did only three times over the Lakers final sixteen playoff games, which included seven DNPs. LA then prioritized spacing the floor vs. the micro-Rockets, where Markieff Morris played over 22 minutes in games 2-5. Finally, Dwight Howard, whose forceful interior presence proved invaluable vs. a Nikola Jokic-led squad, closed out the Nuggets in the WCF. While completely glued to the pine vs. Houston, he played 58 total minutes in the final two LA close-out games vs. Denver.
Of course, the Lakers could also pencil superhuman Anthony Davis in for nearly 40 minutes a night in the front court rotation. That’s the toughest part of the equation for NBA teams to replicate. But thankfully for Nets fans, Brooklyn has that part figured out for the 2021 season. At this point in his career, Kevin Durant is a power forward. He hasn’t played alongside two other traditional bigs since 2015. Head Coach Steve Nash has even hinted at playing KD at the 5 this upcoming year. For all intents and purposes, Kevin Durant will be the centerpiece of Brooklyn’s big rotation next year. It’s the surrounding front court pieces that need to be solidified. And that’s the most intriguing part of the Nets’ offseason to-do list.
The notion that Brooklyn should invest in some “three-and-D” wings has been beaten to death time and again. It’ll happen or it won’t. The “third star” discourse at this point is even more tired. Sean Marks might, but probably won’t get to trade for Bradley Beal. No outcome there should be that surprising. But what the Nets front court rotation looks like next year is far less binary of a question. And the moves Brooklyn’s front office makes to address that question could end up deciding where the Larry O is residing next summer.
The In-House Crew
We’ll start with the only non-mystery of this article. DeAndre Jordan is going to be a Brooklyn Net next season. His value to the team will be apparent in matchups where they’ll simply need some beef in the paint. Philadelphia and Milwaukee figure to present the biggest challenges in terms of size to Brooklyn, barring sweeping roster changes. Jordan was a somewhat peculiar player in his inaugural go around in the the borough, and is the most matchup-dependent player on this list. There were moments during the 2020 season where giving him playing time felt untenable, and others where he simply couldn’t be taken off the court.
Much of this has to do with the way coach Kenny Atkinson utilized him. (As a result of his absence from The Bubble, DJ only logged 2 games under then-interim coach Jacque Vaughn.) Jordan’s offensive repertoire was fairly predictable, mainly screening and diving to the cup. At 32, he’s not quite the devastating finisher he was as a Clipper, but by the end of the year, he and Spencer Dinwiddie developed a nice little alley-oop connection. There were, in addition, a few possessions that Jordan spent initiating offense out of the high post, wheeling around the perimeter looking for handoffs or cutters. While it added an amusing wrinkle to his game, it’s not something fans are likely to see in the future, considering much of it was the result of a roster whose guard rotation was decimated by injury early in the year.
The defining stat of DeAndre Jordan’s season was the 0.65 miles of ground he covered on defense, per game. Of all players who logged at least 20 minutes a game, that was the second-lowest mark in the league. There won’t be many less surprising stats to any devoted Nets fan. The man simply did not, and did not want to move on that end of the court. It was by and large the result of an extreme drop coverage employed by Kenny Atkinson last year, the focal principle being to anchor the 5 man in the paint to deter drives and snatch defensive rebounds.
This was a prototypical defensive possession from the Nets last year. DeAndre Jordan, guarding a big who couldn’t scare Brooklyn with his jumper, was free to hang back in the paint and bark out alerts to his perimeter defenders. To that end, many players and coaches praised his communication skills last year. Here, we see it result in the Nets forcing a tough, typically inefficient type of shot. Opponents converted on only 51.6% of attempts when contested by DJ in the paint last year, a top-15 mark across the NBA. That, accompanied by some of the league’s best defensive rebounding numbers, turned Jordan into a common name across advanced stat leaderboards last season, even if the path he took to get there looked stagnant and low-effort at first glance.
However, it’s now hard to envision another defensive scheme where DeAndre Jordan could thrive. The lack of floor-spacing he provides on offense is one thing, but working around that is more than manageable when you have the supreme offensive talents Brooklyn will employ next season. But with Jordan on the floor, the Nets got eaten up by stretch-5s at times, and guards who, amidst a drop coverage, could walk into pull-up threes. Kemba Walker nearly spurned the Nets miraculous comeback in Boston this past March by doing just that. And it’s hard to imagine DJ holding his own in other types of ball-screen coverage vs. the league’s premier ball-handling talent.
At any rate, DeAndre Jordan should be a matchup-dependent rotation player next season. His presence is going to help Brooklyn greatly in certain contests, where pure mass and force is a priority. To automatically lock him into closing playoff lineups, though, would expose the glaring deficiencies in his game. Now, onto the question marks.
The awkward dance that’s been going on at the Barclays Center since DeAndre Jordan became a Net 16 months ago may be coming to an end soon. Or not. Whether Jarrett Allen is in Brooklyn next year is anybody’s guess, and it seems to be a 50/50 proposition. The front office likely has its collective mind made up on Allen’s future, but it’s going to be dependent on external factors. Is he the piece that’ll swing a James Harden trade into fruition? If the Nets can’t pry Harden out of Houston, what’s Allen’s value around the league? For that matter, what’s his value to Brooklyn, whose cards remain characteristically close to the chest?
Throughout the 2020 season, Kenny Atkinson used him quite similarly to Jordan, rarely breaking from the drop coverage. But Jarrett Allen’s quick-twitch muscles granted him a little more freedom to roam on that end. Whereas DJ rarely ventured above the dotted line, Allen has the athleticism to confront a ball-handler at the free-throw line and recover to meet him at the rim. In lieu of throwing the weight he doesn’t quite have around, the Fro is still eager to come over from the weak-side and create chaos in the air. He leaps into action here to scorn Terrence Ferguson in a way nobody else on Brooklyn’s roster can do:
Allen’s springiness and length allows him to contest shots that many big men simply can’t get to. In his first three years out of Texas, that’s been his most consistent skill. He can cut a driving lane off and still rotate back to the rolling big. (See 5:55 in the video above for a great example of this). His 7’6″ wingspan, coupled with above-average agility, led to Jacque Vaughn trying out Allen in some all-switching schemes in the Bubble. The former Longhorn certainly flashed some defensive versatility on that end, even if he didn’t excel. But if Brooklyn is confident in his ability to at least slow down mismatches on the perimeter, previously untapped possibilities come into play. We saw Robert Covington add immense value to Houston’s defensive profile in 2020, as he switched onto any and all comers while blocking nearly two shots per game.
The separator between those two, predictably, is Jarrett Allen’s lack of shooting prowess. Like DeAndre Jordan, it limits who his frontcourt partners can be. Having one non-shooter on the floor is survivable, if suboptimal. Putting two on the court is asking for trouble. There’s a lot of skill overlap, despite pronounced differences, with Allen and Jordan. Rostering them both is a major constraint, considering their inability to play together.
My educated guess would be Jarrett Allen is no longer in Brooklyn by December 22nd, even though there are strong arguments for keeping him. Especially if the Nets buy into his defensive versatility. But Allen, three years in, still has uncomfortable question marks around him. He’s gotten pushed around by bigger, more physically intimidating opponents, which would be a major worry come playoff time if he’s getting 20+ minutes. And teams are less willing to accept that if you’re not providing shooting and floor spacing on the other end. Brooklyn’s goal this offseason, regarding their big men, should be to build a versatile, adaptable squad. Rostering both Allen and Jordan doesn’t mean they can’t do so, it just makes that goal more difficult. As a result, look for Jarrett Allen to be the first domino to fall in the coming days.
The rookie out of UGA showed why the Nets were so eager to take him at the top of the second round this past year. The time Claxton spent in the G-league only showed that he deserves to be on an NBA roster, nothing less. And the sporadic time he got as a Brooklyn Net showed he’d likely be a rotation player on quite a few teams this year. The intrigue with Nic Claxton is obvious when lay-up lines start. He’s a hair under seven feet tall, with a 7’3″ wingspan and exceptional fluidity in his movements. His range could extend consistently out to the three-point line in the near future, and he has considerable ball-handling chops for his size. Overplay on a perimeter dribble-handoff, and Clax can take it to the hole, where he loves finishing with his left hand.
In another timeline, Claxton getting regular minutes in Brooklyn would be a forgone conclusion next year. He could see time in Long Island if the Nets are keen on keeping him active, but practicing against NBA-caliber players might do him more good. I already know I’ll be disappointed in the amount of playing time he gets next year, if he’s still in Brooklyn. Clax profiles as a bit of a ‘tweener for now. His (lack of) outside shooting likely won’t allow him to play next to a traditional big like Jarrett Allen or DeAndre Jordan next season, but the floor looks much more open for Brooklyn with a front-court of Claxton and Kevin Durant. That, however, could lead to the Nets getting pushed around on the inside. Claxton, as with a heap of 21-yea-old bigs, he could stand to add a few pounds.
But the talent level he possesses will outweigh his contributions next year. And for himself, and believers in that talent like myself, it could be frustrating, especially during the regular season. But Claxton would rarely have to be anything other than the 5th-best player on the court for the Nets, outside of garbage time, and that’s a role he could excel in. Letting him run wild off the bench, particularly when the team is feeling some dead legs, would suit both parties. There will be moments when he fades into the background on an NBA court. But providing a block here, a put-back dunk there, sprinkled in with a couple of made threes is well within his capabilities. Especially if he is playing alongside either of the next players featured on this list.
Next year is anything but an experimental one for the Nets. As a result, they’ll be less inclined to let Claxton improve through trial by error. If he does get on the court, his mistakes will likely take him off it. If he is a trade piece that could grant Sean Marks a known entity (say, the sort of Bruce Brown type Brooklyn just traded for), the front office will call his Nets career a resounding success and ship him out the door. He has the tools to become a valuable NBA player, but if he showcases them next year, it likely won’t be at the Barclays Center. Even if it should be.
The Home Run Swings
There’s been rumblings of mutual interest between the Nets and Serge Ibaka. The former Raptor, an unrestricted free agent, is sure to attract interest from a multitude of contenders this offseason. His game has aged like fine wine. The Congolese-born seven-footer once averaged a hilarious 3.7 blocks a game nearly a decade ago. And while that number dropped all the way down to 0.8 last year, it’d be hard to argue he’s a much worse defender than in 2012, if at all. Opponents’ shooting percentages still take a nose-dive when he’s the nearest defender, whether it be at the perimeter or the cup. Ibaka, at this stage of his career, isn’t leaving his feet to turn a shot into a souvenir, but that may be boosting his other skills. He’s the best defensive rebounder he’s ever been, constantly in position to box out after contesting shots under control.
Offensively, his shot profile and efficiency make him a perfect plug-n-play option for any team. About 75% of shots come from either behind the arc, where he converted at a 38.5% rate, or within 10 feet. Ibaka is still extremely comfortable pick-n-popping to the 18 foot range as well. He is as much of a three-level scorer as a seven-footer who doesn’t dribble can be. His late-career shooting prowess unlocks multiple lineup combinations for whoever employs his services. The Raptors didn’t run a ton of Ibaka-Marc Gasol lineups last year, but the ones they did were wildly successful, posting a net rating of 22.2! A Serge Ibaka-DeAndre Jordan front-court could be the Nets answer to the meatier lineups the NBA has to offer, as the former Thunder big offers enough floor spacing to make that viable, offensively.
It’s clear why Brooklyn has interest, but why would Serge? Having just celebrated his 31st birthday, this offseason could be his last chance at a multi-year, hefty payday. To sign as a Net, he’d have to take Brooklyn’s mid-level exception deal, which would pay him over five million dollars. That salary is clearly a cut below what his value is; the question is if it’s worth it to him to come play with ex-teammate Kevin Durant for a ready-built Finals contender.
The Lakers, among other teams, have also been linked to Ibaka. LA will have the full MLE at their disposal, meaning they can offer him nearly $10 million, or almost double what the Nets can. It’ll come down to just how badly Ibaka wants to be a Net, for Brooklyn to sign him. He is the most impactful free agent Sean Marks & co. can sign this offseason. He is the one who could swing the Nets’ title chances the most. After James Harden, Ibaka is the name to watch in the coming weeks
If the Nets lose out on the Ibaka sweepstakes, they should go after Maxi Kleber full steam ahead. Before I get into his value to Brooklyn’s rotation, there are some logistical problems that need addressing first. Kleber is only in play for the Nets due to Dallas’ strongly rumored interest in Spencer Dinwiddie. If Maxi Kleber ends up playing his home games at the Barclays Center in 2021, it’ll be because Dinwiddie is in Dallas. Now, the Nets likely can’t engage the Mavericks in trade talks until the Harden situation is played out. If Houston decides the Beard is untouchable this offseason, or that Dinwiddie doesn’t tickle their fancy in trade talks, the Nets are free to shop him. And it’s unlikely they’ll find a more rewarding return than Maxi Kleber. Especially if, as some have suggested, versatile wing Dorian Finney-Smith is included in the deal.
If the Nets, in the absence of Harden trade, are set on retaining Dinwiddie’s services this year, this point is moot. But Kleber, especially accompanied by Finney-Smith, could be even more valuable to the Nets this upcoming year. For those unacquainted, that may sound ludicrous. But the German import has a variety of skills that make him a very attractive front-court option. He shot 37% from three on over four attempts per game last season. Adding a reliable catch and shoot option who happens to be 6’10” can only mean positive things.
More importantly, though, he’s quietly become one of the most underrated defenders in the league. He’s an excellent, if not elite weak-side rim protector, constantly hunting opportunities to fly in and alter shots at the rim. Kleber has also quickened his feet since arriving in Dallas, allowing him to guard lengthy, quick forwards 1-on-1. In a game vs. the Raptors last November, he put Pascal Siakam through absolute hell, forcing the Raptors forward into an awful 6-24 shooting performance. Kleber’s defensive abilities are evidenced by both the eye test and advanced metrics, which have consistently praised his defense as elite over the past two seasons.
In addition, Dallas also has incentive to move him in a package for Dinwiddie. Not only have they been fairly open about a desire to add secondary playmakers alongside Luka Doncic, but they have the personnel to ease the hurt of his departure. (Although, with Kristaps Porzingis expected to miss the start of next season recovering form a torn meniscus, that could be in doubt.) Dwight Powell has an ethereal pick n’ roll connection with Doncic already, and, like Kleber, is under contract for the next three seasons. Kristaps Porzingis is a 7’3″ martian whose range extends to 30+ feet, and is an elite rim-protector who the Mavericks have made clear is a part of their long-term future.
Dallas playing all three of those bigs at once is impossible, and even playing two at once is situationally dependent. However, the worst combination of the two, last year, was Kleber and Porzingis, by a considerable margin. Kleber and Powell thrived together, but how much weight that carries long term is negligble, especially if Dinwiddie is within the Mavs’ grasp.
Kleber would thrive in Brooklyn. He has the shooting and defensive chops to play next to any of the other players listed in this article. He can stay in front of the Pascal Siakams of the world while still being a force around the rim. And he’s no stiff on offense either. He has the ball skills and awareness to make the extra play and capitalize on a defensive scramble, something Brooklyn is sure to generate a ton of in 2021. He’s not toasting anybody off the dribble, or facing up, but he makes this sort of play regularly for Dallas:
The Nets have to wait and see here. But if Dinwiddie is still on the roster after the Harden situation is resolved, Brooklyn has to think long and hard about what Maxi Kleber could do for them.
Some Secondary Targets
JaMychal Green: The 6’8″ LA Clipper, who had an impressive run off the bench in the Bubble, is facing a player option worth $2.5 million heading into this offseason. He’ll likely opt-out, as he should be due for a pay-raise this offseason. Green’s connected on less than 38% of his trey balls just once in the last four years, and has never been accused of giving less than 100% on either end of the floor.
Jeff Green: Jeff was another Green who had a strong run in the Bubble with a western conference team. He provided the Rockets with a boost in their front-court rotation, spacing the floor just adequately enough and holding his own in an all-switching defensive scheme. He is another ex-Kevin Durant teammate, and, while unlikely to get big minutes in the regular season, is a battle-tested vet who the coaching staff could trust in big late-game situations.
Paul Millsap: There were long stretches of last season where Paul Millsap looked absolutely washed for the Denver Nuggets. There were others, like the Clippers series, where he was Denver’s third or fourth best player. The Nets have been linked to Millsap for this upcoming offseason a few times, although that noise was louder before The Bubble. The ex-Hawk hit nearly 44% of his threes this year, a likely-unsustainable number, but a hopeful mark nonetheless. Another potential MLE target for Brooklyn, Millsap could be invaluable to the Nets if he continues to be a threat from deep next year and his body holds up. If he can still bang down low, he offers Brooklyn positional versatility, and could play with almost any front-court partner, or as a small-ball center with KD at the 4.
Mason Plumlee: If the Nets end up trading Jarrett Allen, they could end up re-signing their 2013 first round draft pick back in free agency. Plumlee is a far less sexy option than even the other secondary targets, but has been manning the backup center role in Denver admirably over the past handful of years. He, like Allen, provides no floor spacing, which limits his potential lineup partners. But he’ll likely be had for the veterans minimum by some team, and if the Nets are that team, they can surely find a good 10-15 minutes a game during the regular season to give the Duke product. He has surprising passing acumen, sets good hard screens, and offers decent rim protection.