The beginning of the NBA season entails different experiences for fans of different teams. Rooting for a rebuild? It’s all about optimism! Your young prospects have endless potential, and, if the squad wins on opening night, hell, it might be the last time your team is above .500 all season.
Rooting for a chip-or-bust contender like these Brooklyn Nets, though? Early fall is the least fun part. Spring brings basketball at its most dramatic: euphoria and heartbreak in a 10-minute span. Summer brings the fun, low-stakes hoops you need to balance out your heart rate. It’s fun to realize, say, Kessler Edwards has a nice floater, not worrying about the final score.
The regular season rolls around, though, and you’re ready for primetime again. Time to avenge the pain of last spring. Then you’re reminded how long it takes to build a team ready to accomplish the biggest challenge in the sport. And if you watched these very Brooklyn Nets just last season, you know taking a deep breath and tempering expectations is the only way to deal with an 82-game season. (Please make it 58!)
In the season opener vs. the Milwaukee Bucks, the Nets looked disjointed or, at times, disinterested. And, frankly, not that good. If not for some sparks that only all-time talent can produce here and there, the game wouldn’t have even been fake-close (it was, shockingly, only an eight-point deficit with nine minutes to go). To this point, this group has such little experience playing with one another. In fact, Brooklyn’s starting five had never logged minutes as a unit before. Around those starters, most of the complementary pieces are still finding their footing in the black-and-white as well.
Doesn’t all that sound pretty familiar? We’ve been through this song and dance before. Here’s what we didn’t learn on Tuesday:
The Nets will look confused, if not inattentive, at times in the regular season
On one hand, it’s pretty disappointing the Nets looked that way on opening night, after watching their recent tormentors receive rings they believe should be theirs. Conversely, this group will never be less familiar with one another than they are right now. The playoffs were just four months ago, but it’s a long road back to becoming the team they were in June, with new pieces and no Kyrie Irving. It will mirror last year’s journey: the simple stuff isn’t ironed out yet. Teams will walk into open threes because Brooklyn lags in deciding when deciding whether to switch a ball screen. Blake Griffin, may, for some no reason, overplay Giannis Antetokounmpo on the perimeter and get back-cut.
The opening back-and-forth of the night was quite telling. Milwaukee and Brooklyn each ran the same play, essentially just a Chicago action (a screen into a handoff). Nothing too diabolical. Brooklyn isn’t sure what screen to switch, or who’s supposed to rotate where, and they get bailed out by a miss. On the other end, Milwaukee executes a switch up top and a firm tag on the roller leading to a closeout. James Harden just makes a nice play, and Antetokounmpo is a half-second late helping over to Nic Claxton. But the defensive process is much cleaner:
Take the play below. Doubling against Antetokounmpo down low is fine, and it’s not like Milwaukee is the picture of perfect spacing on this play. There’s no reason for Kevin Durant to this late rotating down from the wing to the corner:
Going big without playing big is just going slow
I don’t blame Steve Nash for testing out double-big lineups (no Bruce Brown was a bit odd, though). A Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge pairing doesn’t sound too enticing on the surface. Nor does Griffin and Aldridge. Even Claxton and James Johnson sounds like it could lead to some problems offensively. But you can’t know until you try it.
Except there’s no need to try it if nobody is going to rebound. The Bucks are a big team. Trying to fight fire with fire isn’t out of the question, especially after Milwaukee killing Brooklyn on the glass was one of the defining themes of last year’s postseason series. But the Nets’ bigs did not play big on Tuesday. They were just slow, old, and occasionally unmotivated. What’s this, Blake Griffin?
If the Nets still aren’t establishing themselves in the paint, never their calling card, why go big at all? Bucks Grayson Allen, Jordan Nwora, and Pat Connaughton were flying around the perimeter, making athletic rotations and generally being pests. The Nets, meanwhile, had Aldridge switching out on the perimeter for much of the game. A clip to illustrate the difference here would just be overkill.
The Nets are missing rim pressure, in two main ways
A cursory glance at the roster tells you this. This is nothing opening night vs. the Bucks conveyed; single-game judgments are unwise anyway. Without Irving, the Nets are sorely lacking on offensive creators outside of, you know, those two. Joe Harris can attack a closeout and get to the rim, sure. But he struggles doing that against size, which showed up again Tuesday, and he is not a man of many counters. Patty Mills played 68 games last season. He took 68 shots Basketball Reference classified as “at the rim.”
Irving can get to any spot vs. any defender, working from a standstill. Pair him with another superstar against a scrambled floor, and he’s a hot knife slicing through butter. Without him, defenses have to worry about stopping the primary action, which, at this point, is either a pin for Joe Harris or a ball-screen for Harden. Past that, there’s not much to worry about.
Compounding that lack of perimeter-to-paint pressure is the lack of an intimidating roller. Claxton simply doesn’t fit that mold, at least not at this point. Yes, Harden will spoon-feed him a billion dunks this year. The highlight reel the Nets post for Clax at the end of the year will be pretty violent. Because it won’t highlight his deficiencies as a screener, where he’s either making decent contact or fluidly releasing to the rim, but never both at once. It won’t focus on his subpar (for a primary roll-man) hands either.
The Bucks are a high-level defense in the paint. Brook Lopez is massive, and Antetokounmpo is the scariest free safety this side of Brian Dawkins. You have to take risks and fit the ball through tight windows to get easy baskets; Harden can only do so much work on the set-up. And, unless you want all your pick-and-rolls to end like this…
…it’s Claxton or nothing. (Barring a James Johnson rejuvenation, of course, and with the understanding Bruce Brown the roller hasn’t shown itself to be effective vs. high-level paint defenses.)
Duh. This is an imperfect roster, including offensively, particularly without Irving. That once again raises the question of what level the defense can reach in the regular season. If Brooklyn is giving up 115 points per 100 possessions, the difference between the greatest offense of all-time, and a merely great offense, could be the difference between the 1 and 4 seed.
But the spacing will improve, allowing more room for error. The coaching staff will find pet actions that work, outside of the two or three they currently have, which will replace some of the “watch Harden and KD do stuff” pages of the playbook. Defensive intensity and communication will improve, as it did last year. Rotations will begin to make more sense as the staff experiences what works and what doesn’t.
This is a readymade roster, to be sure. That’s even more true if Irving is a participant. But it is by no means a readymade team. Opening night wasn’t a lesson, it was a reminder: We’re in for another regular season, and everything that comes with it.