Beyond the Big 3: Will a Deeper Frontcourt Lift the Nets to the Top?
The Brooklyn Nets are heading into the new season as clear title favorites for the NBA title, given the best odds to win the NBA Finals by nearly every notable sports booking publication.
Having the best trio of top-end talent in the league in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving sets the table for title contention to a degree most franchises can only dream of. The collective gravity of three top-20 players who all have supreme on-ball equity, excellent feel and court awareness and superb playmaking led to the most efficient offense in NBA history last season (116.3 points per 100 possessions).
However, we’ve seen star-powered trios falter before (see the 2020-21 Nets). Outside of the Big 3, the Nets lacked much upward scalability in the roster and that was a problem that was magnified to the 10th degree in the playoffs once Harden was hobbled and Kyrie was out due to injury.
Durant was tasked with shouldering the majority of Brooklyn’s offensive creation. Taking 29.7 shots per game with a 39.3% usage rate, which would’ve been the highest in the regular season and playoffs, is not sustainable. Durant even said so himself at Nets Media Day:
“I had to play every minute for three straight games. If you think I was going to do that for the next two rounds and win the championship, I mean s–t, thank you.”
That’s not to belittle Durant, he averaged over 43.0 points on a plus-6.2% true shooting above league average, one of the more titanic stretches of playoff basketball ever.
So what sets this year’s version of the Nets apart? It might be their new-and-improved frontcourt depth.
Durant, Harden and eventually, Kyrie, will no doubt admirably shoulder the load, but the rest of the rotation should make the Nets even better in 2021-22. The Nets return most of last year’s playoff rotation and made numerous additions that bolster the roster further.
Some of those supplemental players may see an increased role due to the absence of Irving, as Nets GM Sean Marks announced on Monday that Irving “will not play or practice with the team until he is eligible to be a full participant.” It remains to be seen how long Irving will be absent from the Nets, but Marks also restated the organization’s ethos “Our championship goals for the season have not changed, and to achieve these goals each member of our organization must pull in the same direction.”
Joe Harris is perhaps the most important piece to the puzzle outside of the Big 3. Though he’s not a traditional big guy, frontcourt-type player, he’ll spend time at a forward spot in smaller lineups. Harris was the most accurate 3-point shooter in the NBA on volume last season (3.0 attempts per game or more), hitting at a 47.5% clip, including a ridiculous 51.5% on catch-and-shoot attempts. Shooting in and of itself isn’t everything, but the way in which Harris is utilized in the offense is akin to a torque wrench. His gravity tightens the bolts of a possession to levels that defenses are miffed at attempting to loosen.
The Harden-Harris pick and roll is among the most back-breaking plays in basketball. Harris is a fantastic screener for a non-big, with good footwork and timing. He often is used as a ghost screener to force soft switches or to create general frustration among defenders attempting to minimize the damage of a Brooklyn possession. Harris’ shooting prowess and threat in tandem with Harden’s offensive firepower is like attempting to solve calculus without a calculator.
Trap Harden on the screen? Harris gets a wide open 3.
Prevent the open Harris 3? Harden gets a mismatch on the switch.
Want to overplay Harris? Harden can also hit that 3.
Harden, Irving (once he’s back on the court), and Durant bend defenses, and Harris is that extra 10% of force that allows them to eviscerate.
Defensively, what stands out is how the Nets can dictate how their opponent defends them, and who they exploit on defense themselves. Each big on the roster brings a different set of skills, athleticism, size and gravity. Brooklyn has an embarrassment of riches regarding the optionality it has with set design and pet plays built around its frontcourt. Due to their ability to maximize and amplify what the stars do, the Nets can force the opposition to adjust in personnel and scheme.
Despite moving into a reduced role with Brooklyn, Blake Griffin focused on the best parts of his game last season. He ran minimal on-ball actions himself, but he utilized his playmaking and vision as a roller. He doesn’t command the same gravity rolling to the rim or efficiency that he once did, but still draws the defense enough to force rotation on a rim run.
Playmaking out of rolls wasn’t new for Griffin. What was new was the frequency in which he was passing out and the number of non-rim paint attempts he passed up. Griffin took the lowest percentage of his shots ever from midrange last year with Brooklyn, 15% lower than the next closest season.
Cutting out the chaff has opened more avenues for Griffin to serve as a connective hub to create even more open shots. While he isn’t consistently a threat to attack a closeout, Griffin can punish a closeout with his decision-making and court vision, feeding the ball inside after drawing out an opposing big, or with decisive touch passes or relocation screening.
Griffin can hang on-court defensively as well. He has relative mobility and combined with his size and awareness, he does a solid job staying in front of forwards and bigs. Just look back on the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Griffin was largely solid at being big and in the way, using his strength and size to force Giannis Antetokounmpo into difficult rim attempts and inopportune areas of the half-court. (Of course it wasn’t perfect, it’s Giannis!)
Switching schemes aren’t always about switching everything. Griffin offers a wide array of options to Brooklyn’s offense and more utility on defense than given credit for.
LaMarcus Aldridge played a very small sample last year for the Nets before medically retiring. There is still utility in his game, particularly as a stretch big. Aldridge hit 38.7% of his catch-and-shoot 3s last year and 38.6% the year prior. His release is still as quick as ever from both midrange and deep, and I imagine that he’ll take a higher percentage of his shots from three this coming year.
Aldridge in the year 2021 is not a good defender on balance, but he does things on defense that can be good. Again, what makes this group so intriguing is that variability and capability to shift. While the Nets lack a true defensive anchor in the paint, Aldridge does provide solid verticality and length as a rim protector.
When given solid play from his teammates within the scheme and ample defense at the point of attack, Aldridge can deter and alter shots at the rim at an average to slightly above level. He’s very good on his first jump and timing, but given his load time, asking him to make second and third attempts on defense is a tall task.
Given how the Nets typically play, Aldridge provides a stark difference, which makes the development of his lineup chemistry even more enticing given the counterpunch he could provide Brooklyn in spurts.
Paul Millsap provides a stabilizing presence with his game, and while that’s come in shorter spurts over recent years, that’s part of the allure of this fit. Defensively, Millsap is still incredibly active, with great timing and positioning, especially as a weak-side/back-line rotator.
Millsap is often well positioned, but staying in the right place as the play develops is much harder for him without the footspeed he used to have.
How do the Nets incorporate him defensively?
Millsap has shown his best utilization lately in plays where he can give himself some space, use his length, and backpedal (backwards is easier than lateral movement for him at this stage).
Icing ball-screens, playing off the level at ball-screens in center field, or using soft hedges with back-end help is what seems like Millsap’s best utilization.
Those coverages force the play to stay in front of him and allow him to use his quick hands and length to heckle ball-handlers and force drives to die. Durant’s rim protection is fantastic when he’s coming in on the back line. It’s possible that Millsap could play the 5 with Durant on the court and they can run a slightly less aggressive ball-screen defense akin to the Seattle Storm and how they utilize Breanna Stewart to erase plays on the backend.
Millsap is an elite corner 3-point shooter, hitting at 40.7% clip last season after making 44.7% in 2019-20 and 41.7% in 2018-19. He’s also a good screener and dribble-handoff operator, and while he provides similar short roll capabilities as Griffin, he provides a bit more as a scorer out of the roll as well. Much like how Thaddeus Young was utilized with the Chicago Bulls last season, although to a lesser degree, Millsap can assert himself with quick screens and use his court vision to find crevices in a defense.
While Millsap may not be defended out to the 3-point line like a consistent shooter, there’s value in his release-valve scoring and passing that loosens up the offense.
James Johnson is a wild card for the Nets. He could play 16 minutes per game or not at all, but Johnson fits the Nets incredibly well on defense as a switch big. His length and lateral quickness allow him to keep smaller and like-sized defenders in front of him for stretches. He can overshoot at times when trying to gamble, but the athleticism and physicality are there for him.
Where Johnson is most intriguing is how he could be utilized on offense. Even at 34, he’s the most athletic frontcourt option other than Durant or Nic Claxton. Playing alongside Luka Doncic for part of last season showed the value of quick cutting and playing off gravity.
Like Millsap, but in a different way of attacking, Johnson excels when he’s shrugged off as his defender is occupied or helps onto a primary ball-handler. Once he gets a head of steam, he’s rim running, and he shot 72% at the rim when playing in Dallas.
On balance, Claxton is the best defender on the Nets, providing absurd levels of play as a 6-foot-11 switchable forward who is also disruptive at the rim. He’s a solid roll man and springy as a lob threat.
Where does he create more value offensively? Can his screening improve? Does his decision-making with the ball take a leap? Can he consistently score outside the restricted area, and can he make his free throws (career 49.4%)?
Claxton has played a grand total of 56 games including G-League play. Putting together a consistent stretch of healthy basketball would be huge for his development and benefit the Nets as a whole.
Bruce Brown is the definition of versatility, as he’s capable of filling more roles and bridging the gap in lineups in a way that makes it almost comedic to call him a role player.
Brown is the go-to wing stopper for the Nets and is incredibly impactful as a nail defender. His activity overall is a boon for the Nets. His strength and active hands allow the Nets the flexibility to feel comfortable with Brown defending larger players on an island.
Brown is a role player by pay rate, and usage, but he can play in almost any way, amalgamating his play style and impact to any four players on the court. He stars in whatever role is given, operating as the seasoning in all manners of dishes. Don’t be too surprised when Brown crafts another niche or two with the Nets after establishing himself last season.
Brooklyn has restocked, reloaded and upgraded its roster, building off the first 50-win pace Nets team since the 2001-02 club that reached the NBA Finals. While the stars rightfully dominate the headlines and box scores, the rebuilt frontcourt should enable the Big 3 to dominate the game in a multitude of ways due to their versatility.
Ultimately, there’s a beauty to the Nets’ roster construction that’s been overlooked due to narrative.
Research support provided by Evan Boyd. Design by Matt Sisneros.