Brooklyn Needs To Get Defensive
Over the past few weeks, I have spent countless hours watching Brooklyn Nets games and highlights. Offensively, it’s been a treat, as their creativity and ability to create shots with almost no separation is a thing of beauty. It’s a great thing for the game of basketball to have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden on the same team and I respect each of their games immensely, but we need to talk about how this offensive juggernaut performs on the defensive end.
As otherworldly as they are on the offensive end, their porous defensive performance has just as big of an impact on the outcome of their games. By now, the fact that the Nets have had a historically-bad defense since the acquisition of James Harden has become common knowledge to everyone who follows the NBA. Since the Harden trade, the Nets have posted a defensive rating of 119.9, which is on pace to be the worst rating of all time. It’s one thing to hear that statistic and see how many points they give up per game in the box score, but it’s an entirely different experience to spend time breaking down defensive possessions from this team.
Originally, when I decided I wanted to write a piece on the Nets, I thought I'd have more to say about how the newly acquired big three of Kyrie, KD, and Harden would fit together offensively, but that seems to be working out just fine. Like I mentioned before, the way those three players are able to create space out of thin air for not only themselves, but also for the rest of their teammates, is truly unlike anything I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing before. It’s been fascinating to watch three of the NBA’s best scoring threats spot up from anywhere on the floor and hit seemingly at will.
I also thought I'd have a tougher time picking out moments on the defensive end that make this team uniquely bad, given the fact that three superstars (even those who aren’t known for their defensive game), should have the basketball IQ and instincts to disguise glaring weaknesses on that end of the floor. It's nearly embarrassing how wrong I was. This team didn’t just inherit such a bad defensive rating; they’ve truly earned it. While the Nets will certainly accumulate a tremendous amount of wins just because of how fantastic their offense is, they're in dire need of help on the defensive end if they hope to meet all of the lofty expectations placed upon them.
In order to analyze why the Nets have been so defensively deficient, it's important to break down their problems into categories using specific examples. Throughout my time watching their games, I’ve identified three areas on the defensive end that lead to a lot of easy points for opposing teams.
These areas include: pick and roll defense, poor close-outs on shooters, and a lack of awareness and effort. I'd like to note that there are many issues with the Nets’ defensive performance, and this isn’t article isn’t all-encompassing, but these are my biggest takeaways as to why this defense is on pace to be historically bad.
Pick and Roll Defense
One of the most glaring issues that I’ve noticed with the Nets’ defense is their inability to guard the pick and roll. This was most apparent during their game against the Washington Wizards, where their late-game collapse that allowed the Wizards to come back from down four with just 12 seconds remaining wasn’t even the most embarrassing display. That honor is reserved for their pick and roll execution, which had Mo Wagner, a player that averages less than seven points per game for his career, looking like an All-Star caliber talent.
Wagner finished this game with 17 points (a season-high), on 7-of-8 shooting. His success during this game is largely attributed to how much room he had to drive to the rim and shoot jumpers. Even if Wagner didn’t receive the ball, as we see in the second clip, the Nets allow the Wizards a variety of options when in scoring position. Not every team has a dynamic scorer like Bradley Beal, but that’s not necessary when you have a wide-open pass available after every screen.
The other issue with the defense in these clips is that these possessions often end with two or three defenders chasing the ball. All of these clips have some example of a defender leaving their man to chase the ball from behind, ultimately leaving multiple players wide open. Perhaps the worst case of this comes from the third clip, where Bruce Brown finishes the possession at the top of the key as Bradley Beal coasts down the lane for an easy layup and Rui Hachimura stands all alone on the three-point line. Beal had an open lane to the basket and didn’t require the services of Hachimura, but the Nets leave players open as a result of the pick and roll at an alarming rate. This isn’t a realistic way to play defense in the playoffs, where every team the Nets could encounter has the weapons necessary to torch this team in the pick and roll.
The Nets have been burned by the pick and roll in almost every game that I’ve watched, but I wanted to highlight their game against the Wizards because the pick and roll isn't a large part of Washington’s game. According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Wizards are last in the league when it comes to the pick and roll, using it on only 3.3% of offensive possessions this season for an average of 4.2 points per game. This isn’t a complicated offense to understand, but it also isn’t a complicated offense to defend when you aren't heavily mismatched skill-wise.
I understand the need to ensure that players like Bradley Beal don’t blow by a mismatch off of a switch, but even during possessions where three guys end up covering him, he still finished with easy layups. Part of the solution to this issue has to come from the Nets acquiring more help for the defensive end, but this problem could also be partially solved by communication and fundamental team defense.
The next common issue I found with the Nets’ defense is their poor closeouts on shooters. The NBA is rapidly becoming a three-point league, as only two teams (the Knicks and the Cavaliers) are shooting less than 30 three-pointers per game. With this being said, closing out on these shots is important because it should go without saying that shooting a basketball is significantly more challenging when you have a hand right in your face... unless you're J.R. Smith.
Here we see just a few examples of poor closeouts that allow opposing shooters to have better luck from behind the arc than if they were better contested. These clips show a number of different techniques incorporated by Nets’ defenders when closing out, but none of them are very effective at running the shooter off the three-point line or modifying their shot.
In the first clip, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has the opportunity to sprint out and get right in the shooter’s face, but instead, he hesitates and attempts a Zion-esque block attempt that doesn’t ever really get close.
The next clip is of Bruce Brown, who attempts to contest a shot by weakly throwing his hand up and never leaving the ground. Theo Maledon gets his shot up with ease well before Brown gets any sort of pressure on the shot. While this isn’t the most blatant lack of effort on a close-out, the "run-through" style of close-out like Brown attempts here is relatively ineffective in terms of altering a shot. Perhaps the worst offender of the poor close-out is James Harden.
It’s no accident that the Nets’ defense went from plain bad to potentially the worst in NBA history with the Harden trade. Yes, they lost Jarrett Allen, who was the anchor for the Nets’ defense, but they also acquired James Harden, who has had his fair share of defensive lapses throughout his career. Here we see a few examples of why Harden has been heavily criticized for his defensive effort in the past.
In the third clip, Joe Harris’ defensive mindset is questionable to begin with, as he rotates to a man that’s already covered in the corner, leaving Horford wide open for a three. Matters get worse as Harden sees the wide-open shooter, takes the first step towards closing out on the shot, and then turns his back for some inexplicable reason. This clip is troubling because Al Horford isn’t a bad three-point shooter; in fact, he’s shooting 42.6% on the season on just over five attempts per game. Leaving him wide open isn’t advised as it is with some players who may have a broken jumper, and it's Harden's job to know this.
To make matters worse, Horford has the option to put the ball on the floor and drive all the way to the bucket without anything stopping him. The man with the basketball is infinitely more important than anyone without the ball, especially when he’s wide open and has multiple attack avenues. Harden’s half-hearted attempt to close out on the shot not only gives Horford time to set up and hit this shot, but it deters Harris from closing out as he sees Harden approaching.
The last clip of this segment is arguably the worst, as we see Harden caught somewhere between wanting to close out and wanting to just grab the free rebound if the shot misses. The ball is swung to Hamidou Diallo in the corner, where Harden has the perfect opportunity to force a pass or, at the very least, run Diallo off of the three-point line. Diallo isn’t a great three-point shooter, as he’s shooting a career-high this season of 30.4% from beyond the arc on 1.2 attempts per game, but he still has the ability to hit an open three if he has it. Diallo hesitates for a moment as Harden begins his close-out, but instead of taking advantage of that and committing to the close-out, Harden retraces his steps and allows Diallo to dribble himself into rhythm before hitting a wide-open jumper.
The lack of effective close-outs has been a problem for the Nets since the James Harden trade occurred, but it’s a problem that isn’t very hard to fix. I imagine this team will get better at contesting jumpers as the season wears on and the games get more important, but getting comfortable with a lack of effort on defense is a dangerous game. The longer this team continues to play with bad habits like their failure to close out on shooters, the harder it becomes to alter those habits later on. There's still a long way to go before these miscues could lead to the Nets’ demise, but the regular season should be used to get everyone on the same page so there’s fewer miscues heading into the playoffs. This is especially important for a team like the Nets, who went through a dramatic alteration to the team’s core this season. If bad habits like this persist throughout the season, it’s going to be hard to stop elite teams as the playoffs wear on.
Awareness and Effort
Speaking of bad habits, this last category consists of plays that all show a lapse in defensive effort and awareness that occur far too often for a team with title aspirations. There isn’t one clear-cut category for these plays, but broken down they’re all a bit too frustrating for an NBA team to commit as frequently as the Nets do.
The first play comes during crunch time against the Hawks. The Nets ended up giving John Collins an and-one opportunity that could’ve been completely avoided. The play starts off fine defensively as the Nets do a nice job of recovering from a pick and roll. The defense by Harden and Durant force Trae Young into passing the ball out of his drive. Harden then does a solid job of closing out on the shooter, but then the play completely breaks down; not due to any offensive proficiency by the Hawks. Once the ball is kicked out to the corner, Young has nowhere to go but out of bounds, where he stands for a number of seconds. This essentially takes Trae entirely out of the play, meaning Jeff Green should be able to turn his attention to the imminent threat that Collins poses, wide open and next to the rim. Green continues to face guard Trae Young out of bounds as Collins receives the ball. From there, he doesn’t have much work left to do, as there’s no one between him and the basket. Joe Harris attempts to crash down at the end of the play, but by that point, it’s adding insult to injury as Collins is fouled while hitting his shot. This is a crucial mistake that is entirely avoidable by having the awareness to guard the more imminent threat: the big man right next to the hoop, as opposed to a player that is well out of bounds and easily defendable by Harden once he comes in.
The remainder of these plays show similar instances of a lack of effort or awareness, as we see different members of the Nets get burned on plays that shouldn’t be difficult to defend. The second clip shows a lackadaisical effort from Kevin Durant that allows Davis Bertans (a 40% career three-point shooter) to coast around screens and get his shot off, while also drawing a foul.
We then get to see yet another lapse in Harden’s defense when Darius Bazley fakes a screen and rolls directly to the basket, all while Harden is watching him go. Harden has a history of these kinds of plays, but this one is truly head-scratching. Bazley makes his cut right in front of James Harden and it’s a rather direct move. The lapse in awareness didn’t quite define the Nets’ game against the Thunder, but down the stretch, this could prove costly as other teams will have a better ability to make the Nets pay for this kind of defensive performance.
The final play of this highlight segment features a lack of effort from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot against Trae Young. Cabarrot sees the dish to Young and has plenty of time to scoot over and make Young’s path to the basket a difficult one. Instead, Cabarrot stops his pursuit and lunges to reach Trae Young instead of fully committing to closing off the lane. Young burns past him on the way to dishing an alley-oop, and the lack of effort leads to another two points by the opposing team.
If the season ended today, the Brooklyn Nets would have a historically-great offense to go with their historically-bad defense. Their current offensive rating of 122.6 would be the best of all-time, and it’s clear that these three stars are well-equipped to play with one another. However, their historically-bad defense could stand in the way of all the potential greatness this team has in them. No team with a defensive rating below 11th has ever won an NBA championship, let alone a team that could be competing for the worst defense of all time.
This becomes even more of an issue when you consider the teams that have already put up impressive offensive numbers against the Nets. The Cavaliers, Thunder, and Wizards were all able to remain competitive against a historically great offense, all because good defense matters. The old saying, “Defense wins championships,” may be a bit too cliché at this point, but it has hung around for a reason.