Entering training camp and preseason, the biggest question mark for this Brooklyn Nets roster was how they would defend, particularly in the paint. Brook Lopez said on the team's October 1st media day that Coach Avery Johnson's player handbook was "about 80% defense," and the team's focus throughout this past month has been solidifying that end of the floor.
Johnson coaches a specific, regimented defensive system, based on constant communication, rotations on a string, and preordained pick-and-roll coverage that's intentioned as second nature. In theory, the system is pristine, in practice, it's not one that the team has shown an ability to master within a month. As a result, Johnson has been forced to cut down on the complexities to fit his roster.
"We've made some adjustments," Kris Humphries said of the defense this week. "They're making us more aggressive as bigs."
Though Avery Johnson is assuredly unimpressed, players believe the simplifications have helped the Nets progress. "I think we're a whole lot better than how we were when we started training camp," Gerald Wallace added. "They've simplified the defense a lot more, especially for our bigs. Our rotations are a lot better."
Humphries has always been an aggressive defender, particularly in the pick-and-roll -- often too much so, "leaving the string," so to speak. He may have been talking about Brooklyn Nets starting center Brook Lopez, who's not generally an aggressive defender for a big man, and has had issues with rotations and coverages. Many have said that the Nets' fate rests heavily on Lopez's shoulders this season, not for what he can do, but for what he hasn't thus far; while no one questions Lopez's ability to score, it's the team's ability to defend and rebound that'll turn them from playoff mid-seed madness into legitimate contenders.
With Lopez as their primary starting center for three healthy seasons, the Nets ranked 24th, 25th, and 21st in defensive efficiency, never posting a winning record. Though Lopez showed significantly more effort with a flawed roster in those first two seasons. In Lopez's last healthy season, the Nets ranked 27th out of 30 NBA teams defending in the post and ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll (stats thanks to Synergy), two areas where a solid defensive big man can make a pronounced impact.
While Lopez carries an enormous defensive burden, to say that the team will live and die with him is a misnomer. There are still four other Brooklyn Nets on the court, players with similar roles and concerns, learning a semi-new, simplified defensive system on the fly. If Lopez is the anchor, the rest of the team is -- not to beat this metaphor to death -- the string.
Now, with the first Brooklyn Nets season finally on hand, the Nets finally have a chance to answer some questions. While it's true that one game won't tell us much -- there are at least 81 more coming before the next NBA Draft -- that doesn't mean it won't give us a glimmer of insight. What choices will they make to defend the paint? Can this team rotate to cover opponents without giving up open shots? How instilled is Coach Johnson's system, and how long will it take before it's complete? Is Brook Lopez, newly fit with a reduced offensive role, ready to make a measured defensive impact? Are the Nets ready to beat a team that's seemingly inferior to them, talent-wise?
The Nets can finally, finally begin answering those questions in a little under three hours.