Brooklyn’s Paradox

Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez
Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez
The Brooklyn Nets have big holes opponents can exploit. (AP)

On July 13, 2012, The Brooklyn Nets introduced “Brooklyn’s Backcourt” at a lavish press conference, promising that good days were ahead for the brand-new Brooklyn Nets franchise thanks to the re-signing of Deron Williams and acquisition by trade of six-time All-Star Joe Johnson. One year and five days later, the Nets held a press conference introducing some more major pieces to their fold, including Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce. With those three backcourt stars flanking Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez in the frontcourt, the Nets had visions of championship contention.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

First, the good: on the offensive end, Williams in particular has been simply incredible. His ability to open up the floor for himself and his teammates is palpable. I said on yesterday’s #BKConnect that when Williams has the ball in his hands, everybody on the floor is a threat. It’s true; the Nets shoot far better, record more assists, and push the pace with Williams leading the offense.

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Williams’s offensive impact is bolstered by the red-hot shooting Johnson, whose true shooting percentage (which accounts for the value of three-pointers and free throws) of 56.5 percent would be a career-high, and Brook Lopez, who’s putting up career-highs in nearly every shooting metric.

But with Williams and Johnson leading the way, the Nets have been exposed by multiple teams for their poor perimeter defense. As a team, the Nets have allowed opponents to shoot 40.6 percent from three-point range, the worst mark in the NBA; they’ve allowed the fourth-most three-point makes despite teams attempting threes against them at a rate below the league average.

The Nets allow open looks on the perimeter in one of two ways. Firstly, their defensive scheme is similar to many in the league: pack the paint to limit possessions from getting close to the basket, but run out to shooters quickly as the ball gets kicked out. The problem is that the Nets aren’t moving on the pass (when the ball is thrown), they’re moving when the ball is caught by the opponent.

Here’s four examples from Wednesday night’s loss to the Washington Wizards. Watch as the Nets are slow to close out on Washington’s perimeter shooters, allowing four threes ranging from wide open to near-open:

One important note is that the breakdown isn’t always the fault of the shooter’s defender. “We need to run them off line a little more,” Brook Lopez said of the defensive breakdowns. “Our guards have to help a lot on the weak side of the roll.”

Coach Jason Kidd, who demoted Frank two weeks ago, agreed. “We’ve just got to get better at recognizing shooters, being able to run those guys off,” Kidd said Wednesday night, before quickly adding, “but I trust those guys.”

For example, watch the last play in the video above. Williams had to drop into the paint off his man to help on the pick-and-roll coverage, because Johnson got stuck on the screen and ended up trailing the play.

But it’s those struggles on the perimeter that have defined the Nets this season: one man loses his assignment, another scrambles to recover, and before you know it, there’s an open three-point shooter lurking on the weak side.

The second way they’re struggling is informed by that last play: over a month into the season, the Nets still get crossed up with even the most basic pick-and-roll coverages. With the dismissal of top assistant Lawrence Frank, the Nets implemented a couple of subtle changes to their defensive coverages, most notably bringing the big men higher “up” when they defend a pick-and-roll.

Except they haven’t done that, and they know it. “I didn’t do a great job in the pick-and-roll, getting as high up into the screen as I should’ve,” Lopez admitted after Wednesday’s game. “So Beal was able to come off and get some easy looks.”

“There was that play near the end of the game where Nene handed it off to Beal and got that easy three. I was nowhere near on that contest.”

Lopez isn’t giving himself enough credit on that play — he did get a hand up in Beal’s vicinity:

But he’s not wrong about his general critique. Even though the Nets say they want their bigs up higher in the pick-and-roll, they’re usually hanging back — with Lopez as the biggest culprit.

It’s a paradox. The Nets have finally clicked on offense, thanks to Williams’s return and some hot shooting from Johnson, Lopez, and Pierce. But it’s the defense from those same players that continues to give them problems. If defense is truly more schematic-based than it is personnel-based, than there’s hope that they can turn this around. But at 9-16, the clock is ticking.