Nets free agency targets: some thoughts on Nene, Chandler

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As the NBA season draws nearer, the New Jersey Nets — they of the $18ish million in cap space — are linked to nearly a dozen different players at every position (except point guard, where they’re stacked with three players fresh off Euro trips). They likely won’t end up with more than two or three of the guys they’re linked with, if that.

The top guys on New Jersey’s radar — Nene and Tyson Chandler — are the two best players on the market (save maybe Marc Gasol, who the Nets aren’t getting). This seems odd organically, since Nene and Tyson Chandler are both centers, and the Nets a) already have Brook Lopez, and b) are beginning a quest into MeloSagaLand in the hopes of acquiring Dwight Howard. But the Nets nonetheless hope to pair one of these two with Brook, leading to the inevitable question about Brook’s ability to potentially play the 4.

It does seem odd that the question boils down to “can Brook Lopez play power forward?” in this era of positional revolution and game theory re-imagination. The question in this framework approaches the issue from an oddly individualized lens; it’s not whether Brook can play power forward or not, but whether Brook plus another big man can combine to form a reputable frontcourt in tandem.

While there are certain fundamental differences between what’s considered a “power forward” and a “center” — height, athletic ability, and the ability to space the floor tend to set the boundaries — it’s the ability to fill roles across the floor that maximize a team’s overall potential, rather than fill positions.

When you put together what’s normally considered “power forward” work on offense — operating out of the post, shooting with range up to 18-20 feet, running the pick-and-roll, making yourself available for dunks and alley-oops — those are all things Brook Lopez can do. In that sense, he can function as an “offensive power forward” or “offensive center,” if you’re into that sort of box. The only issue is that his skills on the offensive end don’t translate to the other side of the floor, as the players he’d normally have to face at that spot take advantage of his lack of quickness and tentative nature on defense.

Nene and Brook are similar (albeit unequal) players. Both have range — Brook shot 39% from 16-23 feet last season on 3.6 attempts per game, while Nene shot 47% on 1.3 attempts per game. Both operate well out of the pick-and-roll and in post-up situations, Nene ranking in the top 25 in both sets{{1}}[[1]]according to Synergy Sports Technology[[1]]. Both finish well at the rim. Brook is a more natural high-volume scorer, while Nene tends to function as an ancillary of the offense. Their positive similarities on offense aren’t an issue, since they’re both able to operate inside and outside, and they’d likely pose matchup nightmares for opposing defenses every night.

Unfortunately, their weaknesses also mirror one another. Neither is a particularly adept rebounder; their combined rebound rate last season (24.4%) isn’t much better than Kris Humphries’s rebound rate alone (22.2%). Their abilities on the defensive side of the ball leave much to be desired; Lopez’s slow-footedness often results in passivity in the pick-and-roll and a tendency to leave spot-up shooters open, and while Nene is an upgrade over Lopez, he’s still often a split-second slow on spot-ups and over-commits to players in the paint. Using these two as your defensive anchors is a recipe for disaster, even though they’d likely score a combined 40 efficient points per game.

That’s why I’m of the opinion that Tyson Chandler is a better fit next to Brook than Nene.{{2}}[[2]]Nene may be a better trade chip for Dwight, though, which is an entirely different animal.[[2]] Chandler’s defensive presence is a game-changer that Nene (nor Brook) can offer. Taking their collective abilities, a Chandler-Lopez frontcourt would be both potent offensively — with Brook taking most of the intentional touches in the post and Chandler getting the garbage points, and defensively — with Chandler guarding the superior offensive player, allowing Brook to roam more freely.

The offensive difference between a Brook/Chandler frontcourt and a Brook/Nene frontcourt is impossible to forecast with 100% accuracy, but it’s safe to say that in either instance Brook would carry a major portion of the offensive load, minimizing the offensive impact of the other player. It’s on defense where Brook’s counterpart really has to shine, and between Nene/Brook and Chandler/Brook, there’s a significant enough difference to swing my preference.

With all that said, it’s more important than anything else that the Nets do not overspend on either player, either with their money or their time. With the long-term future of the franchise at bay (as it seems to be nearly every offseason), the Nets can’t feel the pressure of “needing to make a splash.” Nene and Chandler are both 29 years old, and a max contract either in length (five years) or cash (starting at $16.3 million this season) for either of these guys is ludicrous. If that’s the price other teams are offering, let them burn their franchises.