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Brooklyn Nets: Going Small to Win Big(ger)

via flickr | karlnorling

via flickr | karlnorling

Pace, space, the extra pass, layups – these are universal, all-encompassing standards of small-ball. The new-look Brooklyn Nets, though, don’t seem to care. What frustrates is that it likely doesn’t matter.

After Brook Lopez broke his foot in an overtime loss to Philadelphia on December 20th, conventional wisdom said that Brooklyn – at a lowly 9-17 and forced to play the season’s remainder without its star big man – was finished. The Nets had shown nothing to suggest they’d live up to lofty preseason expectations gleaned from a glitzy, expensive summer of roster turnover, and the loss of their best player forecasted even darker times ahead.

As the New Year approached, Brooklyn’s worst fears were realized: instead of big, strong, and smart, this team was big, slow, and simple, and their two in-prime linchpins – Lopez and Deron Williams – had succumbed to lingering injury concerns. All was lost until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

The genesis of Brooklyn’s rebirth as surefire playoff team is hardly a secret. A spate of injuries and absences to Nets big men left Jason Kidd  with an easy choice: play small lineups that feature his best players, or play a more traditional style utilizing his worst. Kidd’s hand was basically forced – already missing Lopez, Brooklyn was without Andray Blatche for a four-game stretch that began in late December – into the former approach, a betrayal of the identity in which this team was built.

These Nets were to win with size, skill, intellect, and execution, trudging their way to contention through direct, dominant play on either side of the ball in the halfcourt. Brooklyn didn’t have the athletes to match Indiana let alone Miami, but it wouldn’t matter – the will and guile of its collection of veterans would be enough in the end.

But that specific style wasn’t working, and a departure from its edicts – obligated by circumstance or otherwise – would mean adjustments at the very least. Even the most optimistic Nets fans, though, surely didn’t believe they would be met with such immediate success.

It all changed for Brooklyn on December 27th. With Lopez and Blatche sidelined, Kidd opted for a new starting lineup of Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. Despite the availability of Reggie Evans and Mason Plumlee, the Nets began the game with a group more stylistically befitting go-go, small-ball teams like Phoenix and Houston. It wasn’t just a funky opening-tip quirk, either: not a single Brooklyn quintet that fateful night paired Garnett, Evans, or Plumlee.

A 104-93 win over a team like Milwaukee is hardly cause for celebration, and Brooklyn played conventional lineups – matching talented size with talentless size – during losses to Indiana and San Antonio in its next two contests. Regardless, a new blueprint had been written against Milwaukee. The plodding, aging Nets could find success playing small.

Kidd didn’t commit to his team’s best identity, though, until 2014. In Brooklyn’s nine games since the calendar turned, not a single lineup that utilizes two of its classic bigs – Garnett, Blatche, Evans, and Plumlee – has taken the floor. Instead, the Nets have pushed all-in on small-ball, always playing Pierce, the recently returned Andrei Kirilenko, or Mirza Teletovic as nominal power forwards. This is a complete seachange from games played leading up to January 1st. Of the 17 units that notched at least 20 minutes of playing time before the New Year, only one was constructed with the current strategy in mind.

Countless other fun player combination minutiae exist these days, too. The best is Garnett and Livingston: they shared the floor for just 8.9 minutes per game prior to the shift, but have averaged 21.7 minutes of court-time since. And why not? They’re absolutely blowing doors off opponents now, registering a net efficiency rating of +25.8.

The overall results behind this wholesale adaptation have been, simply, staggering: an 8-1 record (.889), 107.5 offensive rating, 100.0 defensive rating, and +7.5 net rating. Compared to where Brooklyn was in 2013, they’ve been something else entirely: 10-21 (.322), 101.9 offensive rating, 106.7 defensive rating, -4.8 net rating. The Nets have essentially swapped the profile of a typical mid-level lottery team for one that projects them as legitimate championship contenders – that new net rating would rank fourth in the entire league, sandwiched right between those of Oklahoma City and Miami.

How Brooklyn finds itself here, though, isn’t a mystery. It’s the why behind the Nets’s current surge that confounds some measures of statistical analysis. To wit, consider the pie charts below.

Shot Attempts

Opponent Shot Attempts

Brooklyn’s metamorphosis suggests significant modification to the types of shots they attempt and allow. Not only because they’re winning, either – with small-ball come natural benefits and hindrances related to field goal distribution. But for the most part, the Nets have ignored that supposedly established noise. Their shot-charts remain nearly unchanged save for an influx of three-pointers both attempted and allowed. And if those additional tries from deep – plus the corollary of fewer mid-range jumpers – account for some of Brooklyn’s offensive improvement, you’d think a similar shift to the pie-chart of their opponents would mean a fall on defense. On the contrary, the Nets have been far better defensively despite yielding more efficient shot attempts to the opponent.

But making shots is different than taking shots, and Brooklyn’s new style affords offensive space and defensive versatility its previous thumbprint never did.

nets own

Brooklyn Field Goal Accuracy: 2013 on left, 2014 on right

nets opp

Opponent Field Goal Accuracy: 2013 on left, 2014 on right

The huge green swath of floor inside the arc of the 2014 offensive chart really pops, and not just from a comparative, aesthetic standpoint. The Nets have been shooting a lights-out 47.5% from mid-range since the lineup switch, a mark that bests Oklahoma City’s league-leading number by nearly five points. An increase in jump-shot accuracy is a common side-effect of playing smaller units: more skill equals more ball movement equals more proficient shooting.

But Brooklyn, interestingly, hasn’t experienced a huge uptick in its passing metrics since January 1st. The Nets assist ratio is up to 17.7 from 16.3, and they’re currently assisting on 59.9% of made baskets compared to 58.6% from before, but those are negligible advances. Brooklyn’s major offensive improvement isn’t owed to a transformation into some extra-passing, ball movement maven, basically. The small-ball Nets rely on post-ups and isolations as much as their former selves, and – due to additional floor space provided by an extra shooting threat – are simply enjoying far more success employing that strategy.

Johnson’s recent play is a perfect indicator of that development.  He’s averaging 19.0 points per game on 48.5% shooting during Brooklyn’s surge, up from 15.5 points on 43.8% despite a noticeable dip in performance from beyond the arc. Those stark overall gains are more impressive considering how he’s achieved them. Remember the infamous “iso-Joe” days for the Hawks? It’s time we dust off that moniker: Johnson has been assisted on just 39.4% of his makes in his team’s last nine games, a 10 percent decrease from his pre-switch mark and a number that makes his time in Atlanta seem a haven of team-wide offensive flow. And he – and his teammates, more important – are thriving nonetheless.

The tape makes it easy to see why. Whether an isolation, post-up, or simple pick-and-roll involving Johnson, Pierce, Livingston, or the rehabilitated Williams, Brooklyn’s offense is dependent on its talented shot-makers winning arduous individual battles. That means simply scoring or drawing defenders to initiate the subsequent action, but also never hurrying. The Nets routinely take possessions into the final seconds of the shot clock these days, and are playing a staggeringly slow pace of 90.13 possessions per game (Memphis’s pace factor is last in the league at 92.40).

Brooklyn offensive possessions mostly look something like those below against the Magic, complete with dueling post-up tries, multiple sides, four-out one-in, and incessant probing for the ideal matchup. Not exactly the free-wheeling, quick-hitting stuff we’ve come to associate with these types of lineups.

The Nets’s similarly conservative approach on defense has led to awesome, if surprising, results. With the notable exception of Jason Terry, Brooklyn’s regulars all boast defensive length and versatility that help mask their collective lack of speed. Garnett, Kirilenko, Pierce and even Johnson are varying amounts of steps slower now than in the past, and Kidd has adjusted accordingly. Instead of the hyper-aggressive tendencies – hard hedges, frequent double-teams, extra weakside help – adopted by most teams addicted to small-ball, the Nets keep things vanilla.

They’ll switch ball-screens and hand-offs on occasion, and run an additional defender at a dominant scorer in the post every now and then, too. But stopping the man to which you’re assigned is the key defensive doctrine in Brooklyn, a bold take for a team at a near constant size disadvantage. Indiana, for instance, is defending at an all-time level while employing that edict, but has the league’s best combination of size, length, and speed on that end of the floor. Brooklyn’s group, obviously, lacks anything close to such a physical advantage, but is thriving nonetheless due to a similarly unique rotational profile: strong, interchangeable wings; big, quick point guards; and the rejuvenation of the modern era’s original back-line captain.

The video below is a nice encapsulation of the Nets’s current defensive principles: go under screens, hedge soft and recover immediately, don’t over-help, never leave the strong-side corner, switch when advantageous.

The highlighted possessions in the clips above both end in turnovers, an outcome you’d assume is rare given Brooklyn’s defensive ethos and the construction of its present rotation. But these Nets, remember, don’t conform to convention. Brooklyn has forced 15.5 turnovers per game when adjusted for pace during this stretch, a mark that would place ninth league-wide; the Nets were 21st in the same category leading up to the New Year. That’s not even this team’s most significant defensive gain since the switch, though: the Nets have allowed the opposition just 18.6 assists per game when adjusted for pace in their last nine outings, just 1.5 fewer dimes than the league’s leader. That team? You guessed it, the Pacers.

This seems an opportune time to expand on the influence of Garnett. The 37 year-old looked positively washed up in the season’s first two months, unable to hit open shots and lacking the quickness or lift to make a positive impact on the other end of the floor. Those dire days are a far-off memory now, as Garnett enjoys one of the best stretches of his career’s twilight. During Brooklyn’s ongoing run, KG is leading the team in net rating at +21.5 and shooting a scintillating 68.4% from the field. His 87.1 defensive rating is the Nets’s best by more than four points, and he’s corralling 28.5% of defensive rebounds, too. When Brooklyn mortgaged its future to acquire KG last summer, this is the player they had in mind: across-the-board-defensive fulcrum and opportunistic complementary scorer. Garnett won’t maintain such a blistering offensive pace, of course, but that renewed defensive worth means he’ll be instrumental to the Nets’s fortunes going forward.

No matter the amount of optimism gleaned from Brooklyn’s recent play, it’s imperative we remember the ashes from which they rose to measure coming success. After a 3-10 start to the season, the embarrassment of Jason Kidd’s spilled drink, and injuries to its two best players, the Nets were dead in the water just over three weeks ago. This 8-1 surge certainly hints at a brighter finish to the 2013-2014 campaign, but its very nature – small-ball by necessity with an ever-aging roster – reminds of its limits, too.

The Nets still aren’t going anywhere in the playoffs this season, and their roster’s hierarchy means this style likely won’t be implemented for the long haul. But this is certainly a fun distraction in the meantime, one that should gain the organization goodwill in the borough and certainly buy Kidd some amount of locker-room clout as his coaching career continues. And while those fruits are trivial compared to the team’s grand preseason aspirations, they’re still certainly better than none whatsoever.

*Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com/stats.

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Jack Winter