A Subtle Strategic Change Could Unlock the Brooklyn Nets NBA Championship Potential Even Without Kyrie Irving

The Brooklyn Nets made a small but significant adjustment to their defensive strategy in their 117–108 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 3. It’s one coach Steve Nash should keep at the front of his mind as Brooklyn opens a six-game road trip on Nov. 5. The Nets visit the Detroit Pistons, the one sure-fire tonic for improving a team’s defensive numbers, before moving on to Toronto, Chicago, Orlando, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City.

From the time Kenny Atkinson coached in Brooklyn through Nash’s first season-plus, the Nets defended the bread-and-butter play of the NBA the same way nearly every time they saw it. But the change against the Hawks bodes well for the team having more options moving forward.

The Brooklyn Nets switched almost every screen

Under Atkinson, the Brooklyn Nets switched almost everything. Depending on who was at the 5, the results trended from not so bad to horrific. When Jarrett Allen was playing for the Nets, he was at least adequate at switching onto smaller ballhandlers and keeping his length between them and the basket. DeAndre Jordan? Not so much. He defended the pick-and-roll ballhandler as if he moonlighted as a subway turnstile.

With Nic Claxton starting the season as the center with the first unit, his youth and athleticism allowed him to do a decent job of staying in front of guards handling the ball. But since he went out with a non-COVID illness (a sign of the times that we must define it that way), veterans Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge have shown they can’t effectively stop an opposing guard from doing whatever he wants to do.

The switches also left Brooklyn extremely vulnerable to the roll man overpowering the guard that switched onto him. Even with their recent changes, Brooklyn is in the middle of the NBA against the roll man, allowing 1.14 points per possession to screeners in the pick-and-roll.

James Harden has decent size at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, but his defensive intensity isn’t always laser-focused. Patty Mills and Jevon Carter, the other point guards for the Nets with Kyrie Irving unavailable, are 6-foot-1. They will not win any one-on-one battles with opposing centers (though both have shown exceptional ability at retrieving the ball once it’s slammed through the rim against them).

Nash has the Nets adapting to their personnel for a change

When Claxton comes back, the Brooklyn Nets will have the personnel to switch the point guard-center screen action. But if Griffin and Aldridge get the bulk of the minutes at the 5, switching is a recipe for disaster. It creates two mismatches, allowing the offense to pick and choose whether they’ll have the ballhandler roast the big off the dribble or lob it up to the roll man as he confronts the speed bump of a 6-foot-1 defender.

Against Atlanta, the Nets frustrated Trae Young using a different strategy, per NBA writer Steve Lichtenstein on Substack. Instead of immediately switching, Brooklyn’s bigs hedged to give the guard time to fight over the screen. Then the big man dropped to cover the roll man, negating any size mismatch. Meanwhile, the guard was able to stay in front of Young.

Having the center drop also took away Young’s driving angle. Even if he beat his defender, he’d run into a bigger defender in the paint, where size matters much more than it does 20-25 feet from the basket. It’s not a coincidence Young was 6-of-22 in the loss.

The Brooklyn Nets must understand the stakes

The Brooklyn Nets got the drop on Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks by abandoning their switch-everything defensive mentality
The Brooklyn Nets got the drop on Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks by abandoning their switch-everything defensive mentality. | Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The pick-and-roll is the most basic play in NBA systems. But it’s also one of the most often used techniques. Why? Because it works. A well-executed pick-and-roll puts the defense on the move. The screener’s defender must choose quickly between three options: Drop, hedge, or switch. The ballhandler’s man must react to that choice by switching onto the screener or fighting through the screen.

Meanwhile, the other three defenders must also make rapid reads. Do I stay with the shooter I’m covering, or do I need to rotate to help? That creates a third option for the ballhandler. He can drive, lob to the roll man, or find an open shooter amidst the defense’s scrambling. Or, if nothing’s there, the offense can reset with the old lather, rinse, repeat maneuver.

No team this season has handled the screener better than the Miami Heat, who are allowing an NBA-low 0.55 points per possession on the action. The Heat also allow only 0.73 points per possession to ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll, one of the reasons they are 6–2 and among the top defenses in the NBA.

Winning in the NBA begins with a team’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll. If you can’t do that consistently, opposing offenses don’t have to get into any of their fancier sets. Nash has the Brooklyn Nets set up for more consistent success simply by recognizing that the personnel must dictate the coverage instead of the other way around.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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