Off-court intrigue surpassed on-court results in a third consecutive season for the Brooklyn Nets, which culminated in the Nets’ series loss to Boston in four games. Brooklyn is officially the only team unable to win a game in the first round. The bulk of the credit goes to Boston, to be sure, but there’s no need to mince words: this Brooklyn Nets season is absolutely a disappointment. The Nets’ series loss to the Celtics displayed all the flaws of this Brooklyn roster and franchise in four underwhelming games. Their lack of size across the perimeter, nonexistent continuity, and predictable offensive attack proved to be fatal.
The Nets’ series loss offers one bright side, however. There’s no way team owner Joe Tsai or GM Sean Marks can think this team is just one or two tweaks away from a title. The last team to go from losing a first-round series to winning a title was the 2014-2015 Golden State Warriors. Those Warriors were not swept and instead lost in seven brutal games to the Chris Paul-era Lob City Clippers. This Brooklyn team also does not boast the core of young talent that the Warriors team possessed. So how can the Brooklyn brain trust help the franchise recover from the Nets’ series loss?
What Should the Brooklyn Nets Do This Offseason?
Don’t Count on Ben Simmons and Joe Harris to Solve Everything
The easiest reaction to the Nets’ series loss is to simply point out that Brooklyn was missing Ben Simmons and Joe Harris in the series. Those two are, when healthy, probably the team’s third- and fourth-best players after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. When you add Seth Curry, you’ve created an unstoppable crunchtime lineup, right?
Not so fast.
This Nets series loss to Boston illustrated just how much the Nets struggle on defense. The Celtics’ offense scored 114.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season; that number jumped to 120.7 in the playoffs. That 6.4-point difference is essentially the difference between Utah’s top-ranked regular-season offense and New Orleans’ 20th-ranked offense. Joe Harris is a fantastic three-point shooter, but he’s undersized for a small forward. The Nets would still be woefully undersized on the perimeter with him playing alongside Curry and Irving. Harris has had offensive struggles in the playoffs, as well. Per Basketball-Reference, he shot under 40% from the field during the 2020-21 playoffs, and 16-49 (33%) from three in the Nets’ series loss in the second round to Milwaukee. That includes going 8-33 (24%) in the final five games of the series! Even if Harris shoots better, the defensive problems persist.
Seriously, Don’t Count on Ben Simmons to Solve Everything
This is where Simmons, runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in 2020-2021, should help. Simmons is very skilled at guarding the opposing team’s top perimeter threat or spending his time roaming off poor shooters to disrupt passing lanes. I can see how he’ll be a big help to this defense…in the regular season. This Nets series loss to Boston shows the importance of perimeter size to unlock switching and effective help schemes. Boston starts one of the largest perimeter groups in the NBA, and Ben Simmons can’t magically make Irving and Curry 6’6”.
Simmons also can’t protect the rim, despite the numerous comparisons to Draymond Green. Green defended 5.2 shots at the rim per game during the 2020-21 season and allowed opponents to shoot just 50.2%. Simmons defended 4.3 at-rim shots and allowed 58.5% shooting in that season, his last healthy campaign. Simmons did that playing with Joel Embiid, Danny Green, and Matisse Thybulle; he will not have that type of surrounding defensive talent in Brooklyn. Simmons is better playing like a bigger Marcus Smart on defense; he hasn’t proven he can hold up as a small center like Green or Bam Adebayo.
In the wake of the Nets’ series loss, I would be skeptical when evaluating Ben Simmons this upcoming regular season. Some would argue he’s already peaked; it’s inarguable his confidence was shaken in the 2021 playoffs. His now-legendary refusal to dunk in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks is truly unforgettable. Tsai and Marks cannot be sure whatever version of Simmons they have in the regular season will be present in the playoffs. I would attempt to trade Simmons before the 2023 trade deadline if he starts the season well.
Keep Steve Nash as Head Coach
Steve Nash certainly did not cover himself in glory during the Nets’ series loss to the Celtics. The Nets frequently looked overmatched in strategy and emotion. Their tenacious defenders disrupted Durant’s dribble countless times. Durant is one of the most offensively-skilled players of all time, but being seven feet tall means you have a high dribble by definition. The Celtics repeatedly took advantage of this weakness, and Nash was unable to make adjustments. Per NBA.com tracking data, Payton Pritchard defended 0.5 isolation plays a game, and Daniel Theis defended just one per game. (Side note: I will only refer to Theis as “Vanilla Theis” from now on. Thank you to Basketball-Reference’s nicknames.) Those are clearly the weakest defenders in Boston’s playoff rotation, and the lack of adjustments to get those two defending Durant and Irving in space was a major issue.
Despite these issues, I still believe Nash is the correct coach for the Brooklyn job. The Nets’ defensive issues are largely a product of their roster, and Nash bears no responsibility for how the team was constructed. The Nets did not exert peak effort on that end of the floor, but they have limited options when at least two of Irving, Curry, Patty Mills, and Goran Dragic have to play at all times. They are all under 6’3”, and it’s impossible to construct a championship-level defense with that many small guards playing.
The Brooklyn Nets coaching job isn’t really about on-court strategy, anyway. It’s much more important for that individual to build relationships with the stars, Durant and Irving. Don’t forget what Irving said on Durant’s The Etcs. podcast after Nash was hired: “I don’t really see us having a head coach…KD could be a head coach, I could be a head coach [some days].” Durant called it a “collaborative effort,” and mentioned assistant coach Jacque Vaughn (the interim coach after the Nets fired Kenny Atkinson) as someone who can coach. Nash’s ability to receive those comments without rebutting them in the media shows his ability to moderate his own ego to the benefit of his stars.
More importantly, Durant still wants him to coach the Nets. That endorsement means much more than the Nets’ series loss. Nash has navigated the team through Covid protocols, Irving’s absences, the James Harden trade, the other James Harden trade, Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated, and myriad injuries. Finally, who is the coaching candidate better suited to run this specific team? Phil Jackson circa 1999 isn’t available at the moment.
Kevin Durant isn’t the only star player to show an obsession with surrounding himself with aging vets (*cough* Lebron James *cough*). That desire did the team no favors in the Nets’ series loss to the Celtics. The Nets waived James Johnson before the playoffs in order to convert Kessler Edwards off his two-way contract and make him postseason eligible. They received a nice adrenaline boost from Blake Griffin during their Game Three loss, but little else. They received exactly nothing from LaMarcus Aldridge. During the regular season, Paul Millsap was ineffective and subsequently traded to Philadelphia with Harden.
The Nets have actually drafted well over the past few seasons, especially considering they have had no lottery picks. Nic Claxton is a solid center when healthy (more on him below), and Edwards and Cam Thomas both showed flashes in their rookie seasons. It’s time to supplement that by signing younger free agents. They won’t have much salary cap space to use, but lower-cost options would be available. Would Derrick Jones Jr. look good diving to the hoop in the space created by the Nets’ shooting? He could definitely help cover their defensive weaknesses. Jarrett Culver has some three-and-D potential. Jalen Smith is a young big with shooting range, and Tony Bradley would be a young-but-established backup center option.
Whomever the Nets decide to sign, they need to be healthy and available. Ben Simmons just sat out an entire season. The last time Irving missed fewer than 15 games in a regular season was 2016-2017. Durant turns 34 before next season and missed 37 and 27 games that last two seasons after recovering from his torn Achilles. You can guarantee those three will miss significant portions of the upcoming season, and the Nets need to surround those three with reliable contributors.
Commit to Nic Claxton as Starting Center
This is probably an unpopular opinion after Claxton missed his first ten free throws in Game Four of the Nets’ series loss, but consider the most likely alternative is more Andre Drummond. Claxton is a Restricted Free Agent this offseason, and unlikely to receive a large offer due to injury issues throughout his career. The relatively low cost and familiarity with the Nets’ system should make him their offseason priority after Irving.
Claxton is incredibly versatile on defense. Per NBA.com tracking data, Claxton allowed 52% shooting at the rim this regular season. He allowed 0.93 points per possession (PPP) and a 37.3% field goal percentage defending isolations. Pick and roll ball handlers scored 1.00 PPP on 45% FG on Claxton, and roll men scored 1.19 PPP on 57.1% shooting. Claxton’s defensive abilities aren’t duplicated on this roster, even if you’d prefer roll men score less easily. Those skills would be hard to find in free agency given the Nets’ lack of flexibility. It’s easy to imagine Claxton being the Nets’ most impactful defender despite the presence of Simmons.
Offensively, Claxton offers plenty as a lob threat in the pick and roll. Spacing is tight when he shares the floor with Bruce Brown, but Brown is a free agent. The same spacing concerns exist with Simmons, but Simmons has experience occupying the dunker spot with another center. Despite Claxton’s free throw struggles against Boston, he made 58% of his free throws in the regular season (admittedly on low volume). Claxton could develop consistency and confidence at the free-throw line as a result of increased playing time.
There’s a lot of work for the Nets to do this offseason. After the Nets’ series loss to Boston, Sean Marks will have much more time to do that work than anticipated. There’s a blueprint to turning this team into championship contenders right now. The otherworldly talents of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving ensure that’s the case, but it will be up to Marks to capitalize on their gifts.
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