The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Crimson Pride

A Team Grows in Brooklyn

After a great start to 2014, the Nets are thinking about what trades could help them make some noise in the playoffs

With less than three weeks before the trade deadline, there is a sense around the league that the NBA landscape is under a constant humming tremor — the kind of soft rumbling that could result in a grand upheaval or fade away without a monster eruption.

We’ve already had six in-season trades, five of which were at least semi-significant, and everyone knows the various tankers will peddle their useful wares over the next two and a half weeks. The deeper rumble comes from the number of $10 million–plus contracts that could become available, due to underperformance, unexpected fit issues, buyer’s remorse, or some turn of events that has flipped a team’s long-term trajectory out of whack. But big contracts, even expiring ones, are very tough to move, and any chain reaction of such movement requires a trigger of one or two teams swallowing hard and leaping first.

The Nets just a month ago were an interesting candidate, an expensive disaster with two huge trade chips in Paul Pierce and Brook Lopez. Pierce’s $15 million expiring deal could fetch a productive player on a longer-term contract who is no longer wanted by another team, a general trade model the Nets will have to consider as long as they lack flexibility and draft picks. Lopez is done for the season, with a broken foot, and a “win now” team desperate for immediate gratification might deal an injured player for a healthy one.

But the Nets have improbably righted themselves. They’re 11-4 since the New Year behind weirdo small-ish lineups that have transformed an awful defensive team into a long-armed, turnover-generating machine. It required injuries, luck, and a midseason readjustment of the team’s core defensive principles, but the Nets appear to have stumbled upon that ephemeral thing every team seeks: an identity.

“We’ve found our personality,” says Nets GM Billy King.

“You have to have a sense of structure and an identity,” says Jason Kidd, the team’s coach. “You have to know who you are, and how you’re going to play both ends. And now we do.”

The Nets have little time to figure out whether this stretch is fool’s gold or indicative of a team that could be a problem in the postseason, when there are no back-to-backs to challenge old legs. That question touches on larger philosophical ones, including Lopez’s future and whether Brooklyn really should be in “win now” mode after a mega-trade intended to vault Brooklyn into the championship picture. The Nets are still far away from being a legitimate contender, but they are also capped out beyond hope, facing a repeater tax bill down the line, and they stand as perhaps the most asset-poor team in the league after trading three first-round picks to Boston over the summer.1

Trading Lopez could theoretically work in both directions, though it would be painful for an organization that has nurtured his tremendous growth. Such a deal could leave Brooklyn with zero reliable bigs next season, since Kevin Garnett may retire and Andray Blatche has likely played his way into a better contract. Lopez is also dealing with his second major foot injury, which hurts his trade value. But the Nets have found an identity without him, and he’s a talented player with just two years left after this one2 on a fair contract. Brooklyn would have to at least consider calling, say, the Bobcats, a team that was ready to offer Lopez the max two summers ago, and dangling Lopez in exchange for Ben Gordon’s expiring deal and two first-round picks. Such a deal would place the Nets back on a more “normal” course and minimize their chances of paying the dreaded repeater tax in 2015-16.3 It might not work for Charlotte, which badly wants a playoff berth this season, but an injured Lopez could also work as a gamble for a tanking team happy to surrender something for a guy who won’t play this season. And it will be hard for the Nets to find a Lopez deal that doesn’t return either a player on an expiring contract who can walk in the summer, or one of those unwanted longer-term deals that would clog Brooklyn’s books.4

King is fond of Lopez and says the team is not looking to deal him. But he also acknowledged the need to scrounge up some draft picks after sending so many to Boston. “We are not shopping Brook Lopez,” King told Grantland last week. “Our goal is to get Brook as healthy as possible. But if deals present themselves, we’ve got to look at them. If we can get draft picks back at some point, that would help.”

The Nets are not winning because Lopez is gone, but they are playing a style he’d be hard to fit into. Kidd has downsized, shifting Pierce to power forward and Garnett to center in hybrid lineups that are small up front and huge on the perimeter. The weirdness continues when Kidd goes to the bench with the positionally funky Andrei Kirilenko–Mirza Teletovic–Andray Blatche trio.

Teams have just had no idea how to handle these offbeat looks. Bigger power forwards struggle to chase Pierce around the perimeter, and some opponents have had a wing player guard Pierce while stashing the extra big on the nonthreatening Alan Anderson. But hiding a big that way becomes much harder if Deron Williams permanently replaces Anderson in the starting lineup. As for the bench, Kirilenko and Teletovic are both tweeners, but they have wildly different skill sets, and opponents often prefer to defend them with different players than Kirilenko and Teletovic guard on the other end. Kirilenko adds doses of speed and crazy that the slowpoke Nets sorely need, and he allows Brooklyn to let Teletovic launch on offense without worrying too much about the other end. Teletovic is jacking nine 3s per 36 minutes, a launch frequency only four players have matched over a full season. The Nets, basically, are dictating matchup confusion.

Kirilenko’s return to health has been essential to all of this. He can defend speedier wing players so that Teletovic doesn’t have to, and he allows for the demotion of both Anderson and Jason Terry — a rejiggering that lets Kidd experiment with absolutely giant lineups featuring Pierce or Joe Johnson at shooting guard.

The Nets would seem to be able to fit Lopez into all of this by starting him, keeping Pierce at power forward, and using Garnett off the bench as a backup center. It’s not as if Lopez would slow down a speedy Brooklyn attack; the Nets have averaged three fewer possessions per game over this hot 15-game stretch, per NBA.com. But basketball doesn’t work that easily.

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Kidd says. “I don’t think the team with Brook is built to be a hybrid like this. Now we are, because we have no choice. We have a structure, and Brook going out has helped us define that.”

King is confident the Nets could play this way with Lopez, in part because of his shooting from the center spot. But even he acknowledges meshing everyone and staying “small” would be a challenge. “Brook is a great scorer,” King says, “but now, when we’re smaller, defensively we are a little better.”

Ironically, Lopez figured into the reconstruction of the Nets’ defense, a slow and painful process that began after Sacramento blew them out in mid-November, Kidd says. The coaching staff decided after that game that they wanted to defend more aggressively. That meant two major things:

1. Kidd wanted his big men to step farther out in containing pick-and-rolls.

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This is somewhere between a hard trap and a softer defense in which the big man drops back near the foul line, a style the Nets had been playing earlier in the season. The Nets call this “up to touch,” meaning the big man should be able to touch the screener at the start of the play, Kidd says. Lopez, a plodding dude, would seem an ill fit for this kind of style, but when the coaches used film to demonstrate the proper technique to the team, they used film of Lopez executing it. “Brook can do this,” Kidd says. “He was doing it.”

Garnett has looked more spry over the last month.

Blatche tries, but he’s never going to be a good defender; that said, he has been playing better since missing four games due to “personal reasons.”

The other players are so close in size that they can switch on almost any pick.

2. The rest of the defenders have taken a step closer to the middle of the floor, walling off the paint and generally scrunching things up.

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“It’s about starting off in the right spot,” Kidd says, “and pulling the help defenders in on the weak side.”

The goal is to close off the first option and force teams to swing the ball around the perimeter in search of something else. It’s also a way the Nets can help Pierce deal with tough post-up bigs — by having help defenders ready, in the paint, right behind him. Sending all five defenders toward the ball like this carries a risk: Great passing teams stocked with shooters can draw the Nets in, and then fling the ball around fast enough to beat the defense before it can recover out. The Nets are betting they can win more of those possession-by-possession battles than they lose, and they have been right over the last month.

Brooklyn is 10th in points allowed per possession since January 1, a massive jump for a team that ranked 29th up to that point, per NBA.com. They have forced turnovers on 18.6 percent of opponent possessions since January 1, tops in the league, and a number that would have led all defenses last season. About 12 percent of opponent possessions have ended via isolation plays, per Synergy Sports, a share that would easily be the league’s highest over the full season. That suggests the Nets have been successful in denying the first option, leaving teams to improvise one-on-one as the shot clock ticks down.

The Nets aren’t the fastest or most athletic group, but they are long, and this system is a way to leverage that length. Shaun Livingston and Joe Johnson are long for their positions, and Livingston especially has been able to sink into the paint as a helper, dart out when the offense kicks the ball back to his side of the floor, and swipe those cross-court passes opponents wrongly think are safe.

Johnson has gotten some steals this way and has generally been steady as a defender. Blatche’s hands are quick enough to pick a point guard’s pocket or reach into passing lanes at the right times. Kidd has allowed for some selective gambling, and the team as a whole has just been in tune with this scheme. They are “on a string,” covering for each other in sync as the ball and help assignments shift around the floor, and they have a very good sense of personnel — which shooters demand a bit more attention away from the ball, and which can be ignored more blatantly. “Our length is big for us,” Kidd says. “And we have guys with very high basketball IQs.”

The success has been encouraging, but also much more consistent against the average-or-worse offenses Brooklyn faced in this stretch — New York, Orlando, Cleveland, Boston. The better offensive teams have generally scored well against Brooklyn, though the Nets can point to strong defensive performances against Oklahoma City on the road, Miami (missing Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers), and Golden State (playing on the second end of a back-to-back, and at the end of a long road trip). That kind of mixed record is to be expected; good teams beat up on the sad sacks and split games against the other good teams.

Are the Nets actually good? They’ve figured out some things on defense and installed more continuity-based sets on offense, which have helped goose the team’s scoring and 3-point attempts. They’ve outscored opponents by 3.5 points per 100 possessions over the last month, a solid mark, but not one we’d associate with a contender. They’re still just 21-25, hoping to limp into at least the no. 6 spot and avoid the Miami/Indiana duo for one merciful round. Kirilenko is already hurting again, Johnson’s knee is balky, and Williams’s ankles are a never-ending mess. Teams have hit a scorching 46.4 percent on corner 3s against Brooklyn even in these solid 15 games, suggesting the pack-the-paint defense has a price.

The Nets still must look in the mirror and see a team in need of more talent and draft picks to make any real noise in the playoffs this season and beyond. They could use another wing player, and they have both an open roster spot and a disabled-player exception the league granted after Lopez’s season-ending injury.

They should listen to any offer for Williams or Johnson, though no good one is likely to come. Lopez is more interesting, but finding immediate on-court help will be hard. The likeliest player return would be someone else’s unwanted long-term money or an expiring contract, with Pau Gasol the most oft-mentioned candidate among rival executives. But the Lakers want to maintain max-level cap space, and they couldn’t do so while adding Lopez.

Pierce’s contract might offer more options, but carries its own complications. Things might be different if the Nets were sure Garnett planned to retire in the offseason, wiping away his $12 million salary, but they have no such certainty. Replacing Pierce with a big salary that carries into next season means another year of mammoth tax bills, and while the Russian ownership is willing to pay such bills, they are not stoked about paying them to acquire someone like Carlos Boozer.5

Pierce’s contract is huge, and the Nets are so far into the tax that swapping Pierce for a more expensive contract might be a no-go. The Nets could search out a team in need of long-term payroll relief and try to flip Pierce for multiple pieces; the Nuggets could hit the reset button by sending the Nets a package like Wilson Chandler, J.J. Hickson, and Professor Andre Miller, PhD, in exchange for Pierce.6 But that kind of fit is difficult, since lots of such teams are close enough to the tax line that taking on Pierce’s salary is tricky.

The Nets, for now, are happy to have found some stability. “The great thing about this is that for so long, we were at the center of trade rumors,” King says. “Now it’s kind of nice that we’re not. We have a core group here now.” But they know there is a lot of hard work that remains.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Unexpected answers

It’s so great when a player or coach gives you a totally unexpected answer. During our sit-down last week, I asked Kidd what surprised him about the life of a head coach after having been in the league as a player for so long. I expected something about the all-consuming schedule, player relations, or the New York media spotlight.

I got this: “You don’t need an alias.”

Wait, what? Like at hotels? “Yeah. Most players have aliases. Coaches don’t need aliases”

But you’re Jason Kidd! You’re famous! You’re not some grunt from the video room! “They don’t bother the coaches.”

I didn’t ask Kidd what his preferred alias was as a player. Can’t believe I dropped the ball on that follow-up. I hope to rectify it soon.

2. Bank-shot cool

Some players laugh and shake their heads when they accidentally bank in a straight-on jumper. They acknowledge their good fortune. Guys in the too-cool-for-school crowd just backpedal to the defensive end, stone-faced and all business, pointing out defensive assignments in an exaggerated style that says, “EVERYTHING IS TOTALLY NORMAL; LOOK AT ME PLAYING DEFENSE NOW.”

Those guys are no fun.

3. LeBron’s defense

It has been documented already, but it’s worth mentioning in this space: LeBron is having a down year defensively. His block and steal numbers are at a career low, sophisticated adjusted plus/minus systems aren’t kind to him, he can be downright Wadeian in his halfhearted transition defense, and he and his Miami teammates will carelessly swap assignments on the weak side when no such swap is really necessary.

Some of that smacks of a regular-season malaise that will correct itself when Miami feels like caring again. But he hasn’t been quite as airtight defending dribble drives against other perimeter stars, even when he dials up the intensity — as he did last week against Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant blew by LeBron several times one-on-one, and though the threat of Durant’s shooting forced LeBron to press him tightly, Durant wasn’t the first guy this season to get around LeBron with surprising ease. Worth monitoring.

Side note: It was telling that Oklahoma City split the LeBron assignment among three different players (Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, and Perry Jones), while Miami could only count on LeBron to guard Durant.

4. Clear path reviews

These are just endless, and often unnecessary. Clear path fouls are often obvious in real time, and if the NBA really wants to weed them out, just automate a harsh penalty for intentional fouls that disrupt fast breaks. Two shots and the ball might work.

5. J.R. Smith heaves

You can criticize Smith for a lot of things: shot selection, taste in cars, recreational drug use in the face of league rules that prohibit it, Twitter misbehavior, his over-the-top reaction to the Knicks cutting his brother, shot selection, defense, “get the pipe,” and shot selection.

But make sure to praise the man for his unwavering commitment to half-court heaves at the end of quarters. Way too many players knowingly hold the ball a tick too long before launching, hoping to save their precious field goal percentage from the tiny dip a miss would bring. Smith doesn’t give a crap. He’s gunning for glory, and he practices half-court shots before every game.

This is the upside to having no conscience.

6. Lance Stephenson’s entry passing

Stephenson has turned this into a real asset on a post-heavy team that needs good entry passers. He’s become precise at passing over fronts, even from tricky diagonal angles, and he does so with just the right trajectory and pace to squeeze the ball between defenders. An underrated skill, and something Stephenson has clearly worked hard to improve.

7. The giddy Steve Albert

Albert, the Suns’ play-by-play guy (and Marv’s brother), was staring at watching 82 games of a terrible basketball team and trying to come up with things to talk about. But to his surprise, he’s broadcasting a winner playing with delightful pace and the spunky fight of an underdog. He’s damn near giddy about Phoenix’s season. You could almost see the smile beaming across his face last week as he narrated Goran Dragic’s artful, fearless rim attacks against Roy Hibbert. The man is having a great time.

8. The gravity of Kevin Love

It can be hard to understand the impact of a knockdown shooter when he doesn’t actually shoot the ball, but Minnesota’s offense makes functional use of the attention Kevin Love draws as a decoy. Here’s one simple set the Wolves feature, starting with Love and Nikola Pekovic at the elbows and Ricky Rubio up top:

Did you catch what happened there? Rubio runs a pick-and-roll with Love at the left elbow, but Love’s man, LaMarcus Aldridge, doesn’t dare help contain Rubio’s dribble drive — the big man’s normal job here.

Instead, the Blazers, having scouted this play, decide Robin Lopez should abandon Pekovic at the opposite elbow, scurry across the lane on a diagonal, and challenge Rubio at the basket. That leaves Pekovic open for an easy layup.

Here’s the same basic set, and the same basic defensive reaction, only Rubio gets the finish this time:

9. Ramon “Sesh” Sessions

Steve Martin, Charlotte’s play-by-play guy, is a gem, but something about this nickname for Ramon Sessions rubs me the wrong way. It might be an involuntary reflex stemming from my history nerd-dom, since it immediately makes me think of Union soldiers referring to Confederates (and their backers) as “secesh” — short for “secessionist.”

I have problems, I realize.

10. Ty Lawson’s patience in the lane

Speaking of Sessions: I’ve long admired his patience as a ball handler in the lane, an area where patience would seem a rare virtue for the NBA’s smaller guards. Large men with long arms are converging on them with bad intentions, and the three-second countdown is under way.

But Sessions has used awkward pauses and pump fakes under the hoop to draw fouls, and Ty Lawson, an even speedier and littler dude, is adding the same kind of nuance to his game:

Great stuff for a guy who would be an All-Star in the Eastern Conference.

Filed Under: NBA

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

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