The Nets' Jarrett Allen defends the New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis


Lichtenstein: Offensively Avant-Garde Nets Slow To Pull Defensive Switches

Why Isn't Brooklyn Following NBA Trend?

Steve Lichtenstein
March 13, 2018 - 8:49 am

Prior to his club’s contest at Barclays Center on Sunday, Sixers coach Brett Brown waxed poetically about the Nets’ vanguard offensive philosophy.

“It’s Houston amped up -- with different players,” Brown said of his opponent’s penchant for hunting 3-point shots and layups, while also noting an important distinction.

The lowly Nets (21-46) may not boast talents anywhere near the caliber of Rockets stars James Harden and Chris Paul, but, Brown said, “I think that the template of (the Nets’) style of play is the modern-day game.  When you study their style, they are an analytics poster child.  I consider this team extremely dangerous because the style is hard to guard.”

Strange, then, that the Nets’ vision, as choreographed by general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, has not incorporated the growing trend on the other side of the court -- switching on defense.

Many of the teams at the top of the league’s defensive rating category are switch-heavy. The 76ers, who are ranked fifth (103.1 points per 100 possessions), were the latest team to stifle the Nets’ attack by constantly switching defenders to negate on-and-off-ball screens during their 120-97 rout Sunday.

“This, too, is part of the modern-day game,” Brown said.  “Do you have a team that can switch?”

According to Atkinson, the Nets sometimes get too eager to exploit mismatches from switches, thereby stagnating the offense. 

“I think they got us out of our rhythm a little bit,” Nets wing Joe Harris said. “You got to do a better job of moving without the ball, slipping cuts, even some flare screens. You’ve got to be able to mix it up and not just be robotic with what you typically do. To a man, really, (D’Angelo Russell) was the only one that kind of got it going offensively, and it was because he was creating his own shots.”

Harris, along with fellow sharpshooter Allen Crabbe, would run around screens along the 3-point arc, but instead of breaking into an open area, they would often encounter the 76er who was guarding the screener.  Uncontested catch-and-shoots were rare.

“(Switching) is where (the league) is going," Atkinson said, adding that he's seen of a lot of it lately and that it creates plenty of problems, especially with teams that are big, strong and athletic.

So why aren’t the Nets, an analytics-driven organization, mimicking the best teams’ best defensive practices? Switching is usually one of Atkinson’s last resorts, slightly before just going into a straight 1-2-2 zone.

Harris understandably wouldn’t go there, saying, “I’m sure, maybe at some point, down the line, we might get to that point, but that’s just not how Kenny’s approach is to defense right now.”  

Many would argue that the Nets simply don’t have the personnel to play that way.  Well, since when has that mattered in Brooklyn’s development culture? The Nets shoot the second most 3s in the league (35.1 per game), yet they convert at the third worst rate (34.8 percent). The Nets’ inefficiencies from deep haven’t stopped proven bricklayers like Isaiah Whitehead, Justin Hamilton, Sean Kilpatrick and Quincy Acy from firing away with impunity during Atkinson’s two seasons calling plays.

While the Nets are on the small side, they have big guards and ample depth on the wing. Their similar-sized lineups with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Dante Cunningham up front could actually be helpful in a switching scheme. And Marks and Atkinson have stated multiple times that they love 19-year-old rookie center Jarrett Allen’s potential to develop into a big who can switch out on the perimeter to guard the league’s water bugs.

Let him try.  Is it any different than giving him the green light to shoot corner 3s?

According to the advanced metrics, the Nets should be a lot better defensively than their record. Only 27.6 percent of opponents’ field goal attempts have come from behind the 3-point line, the fewest in the league. The Nets force a league-high 21.7 shots per game from 10 to 19 feet, the dreaded midrange areas. As such, their opponents’ effective field goal percentage is 51.7 percent, a middle-of-the-pack rate.

Yet Brooklyn surrenders 108.3 points per 100 possessions, good (bad?) for 23rd in the league’s rankings.

You could point to many contributing factors, from the league’s worst turnover differential per game (minus 2.9), the fourth most second-chance points allowed per game (13.5) or the seventh most free throw attempts allowed per game (23.5).  Or you could simply maintain that the Nets have too many bad defensive players in their rotation.

In all these matters, the problems usually arise from the Nets’ defenders getting out of position. In the half-court setting, guards such as Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert often get pinballed out of the play by screens -- on and off the ball.  Only Crabbe has given some semblance of a consistent effort to squeeze through screens.    

Take last week’s Warriors game, for example. It turned when Stephen Curry was set loose by picks on the seemingly magnetized LeVert to score 12 points in the last three minutes of the third quarter. Even if Curry adjusted to a hypothetical switch by finding a cutting slip screener, the analytics would conclude that two points allowed is better than three, right?

There are other risks to switching.  It can further exacerbate size differentials to make it more difficult for the Nets to finish defensive possessions with defensive rebounds. 

But those risks should be offset by factors such as an improved turnover margin, particularly live-ball turnovers that ignite the Nets’ transition game. It’s been hamstrung this season by the Nets being last in the league in steals per game (6.2).

Currently, the Nets’ defensive game plan is a prayer that their opponents will miss enough of their analytics-tested uncontested shots. 

The way today's game is played -- and officiated -- it's been a recipe for disaster.  It’s time to pull a switch.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1