(image via Empire Writes Back)
The Brooklyn Nets are in flux. By rebuilding, the Nets are not just signing new players and staff. The entire franchise is changing. The players, head coach, and GM are the most noticeable changes, but the makeover of the franchise runs deeper. Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson have referred to the current Nets as a “program.” In college basketball, Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils are a program. So are Rick Pitino and Louisville, Roy Williams and UNC, Jay Wright and Villanova, and many others. But under the Nets’ program, there likely are less shady under the table deals than in men’s college basketball. In the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs are the “program,” which is Sean Marks’ source for branding the Nets as such. This is year one of the new Brooklyn Nets program. Kenny Atkinson is trying to install and teach a complicated motion offense, so there obviously have been growing pains. The record shows that.
In Kenny Atkinson, Sean Marks hired a grandchild of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, and a child of the Mike D’Antoni tree. There’s probably some weird coaching tree incest thing going on there. Atkinson has adopted principles of the Hawks offense with the Nets, with a few D’Antoni-style philosophical strategies. The offense is the fastest paced in the league, and while it has not led to success for the Nets, it has kept them competitive. In a team devoid of stars and sheer talent, the offense attempts to put players in situations to succeed. It’s a breath of fresh air, compared to when Lionel Hollins would run Deron Williams off the ball, and have players take turns on stagnant isolation plays. The Nets are finally modern.
The Offense – Philosophy and Roots
The Nets offense this season is complex. So here’s way too much information on a team that hasn’t been successful. Kenny Atkinson took the skeleton of the Hawks “Spurs East” offense, and injected it with D’Antoni style speed. It’s pace and space meets Spurs-esque motion. I’d love to think of a cool name for the offensive system, but I think winning has to come first before doing that. With the Hawks sets, the players often did not run any set plays. The system relies on the ability of the players to read and react to the opposing defense. The five players on the floor read when to screen, cut, pass, or attack, and know where to find each other during all the movement. It takes a lot of teamwork. For the Spurs, that teamwork is part of their culture. The Hawks finished their season 6 games under .500 when Mike Budenholzer took over. The offense takes time to learn and build chemistry.
In the Nets current offensive system, there really are no set plays in half court sets, just options. The D’Antoni philosophy comes into play in transition, affecting the team’s shot selection and clock control. Shots can come freely from all around the perimeter early in the shot clock, almost as soon as a player crosses the sideline hash mark. The Nets will also use dribble drives to the rim to set up open shooters or find cutters as well. This still leaves room for Brook Lopez post-ups, and Kilpatrick or Bogdanovic creating their own shots off the bounce. Anyone can be a ball handler and initiate the matchup, depending on the matchup. Atkinson said earlier in the season that if a player has a good look at the basket, he should shoot his shot.
Additionally, the Nets offense borrows from the Daryl Morey-Houston Rockets style of shot selection. They take plenty of threes, try to get layups and floaters in the paint, and try to get to the free throw line. The mid range shot may not be completely taboo, but the most efficient shots come from the perimeter and in the paint.
Strong and Weak Sets
The Nets run most (probably about 70%) of their offense starting with the “Strong” and “Weak” sets. These two sets come from Popovich and the Spurs, and were the foundation pieces of the Hawks offense. Both of these sets use a four out, one in initial setup, involving movement of the ball from side-to-side, followed by additional action. In Strong, a guard initiates the action by dribbling to a side with a big at the top of the key and another wing on the opposite side. The other big is on the block, with the fifth player, usually a shooter, in the opposite corner, where the ball starts moving (the strong side.)
The Weak set has a similar side-to-side movement to start a posession, but instead of the corner wing on the same side as where the ball starts, he’s in the opposite corner, or the weak side. The ballhandler that initiates the play is usually the point guard.
The ball is swung from the primary ball handler, to the opposite side. From here, there are different ways to attack, and it’s up to the players to read the defense. This wing can look to dump it down low to the big to get a post-up or slip for a layup. The Hawks do this here, in their Strong set.
This is a favorite entry point for a Brook Lopez post up. In previous years, Lopez had difficulty even getting position for post ups, starting to back down a few feet inside the three point line. Lopez or Booker can usually get the ball right on the block if they ask for the ball coming out of a Strong or Weak side set. The post pass can come early in the shot clock, allowing enough time for additional movement or a reset.
If the big can’t find proper position for a clear entry pass, the wing in the opposite corner can curl off of a double stagger screen to the top of the three-point line. From here, the wing that receives the ball can shoot it quickly or attack off the dribble. Atlanta had Kyle Korver running off this action, usually. Korver could come off the double screen for a three at the top of the arc.
Or he could continue moving on the dribble, looking for his own shot…
…or finding an open teammate diving to the basket.
For the Nets, Joe Harris, when he starts, is usually the wing in the strong side corner. Similar to Korver, Harris comes off of screens hard. He usually opts to take the ball off the dribble for in-between shots, rather than shooting it right off the catch.
If that doesn’t work, the current ballhandler can initiate another set. Atlanta used the play horns as the secondary action off the initial play, and that leaves even more options for scoring. It could lead to a give and go with one of the big men at the elbow, an open shot or drive to the rim by the big or finding another teammate coming off an offball screen. From there, more motion can be initiated, and again, it’s up to the team to read and react to what the defense does. They can run horns into a give and go…
…or cut more to get a shooter to come off of a curl screen.
The Nets run strong in the following play, with Bogdanovic coming off a second double stagger screen. Dinwiddie cuts from the strong side on the initial action. It leads to an open, but missed Trevor Booker three point shot in the corner.
The Nets run a modification of the Strong set, and instead of running horns, Bogdanovic uses Booker as a screener in the pinch post, leading to a Lopez open three.
Here, the Strong set swings the ball back across the court, where Dinwiddie recognizes the double and passes it to Lopez, who gets into the lane for a floater.
If the ball can’t be moved to the other side on the initial action, the corner player can come over and receive a handoff. Here, Kilpatrick is being denied the pass by Kidd-Gilchrist. Booker hands it off to Bogdanovic, coming off a Dinwiddie screen, and forces a rushed pass after getting a quick double.
In this set, Kemba Walker denies the ball from Dinwiddie on the swing. This leads to Kilpatrick coming off a LeVert stagger screen, and he uses Booker as a pick and roll partner.
The Weak set is similar to Strong, but can be used to get the point guard a good look, whereas Strong can be used for a wing player. In Weak, instead of the corner wing coming off a double stagger screen, the initial ballhandler comes off a screen, and can go to work from there. Jeff Teague was usually the guy doing this in Atlanta. His speed off of a screen from a big allowed him to initiate the offense, and create for himself or for his teammates.
The Nets run “Weak” here, leading to a Randy Foye three early in shot clock. Kilpatrick, who brought the ball up, comes off of a screen by Acy.
In this set, Whitehead comes off of an RHJ screen and gets the pass. He dumps it to RHJ, and Bogdanovic comes across on a double stagger screen. Ball movement leads to an open Lopez 3.
In this variation, Whitehead sets the weak side screen to get Bogdanovic open at the elbow. The ball is swung for a Foye three point shot.
Here, the Weak side set leads to an Isaiah Whitehead-Quincy Acy pick and roll, with Acy forcing up a contested shot.
After the initial screen action, the ball can be handed off to the screener, who can take it off the dribble. Gustavo Ayon does that here. Lopez does this sometimes for the Nets, and he can dribble to the rim or post up.
Atkinson has added his own flair to the Hawks offense by speeding things up and looking for early offense. The initial ball reversal can be done right as the players cross half court. Before the shot clock even reaches :20, the team may already have fired a shot from the perimeter, or found a big down low. This occasionally allows for an easy bucket or a quick switch, with the defense not really set coming off of their own offensive possession.
Inbound Plays and Horns
The Nets offense doesn’t run Strong and Weak sets every play. A common set in the NBA is Horns. The ball handler is met with the two bigs at the elbows, and the ball handler can initiate a pick and roll, drive, or set up more movement by passing it to a big in a triangle offense pinch post. There are a lot of (maybe endless) options coming out of Horns. Caris LeVert uses Horns to set up a pick and pop for an open Quincy Acy three.
LeVert initiates horns again, with RHJ slipping the screen, and the defender Frank Kaminsky icing the ball handler. The rotation leaves Foye open in the corner for three.
The Nets have had a lot of success coming out of time outs, which has been noticed by the YES crew. Atkinson seems to excel at inbounds play calls. Even if the players miss, they usually get a clean look or drive to the basket. In this play, Kilpatrick comes off of a rip screen from Lopez to initiate a pick and roll right at the free throw line.
Another inbounds play has Michael Kidd-Gilchrist fighting two stagger screens from Booker and Lopez, leading to an open Kilpatrick three.
Drives, PNR, and Swings
This is where the fast pace and D’Antoni style comes in. At any point in the offense, the players on the perimeter can come off the dribble and attack. While this may not always lead to an easy layup, it causes the defense to scramble, and may leave someone open on the perimeter for a three, drive or additional ball reversal. RHJ, in recent games, has been attacking the basket well, usually leading to him getting to the rim. Coming out of weak action, RHJ drives against Frank Kaminsky. This causes a rotation to the rim. RHJ dumps it off to Acy, who swings it to Bogdanovic for three.
Ball reversal early in the shot clock allows Kilpatrick to drive to the basket and find Bogdanovic for the open three here.
Out of strong, weak or horns, pick and roll, or pick and pop can be initiated. There are some plays where the Nets run the pick and roll to start the possession. Here, Whitehead finds Acy for an easy layup when Cody Zeller doubles the ballhandler.
Dinwiddie denies the screen from Lopez, but Charlotte doubles on the drive again, and Dinwiddie finds a diving Lopez for the floater.
Transition, Post-ups, and Isolation
The Nets offense is so fast, that it seems like they’re always on a fast break. Zach Lowe of ESPN and Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer have commented on the occasional effectiveness of the Trevor Booker coast to coast.
Atkinson has encouraged guys to push the ball. Any player (other than the centers) can bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense, or drive to the basket if the defense is napping. This is by design, as the offense hasn’t really used a dominant ballhandler.
The Brook Lopez post up can also set up the offense. Coming off an entry pass, Lopez can start backing down his defender. The entry passer can cut away from the basket and set a screen for another wing along the top of the three-point line. If Lopez faces up, there usually are shooters at the weak side wing and at the weak side elbow. Lopez has also shown an ability to find cutters that dive to the basket after an entry pass or down screen. The Spurs ran similar action with Tim Duncan, and are still doing so with LaMarcus Aldridge.
Sean Kilpatrick and Bojan Bogdanovic are the two players that use simple isolation the most. This may not be part of the motion offense, but it has been successful for both at some points. Kilpatrick does a decent job at using dribble moves to get to the rim or create enough space for a shot. Bogdanovic uses the threat of his three point shot to get defenses to decide on whether to stay on him, where he can use long strides to get past the defender, or make a sagging defender pay by shooting a jumper with space.
So, is the offense any good?
Considering the personnel the Nets have, the motion x pace and space system can really maximize players’ strengths, and put players in positions to succeed. The speed of the offense can catch defenses not paying attention, or can take advantage of mismatches early in the shot clock. The motion offense, in theory, makes everyone an offensive threat. There is less standing around and more movement to work for an open shot. The offense is not just about cutting to find an open shooter, contrary to what some may think. In a season where star power has never been more evident, the Nets have been competitive in games without having a fair counter to the likes of Harden, DeRozan, Curry and Durant. With the constant motion, the players have to read and attack.
For the future, I think that Kenny Atkinson’s offense can be successful, given the personnel. The Hawks won 60 games with the same offense. While they may not have gone to the NBA Finals, they shocked the league by being super-successful without having a bonafide megastar. With the NBA becoming longer and more athletic, a motion offense can create mismatches off of screen action, or draw defenders far enough to leave someone open. It keeps everyone on the court involved, with a lot of offensive possessions having all five players touch the ball. It is a far cry from the pounding of the basketball for 18 seconds, and a contested midrange shot with 6 seconds left on the shot clock. Nets fans are familiar with that.
That all sounds great, right? Ball movement, open shots, drives to the rim, and sharing really has caused the team to overcome their talent disparity, right? Obviously, it hasn’t. An innovative, team-oriented system, adapted from two successful philosophies has had no major effect on the wins-loss column this season for Brooklyn. There are different scapegoats in the Nets’ current standing as a bottom dweller, in the standings and on the stat sheets. Obviously, Billy King is at the top of that list for the Nets’ current position. But on the court, the offense isn’t always as smooth as described here. By trying to emulate the Hawks and Spurs, the Nets have a clear goal of the style they want. But with the current roster, there are some things to work on. I’ll be covering how the Nets offense can and has gone wrong this season in my next post.
My entire knowledge of the Hawks offense comes from an amazing reddit post, which definitely did not get enough love. I used a few of the poster’s gifs to show how the Hawks used Strong, Weak, and Horns sets to generate their offense. He goes into much deeper detail and really delves into every option that can occur in the offensive system.
I also watched these videos to really get a feel of the offense, both good and bad. These videos are from the channels BBALLBREAKDOWN, Half Court Hoops, and Coach Daniel, respectively.
Be sure to follow me across all social media @ignisyon for more thoughts, deep dives, and musings. This is my first Nets-centric writing I’ve ever done, so let me know what you think