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Sustainably Sourced (Part 1)
Constructing an NBA roster requires balance. The GM needs to understand on-court schemes, but also must account for attitude and effort. Putting big-name talent that fails to gel usually results in disappointment (see Brooklyn Nets, 2013-2014). Assembling a high character team that lacks raw talent generally results in heartbreak…and lots of losses (see Brooklyn Nets, 2016-2017).
The current Nets have a mix of veterans and unheralded talent. Even through 50 games, they are still experimenting with lineups. Sean Marks may have struck out in free agency this past summer, but it gave a glimpse into the types of players the Nets covet. Analyzing Kenny Atkinson’s system and its influences gives a clue on how Marks aims to build the offense. The Nets have a grocery list to cook up their offensive system. But unlike previous years, they’re looking for sustainably sourced ingredients. It IS Brooklyn, after all. But unfortunately, farmers markets and Whole Foods branches don’t sell draft picks or “unicorn” players.
As I’ve elaborated on previously, the Nets offense emphasizes team ball. It’s the antithesis of previous Nets teams that relied on star power to will them to victory. In the current NBA, lacking a superstar makes winning an uphill battle. Superstars command respect. The Nets lack a top tier player now, and likely for the near future. With their offensive system, the Nets plan on combating star power with ball movement and smart play. But for the offense to work, certain personnel are needed. The Nets may not have players on the level of the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs cores, but they can still acquire players that run the offense optimally. Here are a couple of skills needed to run the Atkinson “React and Attack” (can I trademark that?) offensive system.
Point guard play
This is the primary building block in Kenny Atkinson’s ideal offense. It’s D’Antoni ball mixed with Spurs philosophy. The chief creator for any basketball team is the point guard, an extension of the coach. Strong point guard play dictates the pace of the offense, balancing passing, scoring, and play off-ball. The Hawks’ team ball featured strong point guard play from Jeff Teague, Shelvin Mack, and Dennis Schroder. All three of these guards were far from being top tier talent. Each player excels in different areas, but all read the offense quickly and make decisions on the fly. These players had the ability to attack the defense…
Dribble into the lane to find the roll man…
Attack without the ball…
And find teammates on secondary action…
The systems Kenny Atkinson draws his offensive philosophies from feature strong point guard play. With a solid primary ball handler, the Nets may not have to run a full set if the guard recognizes an open lane or mismatch on the fly. The presence of a point guard to keep the team in check has been missed all season. The infamous Net scoring droughts, and the crippling team turnovers may have occurred less frequently if the team featured a ball handler confident in leading the offense. The Nets no doubt miss Jeremy Lin and, to a lesser extent, Greivis Vasquez, two leaders with experience running an NBA offense. They understand the flow of the game, and can read defensive coverage. Spencer Dinwiddie and Isaiah Whitehead, the two guards tasked to fill in Lin’s and Vasquez’s shoes, have limited lead ball handling experience, looking tentative at times. These two have not been able to control and manage the offense completely just yet. Comfort as a primary ballhandler, and management of the offense is a developmental aspect to monitor as the season progresses.
Creators off the dribble
The ability to dribble strong to the basket, and knowledge of when to shoot, and when and where to pass are valuable skills. In Atkinson’s motion offense, the drive and dish is an efficient way to attack opposing defenses. When done successfully, the attack generates open looks or free throws. It makes each pass more effective, with the defense scrambling. Being able to create off the dribble is a skill that multiple players should possess in the Nets’ offense. There should be at least three off the bounce threats on the court for optimal offensive sets.
In Spurs-land, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are two premier penetrators with PhD’s in the drive and dish. Kawhi Leonard has added the ability to create off the bounce as well, a key addition in his progression to superstardom. Even the Spurs’ bench unit has players adept in attacking the basket in Kyle Anderson and Patty Mills. The Hawks would often play two point guards down the stretch, to add an additional threat to put defenses on their heels. Even Kyle Korver, primarily known as a catch and shoot assassin, could attack to generate a better shot for himself or for his teammates. Take a look…
The ability to put the ball on the floor can set up strong looks right away, or if the defense recovers, swing to find another shot within the flow of the offense. The players Sean Marks targets do not have to be elite penetrators. They just need to make the right decisions when the defense reacts.
Big men have the chance to create off the dribble within Kenny Atkinson’s offense too. The two primary sets in the Nets offense, Strong and Weak, utilize a 4-out 1-in configuration with a big at the top of the key. Sometimes, that big comes off of a screen…
The big can also be a pivot point, dishing it to a shooter above or a cutter below (that would be a dope band name)…
Other times, the big can jet to the rim on a drive, a wrinkle the Nets have added this season with Trevor Booker and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson playing power forward. RHJ, in particular, has excelled at getting to the rim, usually driving for a layup with contact…
Recently, RHJ has improved his finishing at the rim, drawing more fouls and going to the cup under control. On occasion, RHJ can drive and dish to a wing in the corner.
Even the largest players can take it off the dribble. Al Horford and Paul Millsap were successful at generating offense off the dribble. Here, Millsap scores on an easy layup after faking out his defender on a closeout.
Millsap also is skilled enough to find a teammate low on a smart pass
One of Brook Lopez’s strongest assets as an offensive threat is his ability to attack the paint from the perimeter. Although it may look awkward, it often is more effective, and more beneficial to the offense compared to his post ups. He can get a shot at the rim with the defense moving, or draw a foul on a rotating defender.
Lopez also has been able to find cutters off of his own drives. Two athletic Nets forwards, Quincy Acy and Trevor Booker, have shown the ability to get to the rim as well
On any type of drive into the lane, it’s important to keep it simple. Nets turnovers often arise from over-dribbling in traffic, or from forcing up a contested shot when swarmed by defenders. Other Nets turnovers have stemmed from driving without a plan, allowing defenders to slide in for a charge. Looking for a foul is fine on a drive, but Nets players have often resorted to this technique a bit too much, without much success in getting the whistle. Future Nets players that attack the basket with control could improve efficiency on offense.
Cutters/Movers off the ball
An underrated part of any player’s game is his off-ball movement. The ability to read how a defender is leaning, or catching him napping is a skill that could yield easy buckets. A top tier player like Dwyane Wade built his Hall of Fame career by being an exceptional off ball player, using his basketball IQ and constant movement to get position for shots or drives.
Any kind of movement off the ball, whether it’s screening away, curls (for the girls,) or backdoor cuts could complicate things further for the defense. The Nets have had possessions where a strong cut leads to an easy basket or good look from 3. Sean Kilpatrick moves particularly well off the ball when he’s not creating his own offense. A Brook Lopez post up has been a solid option for cutters the past three seasons. Bojan Bogdanovic, in particular, is proficient in cutting off-ball…
The initial action was a Brook Lopez postup. Bojan catches his defender napping, and darts to the rim, where Brook finds him for an easy layup. Bogdanovic scores on similar attacks often.
Coming off of an inbounds play, Bogdanovic dumps an entry pass to Brook Lopez in the post. Bojan fakes a cut away from the ball, but runs hard to the strong side corner, receiving a handoff from Lopez for a good look from 3. Any post up play by the Nets should be accompanied by at least some off ball movement.
There have been times when the Nets offense is completely devoid of off ball movement, straying from the system or giving up on the set after the defense stymies the first action. This is when the Nets revert to isolation ball, which occurs often during Nets droughts.
The problem with asking a player to call his own number is not the stopping of the ball. It’s the stopping of player movement that can kill an offense.
Off-ball screening is another minor offensive aspect that can pay major dividends. While not exactly the most successful, the Los Angeles Lakers, under Luke Walton, and the Portland Trailblazers under Terry Stotts use complex off ball screen action to free shooters, or as a decoy to open driving lanes. In an offense where players have free rein to shoot from the perimeter, being able to shoot off of an off ball screen can fuel the offense. The NBA’s best shooters come off of screens with intent. The shooter’s speed, paired with a strong screen, is a deadly weapon.
This season, the Nets offense has used off ball screens to set up the offense, out of Strong and Weak sets (refer to my first post on the Nets offense to see what it looks like). One reason the Nets’ ball movement has suffered at times is because players run through screens without any sense of urgency. Players like Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver, and JJ Redick, who could rain threes with their eyes closed, come off screens at full speed every time. Coming off a screen lackadaisically allows the defense time to adjust and close out. It may be a minor criticism, but it could be beneficial when assessing future Nets players.
There is much work to be done constructing the Nets roster. Offensive skills range far greater than shooting, dribbling and passing. The Nets could acquire a speedy point guard, or a slasher that gets into the lane at will, but their decision-making speed may determine if a possession ends in a basket or a turnover. I may have written way too much on the value of moving off of the ball, but it can be critical. At this point in a lost season, Marks and Co. should already be looking at players to target this summer in free agency and the NBA draft.