image via HardwoodHoudini.com
Sustainably Sourced (Part 2)
Rebuilding an NBA franchise is a painful process that every NBA team (aside from the San Antonio Spurs) must undergo. Without their own draft picks, the Nets must look everywhere to find players that fit the Sean Marks’ envisioned program, and the system that coach Kenny Atkinson aims to run. Earlier, I mentioned that point guard play, attacking, and off ball movement are three skills that Marks should look for in optimizing the Nets’ future offense. Those are just a few of the sustainable skills that could have the Nets striking gold in free agency and the draft.
Ideally, the Nets’ ideal offensive player can shoot, attack off the dribble, pass, and play off-ball well. Unfortunately, James Harden is locked up for the near future, and Michael Jordan is turning 54 in a few weeks. I texted the other perfect Atkinson fits “you up?” last night, but they haven’t responded, unfortunately. Like a good burrito, the Nets have to build their team with complementary components. In a system that requires cooperation and cohesion team-wide, each player needs to be multi-faceted. The future Nets won’t be “[insert superstar name here] and the Nets.” For the offense to run smoothly, the Nets need more than just strong individual play.
The art of the screen
In my last post, I elaborated on the underrated skill of off-ball movement, and its value in Kenny Atkinson’s offense. I mentioned how a player without the ball should come off of a screen quickly, always looking ready for a pass. But for the screen and cut, screen and roll, or pick and pop, it takes two to make a thing go right. Setting the screen, pick, or human traffic cone, is a part of the Net offense that has been missing. A good screen seals the defender or creates a mismatch.
In Atlanta, Paul Millsap and Al Horford were the key screeners for all of the Hawks’ perimeter action. Kyle Korver’s shooting in 2014-2015 was set up by his effort to sprint off of the screens of Horford and Millsap.
Even the Hawks’ bench bigs, Mike Scott and Tiago Splitters are skilled screeners. A good screen can be as effective as a perfectly placed pass.
In those plays, Quincy Acy, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Trevor Booker set strong screens, trapping the smaller defender. Booker is unable to set a strong screen initially, but he fights and sets a better screen that frees up Spencer Dinwiddie for the mid range jump shot.
Luis Scola sets a high screen, which frees Isaiah Whitehead for a lane to drive to the basket. While his age has been evident this season, especially on a team that plays so quickly, Luis Scola is probably the best screener on the Nets.
Here, Scola slips off of the screen, making just enough contact to allow Isaiah Whitehead to turn the corner and attack. He also gets his hip out to slow Kay Felder down. He may not be part of the Nets’ future on-court, but Scola’s screen setting skill, and his ability to vary his screens are the little things that make a difference in games. I may have a man-crush on Scola’s game, but I’d like to see him remain with Brooklyn in the Mike Miller/Nick Collison/Metta World Peace role to keep the young guys motivated. His knowledge of basketball minutiae and basketball smarts could be passed down to the young Nets.
In just this one possession, we see prime examples of poor screens. Brook Lopez comes up to set the screen for Spencer Dinwiddie. He fails to set his feet and establish position. Establishing position is a guide for the ballhandler. He tries a second time, but again, he fails to use his size to slow down Kemba Walker. Now, this doesn’t mean Lopez can’t set a hard screen. He does that here, leading to a nice midrange shot for Randy Foye.
The two centers, Brook Lopez and Justin Hamilton, have shown willingness to set strong screens. However, most of their screens consist of just running up to the ballhandler and standing in the vicinity of the defender.
The double stagger screen is a key action at the beginning of Nets’ offensive sets. Against the San Antonio Spurs, the Nets ran those sets frequently. The screens set were lackluster. Above, you can see Spencer Dinwiddie and Trevor Booker give Dejounte Murray love taps as Bojan Bogdanovic cuts to the top of the key. Solid screens on that initial action could give the cutter an open look at the top of the three-point line.
In scouting potential players, or in developing their own personnel, setting a proper screen is a useful offensive tool. Becoming a strong screener is more about effort than pure basketball skill. The art of the screen can be taught and developed much quicker than shooting or defense. Screening is not a complicated skill, but it is too often overlooked, and missed this season.
It’s the fourth quarter in a close game. Just for a second, pretend that it’s not the Nets in this game. The offensive player dribbles into the lane hard, slows down while keeping his dribble alive, and looks around the floor before making a decision. The offensive player’s man has caught up and is able to get a hand in his face, and the off ball defenders have positioned themselves to deny a pass. The possession ends in a forced shot with the shot clock winding down. Now, if the player was able to make his move and make a decision quicker, he could have scored, drawn a foul, or dished to an open man. That’s where the speed of decision-making comes in.
Nets players have been able to attack in the lane, but often stop halfway or hesitate before making a move. That could be due to many of the players still adjusting to the offense. Yes, it has been over half a season, but it’s difficult to establish a rhythm and continuity with a lineup constantly in flux. Future Nets players could be more decisive when reacting to the defense.
Below, Spencer Dinwiddie gets under the basket on a nice drive against Minnesota.
He dribbles around half court in a U, dribbling aimlessly before passing it off to Quincy Acy. On a drive where defenders are drawn in, Dinwiddie could have passed it off with defenders surrounding him under the basket, or attacked the rim himself.
This may be minor, but on a mismatch against the slower Shabazz Muhammad, Isaiah Whitehead receives the ball off of a Brook Lopez bounce pass. When receiving the ball, he takes time to survey the defense, allowing Muhammad to catch up and defend straight up. The tipped pass may have slowed the play down, but a chance to attack may have been lost.
Caris LeVert has been impressive on a number of fronts in his minutes with the Nets. His shooting, passing, and ball handling have been a revelation for the Nets. LeVert is probably the Nets’ most decisive ballhandler off of the dribble. LeVert’s game has little wasted movement or dribbles. He’s either attacking the basket, or after a quick first step, dishes it off to a teammate. That’s evident above, where he quickly gets to the free throw line and dishes it off to Quincy Acy with Gorgui Dieng watching the ball.
Again, LeVert plays decisively here on a PNR with Trevor Booker. He does just enough to make Courtney Lee and Mundaugas Kuzminskas shuffle, moving purposefully. He takes into the lane sucking in two defenders, and drops off a pass to Booker for an easy layup. Although he may not be the primary ballhandler, LeVert has been a bright spot this season. Caris LeVert may be an ideal Atkinson system player, hopefully, possibly. Please let him grow and not be a fluke, basketball gods. Please.
The NBA game is fast. Split second decisions could have major implications on a single play, or an entire game. To their credit, Whitehead and Dinwiddie have looked more confident and more decisive in recent games, a positive sign of development.
The Nets without the ball must make quick reads as well. At times, the Nets move quickly and decisively, leading to easy baskets and open looks. At other times, you can see the Nets directing each other where to move, and what to do, and letting the shot clock dwindle. Decision-making and comfort with the system may not be a skill that can be taught, but should be kept in mind when evaluating potential future Nets.
But what about shooting?
I’ve held off on writing about the Nets shooting until now, just to show all the other skills a successful offense needs. Yes, shooting is important. But Sean Marks can’t just assemble a future roster with all shooters and expect to be successful. Just look at this year’s team. Randy Foye, Justin Hamilton, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Sean Kilpatrick, and Bojan Bogdanovic all have reputations as solid shooters. Brook Lopez, Luis Scola, and Jeremy Lin have developed three point shots later in their career as well. Yet, the Nets are in the lower third of league three point shooting rankings.
Without an attacking ball handler, shooters can’t get defenders to help on a drive to get a shooter open. Without a burly screen setter, good off ball movement may as well be mitigated. Even if the Nets do have these components, slow decision-making in a read and react offense may doom the play. Playing without a floor general is like starting the game in a deficit. Running the system successfully needs more than just deadeye shooting.
When he agreed to take over as General Manager for the Brooklyn Nets, Sean Marks knew what he was getting into. Fans that expected immediate results have received a wake up call every time the team steps on the floor. This is a superstar driven league. The Nets know that a LeBron James-level player isn’t coming anytime soon. Jason Kidd isn’t walking through that door, nor is 2004-2009 Vince Carter (I miss you, baby.) The Nets’ young prospects look promising at times, but the future is a shot in the dark.
Judging by last summer, Sean Marks seems to have an eye for young talent. He came up empty handed in free agency, which delayed the Nets’ chance at breaking out of the NBA cellar. It will be years before the Nets are competitive. But progress is occurring right now. The Nets’ next find may be sitting on an NBA bench, or toiling in the D-League right now. With the right players, the right infrastructure, and a little bit of luck, success for the Brooklyn Nets may come sooner than expected.