Brooklyn Nets Will Face Serious Offensive Questions for NBA Postseason

Dylan MurphyFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2013

The NBA preseason hype is understandable: The Brooklyn Nets acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry without relinquishing any irreplaceable assets.

Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez are still around to carry the brunt of the scoring load, and Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans solidify the depth up front. There is certainly upside here, with lots of particular and complimentary skills.

But there’s also a rotation logjam and a rookie head coach in Jason Kidd in charge of wading through the mess. Will his friendship with Williams hinder his ability to coach him? Will his close proximity in age to many of the key veteran players interfere with the normal coach-player relationship barrier? These questions will sort themselves out, one way or another.

At least in the regular season, we can expect the team’s excellent depth to work to its advantage. Garnett and Pierce won’t need to see heavy minutes; and while injuries will sideline at least a few players for extended periods of time, the top of this roster is built for the playoffs and its bench to shoulder the regular-season burden.

But once they do reach the playoffs, the Nets are facing some serious offensive questions.

While a team like Detroit might have trouble spacing the floor to properly run its offense, the Nets might have a few too many mouths to feed. Pierce is used to being the No. 1 wing option; so is Johnson. Lopez is only effective when he’s fed the ball in the post, and Garnett will need at least a few offensive touches to remain in the flow of the game.

And then there’s Williams, the team’s best player, a ball-dominating point guard who will have to orchestrate this entire thing.

There’s enough talent and veteran leadership on this team for its players to understand the sacrifices that will need to be made. Everyone’s personal scoring averages can expect to drop, but in its place could be one of the strongest offensive five-man lineups in the league.

But how will they put it all together?

Williams, at heart, is a pick-and-roll point guard that thrives as the team’s primary decision-maker. But last season, he ran into multiple problems because his teammates (besides Johnson) couldn’t properly spread the floor.

Notice how on this pick-and-roll, Gerald Wallace’s defender, Luol Deng, prematurely sags in a help position with no regard for Wallace as a shooter.

This anticipatory rotation is a clear signal: Williams is barely in the paint, and he’s only side-by-side with his defender. Still, Deng slides over because the Chicago Bulls do not want Williams finishing near the rim; they’d rather have him kick the ball out to Gerald Wallace, which he does.

But when Wallace receives the ball, Deng’s closeout isn’t particularly desperate or hard. He runs with choppy steps while keeping his distance, in order to deter Wallace from hitting him with a pump fake and blowing by.

The addition of Pierce to Brooklyn’s offensive wing, in addition to Johnson’s already deadly shooting, will force their defenders to cling to them or pay for leaving three-point shooters unguarded.

But a bigger problem Kidd will face in designing Brooklyn’s scheme is how to avoid an iso-heavy offense. The advantages of isolation with explosive offensive players are clear: There will usually be a mismatch somewhere, and the dangerous offensive potential of the off-ball players will reduce the potency of help defense. But stagnancy and a lack of touches eventually trickles down; players tend to resent their lack of a central offensive role and poor shot selection usually follows.

The solution, then, is an offensive design that focuses on playmaking options, as opposed to player-focused sets. Think of it this way: Last season under Avery Johnson, a Brooklyn play design often ended when the ball was fed to Lopez in the post. In other words, the entire purpose of the play was to establish favorable positioning for isolation.

Here, C.J. Watson and Lopez set screens for Wallace, who pops out to the left wing and receives a pass from Williams.

Wallace then proceeds to enter the ball into the post and clear out to the other side, leaving Lopez one-on-one against Omer Asik.

And that’s it; play over. Lopez is in isolation here, and the play design is finished. Should Asik play solid defense, Brooklyn can only hope to reset into a pick-and-roll or an isolation for someone else.

Also be sure to notice the effort with which Watson and Lopez set their screens for Wallace: absolutely none.

Because all the players know that the primary action is an isolation, they go through the motions with the pre-play setup. In theory, a solid Waston and Lopez double screen could free up Wallace for an open shot. Or, with a trailing defender, Wallace could use the space to drive to the basket. But the play’s inherent purpose deters any secondary creativity, and what we have here is a poorly dressed isolation.

Every team runs some variation of this play design, whether it’s to create a post or wing isolation. But the better teams use it as a change of pace; the teams that sputter in the playoffs use it regularly.

And to be perfectly clear, Lopez is one of the strongest post-up centers in the league. The Nets would be foolish not to feature him at least a few times a game, just to keep the defense on its toes. But the regularity with which they relied upon these and other similar sets disrupted any type of true continuity and offensive cohesiveness.

Now compare this to a typical Erik Spoelstra play design. To be fair, it took Spoelstra and his staff an entire season and a half to feature his best players while not detracting from overall team-based strategy. But now that his scheme is fully in place, it’s both beautiful to watch and extremely difficult to defend.

On this play, LeBron James catches the ball on the elbow while Dwyane Wade sets a down screen for Mario Chalmers in the left corner.

It actually ends up being three screens. After Chalmers runs off the Wade pick, he executes a dribble handoff with LeBron and a pick-and-roll with Udonis Haslem. By the time Chalmers has the ball on the right wing, his defender, Brandon Jennings, is trailing well behind. This forces Haslem’s man, Ersan Ilyasova, to hedge hard and leave Haslem.

The result is Milwaukee chaos on the backside. Larry Sanders must now choose: leave Chris Bosh wide open for a three-pointer, or sag and prohibit him from dumping the ball into an open Haslem. He chooses to protect the basket, leaving Bosh free.

And though he ends up missing, the element of confusion is clear.

The play creates multiple choices for the offense while scrambling the defense, and it isn’t so much about who takes the shot as it is about the quality of shot created. Even without serious involvement from James or Wade, Miami has generated a look it can be pleased with.

Great players always find a way to shine through. There isn’t necessarily a need to feature them extensively, because they’ll naturally impact the game by their mere presence alone. Great coaches understand this dynamic, and leverage their stars to their advantage. They can be decoys, too, and in the process help create favorable situations for an offense.

If the Nets hope to find any semblance of continuity next season, their offense will need to focus on playmaking and shot creation. Not only is it the easiest way to guarantee touches for everyone, but it’s also the most effective way to wield star power.