Brooklyn Nets' Version of 'Small Ball' Is Driving Turnaround

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Brooklyn Nets' Version of 'Small Ball' Is Driving Turnaround
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Even after a rough loss to the Toronto Raptors last night, the Brooklyn Nets are 10-2 in the year 2014. While they've taken out some easy opponents like the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic, they've also knocked off the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks (twice) and Miami Heat in that span, so it's not as though they've just been beating up on a weak portion of their schedule. 

Much of the coverage of their recent rise has focused on Brooklyn's new-found small-ball identity (though The Brooklyn Game's Devin Kharpertian rightly points out that it's really more like long ball), and with good reason.

The five-man unit of Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett has started 10 of those 12 games, appeared in all 12 and, in 111 minutes of floor time, outscored opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions while holding opponents to a per-possession scoring output that would rate as the best mark in the league, according to NBA.com

As Kharpertian notes, Brooklyn's small lineup doesn't share many of the traits you usually associate with other teams' small-ball lineups.

Quickness, especially in the form of increased pace, is one of the hallmarks of small lineups, but the Nets' unit is playing at a glacially slow pace of 88.18 possessions per 48 minutes, which would rank as the slowest in the league. Brooklyn's next most used lineup on the season (the original starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez) played more than eight possessions per 48 minutes faster.

Teams also tend to go small to goose their offense—adding more perimeter-oriented players to the floor aids spacing and provides wider driving lanes as well as more room for shooters. But Brooklyn's offensive output with the new starting lineup has actually been significantly lower than their season-long mark. Again, it's the defense that's taken off. Through January 1, the Nets had the second-worst defensive efficiency in the NBA. Since January 2, they've had the fourth-best mark.

Because the primary lineup they've been using essentially features four wing players—Livingston, Anderson, Johnson and Pierce—along with Garnett, the Nets have been able to seamlessly switch screens whenever they want, without leading to a true mismatch. Livingston is the only one of the four players who doesn't have the requisite bulk to deal with larger players, and even he is able to make up for it with a massive wingspan.

A switch like the one executed by Johnson and Anderson at the bottom of the screen here, one that doesn't even have a direct impact on the play, is the type of thing that helps the Nets in multiple ways. For one, it doesn't create a mismatch for the opposition. As well, not having to fight through every single screen saves energy.

Johnson is 32 years old with nearly 35,000 minutes under his legs. Pierce is 36 and has over 40,000 minutes on his odometer. Anderson is 31, and while Livingston is "only" 28, he also has a gruesome injury in his past, and saving him the trouble of fighting through everything no doubt eases the burden on his knee.

A switch like this one is obviously more noticeable, but it accomplishes the same goals. Anderson and Pierce are spared the burden of fighting through the screen, and the Nets force a miss by John Salmons because Pierce seamlessly picks him up off the dribble and is able to stay with him every step of the way before he releases the jumper. Only Johnson's poor box-out allows the Raptors to score on the rebound.

The freedom to switch when they want (as opposed to when their guards just can't manage to fight through screens, like some other teams) has helped the Nets keep their opponents on the perimeter. Since January 2, their opponents have taken only 23.7 shots in the restricted area per game, third-fewest in the league, per NBA.com. Their opponents have made only 56.3 percent of those shots, also third-best over that time span.

Much of that low conversion rate can be attributed to Garnett, who has picked up his defense after a slow start to the season. Among the 82 players challenging at least four shots per game at the rim, Garnett has allowed opponents the 19th-lowest field-goal percentage, according to SportVU data released by the NBA and STATS LLC.

 

On the season, Brooklyn's opponents are making more shots per game in the restricted area with Garnett off the floor than they attempt with Garnett on the floor, despite him playing nearly half the game every night, per NBA.com.

Maybe the biggest key for the Nets over this 12-game stretch, though, has been a new-found ability to force turnovers. Through January 1, only seven teams forced fewer turnovers as a percentage of their opponents' possessions than Brooklyn did. Since January 2, though, only Atlanta has been able to do that better than the Nets, and the Nets' rate would rank second in the league over the course of a full season, per NBA.com.

All those turnovers have made up for the fact that the Nets have still been one of the most foul-prone teams in the league, even after the lineup switch. They were the fourth-most foul-prone team prior to the new look, and they've been the fifth-most foul-prone team since.

By playing smaller, but putting their own spin on the usual trademarks of small-ball teams (i.e. playing slow rather than fast, using small ball to fuel the defense rather than the offense), the Nets have been able to forge a new identity in the wake of some injuries that originally looked as though they might wreck their season.

Nearly everyone thought the Nets would be able to craft a top-flight defense after trading for Garnett and Pierce, but nobody would have thought it'd come like this.

Jared Dubin works for Bloomberg Sports, writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoopNetwork sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, is a freelance contributor to Grantland and is coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.

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