The Brooklyn Nets turned their season around in a way that no one saw coming.
Now pushing the young Toronto Raptors into a corner in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Nets started the season with a torrential 10-21 record. Rookie coach Jason Kidd struggled before reassigning highly paid assistant Lawrence Frank and started chipping away at an identity for one of the highest paid teams in all of sports.
Nothing was fitting.
But today they're perhaps the strongest in-conference threat to the reigning champion Miami Heat. Brooklyn resurrected and got here after losing All-Star center Brook Lopez for the season in December—a seeming nadir—and then tinkering desperately with their roster until they found the ultimate solution: going small.
Their starting lineups since Jan. 1 have typically included one paint-roamer (Kevin Garnett if he’s healthy, Mason Plumlee if he’s not) surrounded by various wingmen and guards. Their personnel priorities emphasize tricky movement and shrewd decision-making well above traditional conceptions of basketball positions.
Paul Pierce playing power forward for the first time in his career headlines these slippery adjustments. He's an old dog who's found pace with some new tricks, operating effectively outside of his career's comfort zone.
The Nets have gone a bit under the radar with this transformation. This is likely because they do not, like more noted small-lineup progenitors in the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat, play the exciting up-down style associated with the phrase “small ball.”
They don’t necessarily stretch the floor all that well, either—another commonly cited advantage to going small. Brooklyn was 11th in the NBA in three-point percentage this season—certainly above average, but not exceptional.
They reap the benefits of their uncommon sets in more subtle ways. With Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson and Pierce sharing the court, they’ve consistently found patsies on the opposing squad—one-on-one matchups in which any number of these four has more sleight of hand or deftness of foot. Then, they exploit it.
The Nets possess speed, but only in small, sudden spaces and moments in the half court. They're alley fighters who methodically coax you into comfort before snatching victory swiftly away.
Creating 15 turnovers per game, the Nets were sixth in the league in that category. But every team ahead of them played at a much more frenetic pace, as is usually expected of a team capable of creating extra possessions for themselves. The Nets, to the contrary, are incredibly slow. They ranked 25th in pace, per TeamRankings.com.
Brooklyn, to understate it, is a strange team. From Bleacher Report’s Jared Dubin:
Coupled with going "small," the Nets shifted the focus of their offense to the post. Again, shifting an offense to the post is not unusual in and of itself. What's unusual is the way the Nets became a post-up team. The focus of their post offense was not the frontcourt, but the backcourt.
Johnson and Livingston alone accounted for nearly 40 percent of Brooklyn's post-up plays this season, according to the video tracking service Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Dubin, myself and many others put quotation marks around “small ball” because the Nets aren’t exactly small. Livingston, Johnson and Pierce are all 6’7” or 6’8”. And while Williams is just 6’3” he carries a wide frame capable of beasting many a point guard peer.
“Small ball” is a bit of a misnomer for the Nets in the same way it is for the rest of the league. The NBA is slowly realizing not so much the advantages to downsizing as it is seeing the benefits to eschewing stale formulas. The Heat, of course, have long touted a “position-less” style, often even running out lineups consisting of five players listed as forwards.
Basketball's position names made a lot more sense around the beginning of the 20th century when the sport was in its infancy. Guards were expected to "guard" the basket—and were "severely reprimanded" for giving up points, wrote author George Hepbron in the 1904 book "How to Play Basket Ball." Forwards stood close to the goal; the "centre" was usually the tallest player on the floor.
So if the Nets look unconventional, it should only be because our shared perceptions and language around the game are wont to lag. Brooklyn is simply putting their best, most synergistic players onto the court together, and we’re struggling for terms in our ceaseless race to categorize.
#Nets can afford to play small ball because they can so easily flip things on offensive sets with their guards in the post. Big advantage.— Matthew Schwerha (@MSchwerha) April 19, 2014
"We don't look at it as a small lineup," Kidd said, per The Brooklyn Game’s Devin Kharpertian. "You have a 6'7" point guard. Our two-guard (6'8" Joe Johnson) is pretty tall. So we look at it the opposite way. Paul and Shaun have that ability to switch, and everyone's helping one another.”
By playing four "guards," the Nets dare the opposition to do the same. But how many teams can run out as many backcourt players with the same balance of size and skill as Brooklyn does? If you go small against them, you're essentially letting them go big. It's a novel paradox, and it's worked terrifically for this team.
Kidd's done this before. Last year as a point guard with the New York Knicks he often managed a "spread" attack of smaller shooters engineered around Carmelo Anthony's powers. He also played for a Phoenix Suns squad earlier in his career that often threw four guards out.
Call it small ball, new ball—whatever. The Nets are thriving by making up their own approach and playbook. Don’t be surprised to see them go deep in these playoffs by doing it, and don't be shocked to see other teams following suit in the coming seasons.