The Brooklyn Nets entered 2013-2014 with a group of established entities set to fall into a fixed structure: six-time All-Star Joe Johnson; Deron Williams, the ball-handling sophist; Brook Lopez, the man who would turn garbage into gold down low; Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the uber-cliched veteran leaders.
The Nets were minted as late-season world beaters, a playoff team designed solely for the purpose of competing in May. Yet the first two months, with a -3.6 net rating and a 9-17 start, were so spectacularly disappointing that even a playoff berth felt like a far cry.
It was classic aughts, a tale full of melodrama and commercial cynicism: brand-focused hype in the absence of real substance. A kind of quarter-life identity crisis unique only to freshly minted Brooklynites—with, ironically, the anxiety of failed expectations being the only semblance of identity the team shared with its fans. No draft picks until 2017…no end in sight.
With the Nets entangled in their own preconceived notion of their identity, Brook Lopez’s season-ending injury carried just enough gravity to be the happy accident to set them free. Essentially, Shaun Livingston became the starting 2-guard as three original starters—Pierce, Johnson and Garnett—moved down a position.
With little choice except to adapt or perish, the mother of Brooklyn’s change was undoubtedly necessity. But it takes a group of people willing to improve upon norms to garner the kind of substantive change Brooklyn has. For Paul Pierce, who already went through the tumults of changing his game for the greater good as a member of the Boston Celtics’ Big Three, it was par for the course.
In this day and age, changing positions from small forward to power forward is just good manners. When Pierce made the switch, though, he wasn’t like most wings, resting their laurels on spacing the floor and praying no one tried to post them up; the Nets' anatomical fabric changed as dramatically as Pierce's game did. In this case, the hyper-competitive alpha sacrificed shot attempts for the inglorious pursuit of team defense.
His offense waned over the course of the regular season, as did his usage rate, but Pierce has been essential to Brooklyn’s defensive resurgence. The Nets are 7.1 points better defensively when Pierce is on the floor, making him the biggest difference-maker among rotation players.
Pierce’s ability to trap, pressure and recover more effectively than most 4s makes the Nets a lethal defense against nearly any ball-handler. Knowing well that Pierce and Garnett can clean up his botched steal attempts, Livingston and his gaudy wingspan have ample agency to force turnovers. On the other end, the Nets employ three bona fide floor spacers and one long 2 extraordinaire in their starting lineup.
It’s not often that the macho theatrics associated with Pierce’s style are combined with a willingness to change, but Pierce is the rare star who puts substance behind the “whatever it takes to win” mantra. His game has always carried a hint of subdued grandeur, so much so that instead of Pierce chasing a winning reputation, the veneer of victory actually follows him.
In Game 5 against the Toronto Raptors, the Nets bench sparked a 22-point fourth-quarter comeback. When it became apparent head coach Jason Kidd was going to dance with the lineup who brought him—namely, Andray Blatche and Alan Anderson—Twitter echoed in disbelief: It’s crunch time. Why is the Truth on the bench?
The Truth—a 36-year-old also-ran in the nadir of his professional career, born a step slower than the rest of the league in the first place, lauded for his crunch-time presence.
In reality, the modernity of basketball today made the Nets’ early sluggish post-heavy style a burden. The first two months of their season served as a case study: Even the best low post scorer in the league couldn’t equalize the efficiency of a small lineup that can defend just as well as it can shoot.
With smaller individual matchups and natural mismatches, the Nets can maximize the exploits of an iso-heavy post-oriented act, all the while spacing the floor. So against the Raptors, not only is Pierce trapping DeMar DeRozan 30 feet from the rim, he’s taking slower opponents like Amir Johnson off the dribble and mimicking the elusive, awkwardly gaited killer who once romped through the Garden with magnificent bravado on the next possession.
It’s an ideal balancing act between the traditional orientation of their personnel against a modern backdrop, wired to cater to this roster’s strengths. If risk vs. reward is the NBA’s version of yin and yang, Pierce’s cagey ability lets Brooklyn have both, making for the rare small lineup that provides both an offensive and defensive boost.
The Nets were supposed to be a revamped powerhouse. Remember those signs splattered all around the borough? The concept of team identity is amorphous and free-flowing, though. It should manifest from a style of play—not the other way around. What we actually got from the Nets was something better: a group of All-Star talents who feel hypnotically ragtag, slaying opponents by way of unorthodox maneuvers, with Paul Pierce at the center of their transformation.
Seerat Sohi is a freelance writer who has been published at ESPN, Sports on Earth and the Triangle Offense—a Complex product. Follow her on Twitter @DamianTrillard.