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Nicolas Claxton Is the Brooklyn Nets' Secret Weapon, but Will They Use Him?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2021

Brooklyn Nets forward Nicolas Claxton grabs the rebound next to Detroit Pistons center Mason Plumlee (24) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, March 26, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

On a team stacked with superstars, both past and present, the 21-year-old Nicolas Claxton would seem to hold limited importance to the Brooklyn Nets' immediate title hopes—maybe even their overarching future. He might also be, as it turns out, the player who nudges them over the top, a talent who at the very least papers over some of their biggest voids.

That is, if Brooklyn allows it.

Star power monopolizes attention in #thisleague. On the court, off the court, it doesn't matter. Their play takes precedence. Their futures dominate discourse. They are revered when their teams win, reviled when they lose. Their performance, from success to failure to anywhere in between, isn't just the principal focus. It is absolute.

Put enough star power under one room, though, and the dynamic begins to shift.

Big names not only cannibalize consideration from one another, but they sponge up team resources. It takes assets to trade for them and, for players off their rookie deals, max pay grades to keep them. That opportunity cost is well worth the formation of a superteam and all its benefits, but it increases the urgency to win the moves on the margins—on making the most out of scant flexibility and mining gems wherever possible.

The Nets live a more convenient existence. Acquiring Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving liquidated their future assets but far from drained their tangible equity. They still have Joe Harris and, though injured and headed for free agency, Spencer Dinwiddie. And they have supplemented roster spots with former stars and recently bought-out vets, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, finding second winds.

And yet, despite the position of power the Nets hold leading into Saturday night's tilt with the Los Angeles Lakers, atop the Eastern Conference, they are subjected to real concerns. The collective health of their Big Three is chief among them.

Durant, Harden and Irving have played in just seven games together. After missing all of last season while recovering from an Achilles injury, Durant just sat out an extended period of time with a hamstring issue.

But this is actually more of a secondary worry when taking a step back—a footnote, even. Every team is at the mercy of its best players' availability, and Brooklyn's three stars fit so snugly their success is inevitable, with an offensive ceiling not even the most relentless optimists can fathom. That the Nets also have Harris, the quintessential superstar complement at both ends, is objectively unfair.

Concern—and the attention that comes with it—defaults to everyone else. The Nets roster is littered with options beyond its stars, none of which offer concrete guarantees.

Brooklyn has stacked itself with plenty of lineup options.
Brooklyn has stacked itself with plenty of lineup options.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Front and center among their question marks is, well, their center position. Durant, Harden, Harris and Irving are givens to close postseason matchups. The fifth member of that unit is a mystery.

It might stay that way. The Nets have Aldridge, Claxton, Griffin, Jeff Green, DeAndre Jordan, Reggie Perry, even Bruce Brown to roll out as their "big." Their answer to this mystery might be a mishmash. It may even include more matchup-dependent decisions, wherein only Durant, Harden and Irving are assured spots down the stretch of close games.

To that end, malleability is an asset. Lineups are seldom one-size-fits-all. What Brooklyn lacks in a definitive 5 it makes up for with optionality. 

Still, to the extent the Nets' big-man rotation can be headlined by a singular player, Claxton continues to have the look and feel of the should-be mainstay. 

Granted, his body of work isn't extensive. He has logged under 400 minutes this season and fewer than 600 for his career. Injuries are the primary culprit. Since being drafted at No. 31 in 2019, Claxton has dealt with left hamstring, left shoulder and right knee problems.

Brooklyn's title window has only exacerbated his scant availability. Championship contenders and 21-year-olds typically operate on warring timelines. But his flashes are undeniable—less glimpses into his potential and more flickers of a player who's ready to take on additional responsibility now.

Impact can be skewed over a tiny sample. This is another, more succinct way of saying: "The Nets defense improves by 11.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, during which time opponents are shooting substantially worse from the perimeter, but does that actually mean anything?"

It does.

Claxton's defensive versatility shirks convention. His combination of lateral speed, size and length is anomalous, and he wields these physical tools with IQ that belies his experience.

Centers aren't supposed to be ultra-comfortable sticking with guards, let alone star point men. Claxton, on the other hand, is at home away from the basket, regardless of the situation.

That is a 21-year-old big man busting up a crunch-time possession featuring the clutchest scorer in the NBA. Literally, actually, what?

The Nets' personnel demands they switch a ton, but Claxton's own comfort versus smaller ball-handlers would invite, if not mandate, it anyway. This is flat-out absurd:

Brooklyn has not shied from tapping into Claxton's portability. Among 511 players who stand 6'10" or taller and logged at least 300 minutes in a single season since 2013-14, he ranks second in partial possessions spent defending point guards, behind only 2020-21 Ben Simmons, according to BBall Index. He places seventh in time against shooting guards within this same group.

Claxton's movement on switches and in space at large is not haphazard. It can be high-risk—he's averaging 4.0 fouls per 36 minutes—but he knows how to use his length and turn his body to remain in front of quicker playmakers.

Defensive tracking data is imperfect, but players are posting a 28.3 effective field-goal percentage against him in isolation—one of the five stingiest marks among 93 players who have guarded at least 30 shots in these situations. And among all centers who have logged at least as much court time as him, Claxton ranks second in three-pointers contested per 36 minutes.

On the occasions in which he is beat or leaves his feet, his assignments aren't in the clear. He will disrupt shots when he gives up a step:

Even more impressive is Claxton's decision-making when he's not directly involved in the action. His help defense ranges from the opportunistic:

To the necessary:

The Nets can afford to play even more aggressively defensively with Claxton. The ground he covers in the half court uniquely arms them to overload especially terrifying scorers with traps. 

This is one of the most ridiculous recoveries you'll see from anyone, let alone a big man, all season (h/t Nets Daily's Matt Brooks):

Slotting Claxton for more minutes is not without concession. His offense is underdeveloped. He can set screens but is not the strongest diver. He's still learning to navigate the floor in front of him, a job made more difficult by pick-and-roll partners who attack open space at varying speeds and directions.

He also suffers, at times, from a case of "doing too much." It is encouraging that he can put the ball on the floor, but his off-the-dribble jaunts are predictable.

They stall out before point-blank range and aren't a means to table-set for others:

Claxton has finished 18 drives, on which he's shooting 30.8 percent (4-of-13) with just one pass. To his credit, he is not a turnover machine on the catch or when working off the dribble. But he will be more valuable to the Nets if he doesn't bail out defenses with on-the-move hooks and distant layup attempts or just moves the ball altogether:

Shots like this are questionable at best. Claxton has hit just 23.1 percent (3-of-13) of his hooks, and more than anything, Brooklyn doesn't need him to make these plays. The Nets have an embarrassment of offensive riches, both on and away from the ball, even when they're playing shorthanded.

Learning curves are difficult to stomach for teams in championship-or-nothing mode. But offensive rawness isn't an excuse to treat Claxton with kid gloves—not on this squad. And it's not as if he's an offensive zero. He can get behind defenses in transition and crashes the offensive glass hard. Just over 12 percent of his offensive possessions have come as put-backs

That Claxton has offensive depths worth exploring at all is gravy. His defense alone warrants extensive run. Green is the only "big" who comes close to rivaling his portability, and he gives up more size. 

Brooklyn seems to grasp Claxton's essentiality to some degree. The additions of Aldridge and Griffin have not yanked him out of the rotation or thrust him to the fringes of it. Jordan has fallen on that sword. The Nets have actually preserved some of Claxton's court time by deploying him beside Griffin. The duo has tallied 60 minutes together—nearly half of Griffin's total playing time in Brooklyn.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

But the Nets are currently starting Aldridge at the 5, and while Claxton was never a member of the opening unit, this setup has knifed into his playing time. He is averaging under 14 minutes since Aldridge made his Brooklyn debut.

The usage of a 21-year-old on what is, when left untouched, a title favorite may not much matter in the grand scheme. But the regular season is a time for experimentation, for discovery. Especially this regular season. And though Brooklyn has fielded 26 starting lineups and used just three different five-man combinations for more than 50 total minutes, its variability feels like a response to injuries rather than an active attempt at self-realization.

What this says about the Nets' larger plan is debatable. Four games into the Aldridge era is akin to no time at all. They may not be displacing Claxton so much as indulging the full breadth of their frontcourt options. 

That doesn't quite amount to an explanation. The Nets have someone who might address some of their biggest needs and the superstar cushioning to let him loose. If it turns out he's not ready for primary-big minutes, then so be it. At least they'll know.

The alternative is much harder to reconcile: a tantalizing mystery box left half-opened.

       

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate through Monday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.