When he suffered a hip contusion in Phoenix last Monday, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson joined the longer list of Brooklyn Nets unable to compete. Competition can be a murky word when it’s attached to the teams cluttering the bottom of NBA standings; a position the Nets have known all too well in their New Jersey and now Brooklyn tenure. Unlike the other teams heaping up losses, that led the majority of owners to approve a placebo Draft Lottery reform last summer, the Nets have only improved the resources of the Celtics with their losing. As Zach Lowe reported in an article detailing Brooklyn’s rebuilding plan, competing is more about improving than it is winning for them. Jeremy Lin’s season-ending ruptured patella is frustrating, but Hollis-Jefferson’s and Jarrett Allen’s injuries have been the only setbacks to the overall plan.
The Nets drew some attention when their offense started putting high numbers on the scoreboard in the second half of last season. With Lin out, Brook Lopez exchanged for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov, and the additions of DeMarre Carroll and a $12 million-per year Allen Crabbe, they haven’t looked like the same team. There has been plenty of emphasis directed toward their defense needing to perform better, but the offense hasn’t been all that pretty either.
In many ways, perhaps too many, D’Angelo Russell is the fulcrum to Brooklyn’s offense. A healthy Jeremy Lin would’ve given the Nets a dynamic two guard front to work with. Now that Lin isn’t available to break down the first line of defense with penetrations, and set up Russell coming off screens, Russell is doing a lot more with the ball than originally imagined. Russell is displaying considerable scoring improvement, but his lack of force will probably always limit the attention he demands when attacking the basket. Last year, Lin served as the essential attacker to initiate a series of drive-and-kicks that opened up the bountiful open 3-point attempts the Nets hoisted.
It also helped having Lopez effectively widening the lane with his deep-range scoring; something Mozgov hasn’t come close to replicating. As a surrogate, either as a primary freelance action, or as a late clock desperation when another primary action fails, Russell and Mozgov have run plenty of pick-and-rolls.
The Russell-Mozgov combo is one the more significant components limiting the ceiling of the Nets’ defense, and hasn’t delivered the ideal counter-punch on the other end. Mozgov is their best screener, but isn’t an exciting target for Russell on his rolls to the basket. Mozgov’s 0.79 points per possession as the roll man are bad enough for the 8th percentile. Even worse, he is turning it over more often than he is getting fouled, and not even attempting 1 field goal per game on that play type. Russell’s hope is mostly to draw the opposing big out to the mid-range to contest his floaters and pull-ups, but most defenses are instructed to concede these attempts; Russell is hovering around 50% from the Mid-Range, and has attempted about a third of his 2-point attempts outside the paint. Even when a concrete Mozgov pick creates a 2-on-1 run to the lane, with the guard opting to go over, the numbers advantage isn’t challenging opponents.
The expectations for Russell have never not been high since showing out at Ohio State led to a high draft pick selection by the Lakers. The controversy attached to him after the Nick Young incident and Magic Johnson’s public assessment describing his leadership as inadequate have assembled a huge cloud of distractions over Russell’s head, and fan perception of him. For Brooklyn, trading for him was a rare chance to acquire young talent when they didn’t have the means to do so otherwise. As many have pointed out, Russell is younger than half of this year’s draft selections, and less than a year older than his Lakers replacement, Lonzo Ball. The team and staff change hasn’t provided the means to optimize his talent just yet, but it has given DLo a huge chunk of opportunity to grow and lead, while possibly turning down the intensity of the spotlight.
There is certainly a “can’t” in the athleticism department when considering Russell following in fellow Rookie Contract-castaway James Harden’s footsteps, but the path is still laid. The same defensive struggles that have always plagued Harden’s career eat away at Russell’s current value. Both are lefties, which can prompt defenders to experience mental lapses regarding tendencies. Neither was, or is a clear-cut point guard or off-guard. As long as Brooklyn eventually finds a serious lob threat to flank his drives, the rest starts to fall in line for Russell to stylistically command an offense like Harden. First off, Russell would need to bulk up. Harden has a stockier frame of the 6’5” height they share, and regularly demonstrates an exceptionally strong core to fight through contact around the basket. Then, Russell would need to get a better sense of the finishing ruses Harden uses to commandeer free throws and alter the timing of shot blockers. Adding those elements would complete the multi-threat headache coaches experience when concocting gameplans to limit the carnage Harden is bound to cause.placeholder
If Atkinson is going to continue to direct the offense towards his adaptation of the Spurs’ Swing Offense, and not that of a D’Antonian pick-and-roll system that involves far more dribbling, the pieces around Russell need to develop into more dynamic support. Finding a good place for Mozgov hasn’t been easy, and playing him with Hollis-Jefferson creates a spacing issue for Atkinson’s 5-out desires. Hollis-Jefferson has been one of the better pick-and-roll partners with Russell, scoring in the 83rd percentile as a roll man. RHJ’s early career reminds me a good bit of what former Net Thaddeus Young provided the 76ers in his establishing years. Young’s 3-point attempts and percentages have fluctuated heavily throughout his career, but the averages hit the better side of 1 attempt and 30% shooting for his career; these are numbers Hollis-Jefferson has failed to achieve in his first two seasons. Providing solid rebounding, defensive versatility, and 30% 3-point shooting would all be nice things RHJ is capable of. Yet, DeMarre Carroll sliding up to the 4 during RHJ’s short absence last week offered a peek at how Hollis-Jefferson could really help the offense down the road. Carroll is enough of a shooter that defenses can destabilize when keeping track of him on the perimeter, but the thing Carroll highlighted was being one of the better secondary playmakers on the team by extending the initial advantages into extra passes and timely drives.
Brooklyn’s wings mostly fall closer to the traditional shooting guard classification, but as the league has thinned out at the 3, it’s reasonable to expect that starting Caris LeVert and Crabbe could eventually be satisfactory. LeVert’s defense projects well, and Atkinson is placing the same defensive accountability on Crabbe as he is Russell. Regardless of where they end up on that end, Crabbe and LeVert both supply disjointed talent to the offense. Crabbe is an excellent off-screen shooter, and evidenced by his career high 0.645 3-point Attempt Rate, that is clearly his role on the team. Crabbe is getting up almost 5 Catch & Shoot 3’s per game, and knocking down nearly 40% of them, per NBA.com. The interesting part about Crabbe’s off-ball game is he isn’t some special cutter or moving piece. To get Crabbe shots, the Nets have mostly had to run plays designed for him. Swapping out Crabbe for Joe Harris, who has developed in the offensive system, illustrates how Crabbe can improve with greater recognition and quicker decisions when the Nets are attempting to freelance. Harris is the only wing on the Brooklyn roster averaging over 1 Cut possession per game, and scores in the 92nd percentile with 1.67 points per possession.
Likewise, LeVert hasn’t been able to be a strong supporting piece when the show isn’t run for him. Offensive struggles caused Atkinson to remove LeVert from the starting lineup in favor of Crabbe recently. He mostly looks dogged by the typical role playing and processing mistakes characteristic of a sophomore slump. The hope is that LeVert will be a 2-way Swiss Army Knife, contributing on and off the ball, but the game will need to slow down for him before he is capable of making his teammates better with the ball. Getting more comfortable with the various reads of running pick-and-rolls would establish LeVert as a better pairing with Russell, but he may only ever be a secondary playmaker that looks to score during his pick-and-rolls possessions.
As this nucleus of players adds more experience under their belt, the understanding of ball and player movement will be critical to making Atkinson’s offense zing. Unless Russell truly is a special player, capable of being the foundation of an offense, he’ll need teammates that can further articulate a primary advantage from good to great shots, rather than just eating off the table he sets. The Spurs and Warriors regularly put on a clinic of how to not only run the basic actions of the Swing Offense, but more importantly utilize opportune cutting and screen-slipping to counter an opponent’s familiarity with the actions. Until the young Nets can synthesize the moving parts of the freelance, the offense will continue to break down, and the temptation to go 1-on-1 will rear its head. Fortunately, for the time being, they don’t have the pressure of winning a benchmark of games hanging over them. Less fortunately, Mozgov isn’t getting any better, and they have over 45 million reasons to notice that through 2020.