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Monday, January 25, 2021

Will The Brooklyn Nets’ Defense Prevent Them From Being A Contender?

During the 2014-15 season the Cleveland Cavaliers were in a malaise that had pundits questioning if they were true championship contenders. After a trade and a LeBron James layoff they reeled off 12 straight wins in January/February before they eventually made a run to the NBA Finals. The average record was the source of speculation before the winning started, but as the season went on the skepticism was rooted in a defense that was struggling to get its head above water. They were ranked among the 10 worst, and a common line of thinking stipulated that a team must be above average for them to be in the championship conversation.

The Brooklyn Nets will face similar questions coming into the shortened year with a team that is based around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Durant, 32, is coming off of a torn achilles injury that has seen few stars recover successfully from. Still, modern medicine and a small sample size make it entirely possible that Durant is still able to re-create that same offensive effectiveness. It’s very likely that he won’t be the same on defense, though. That’s a problem when factoring in the defensive issues that Irving brings to the table along with Durant’s positioning questions. 

First, let’s evaluate who is going to get minutes and what they’ve done defensively as of late:

These defensive metrics are by no means perfect. For instance, Ben Simmons and Eric Bledsoe made the 2019-20 All-Defensive team, but ranked in the back half of all of point guards in DRPM. Duncan Robinson, a better than advertised defender, ranked as the best in the league at defense for shooting guards — something I don’t think he’d readily admit he accomplished during his impressive rookie season. 

The stats give a foundation to work with. The most glaringly obvious positive is at the center position. Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan created a strong defensive tag team, even with the perception of Jordan’s defense blurring over his actual on-court play. He deserves credit for playing well toward the end of the year, especially with critics clamoring for Allen to play significantly more than Jordan. They both are excellent defensive rebounders, above average shot blockers, and don’t overwhelmingly get into foul trouble. Allen has gotten the better of the two in the on-off metrics, but the Nets would be more than pleased to get a repeat performance from Jordan this season in a backup role. Having two respectable fulcrums on that side of the ball is increasingly important in an era that relies so heavily on strong defense from the center position. 

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The rest of the lineup is where it becomes dicey. Most fans and analysts would retort that the team was ranked 10th in the league on defense this past year, but a full season from the team’s two best players could put a dent in that ranking. The organization was smart to bring in Bruce Brown as a capable wing, but no other player profiles as a plus defensively.   

The organization seems to be mindful of this shortcoming. This quote came from Steve Nash during a town hall with ticket holders in October: 




“It’s frankly been all on defense. We’ve spent all our time over the last few weeks building that. Defense is our No. 1 priority. Protecting the paint and guarding the basket is going to be the bedrock of our defense. Without sharing all the principles we’re building and all the things we’re designing right now, I can assure you we realize to win a championship we need to be a very strong defensive team.”

Nash’s insistence on providing stability on defense is encouraging, but it’ll be important to note that a lineup that may be trotted out at times this year is Durant at center. An intriguing offensive juggernaut could emerge, but with the added dubiousness of a competent defense. That’ll be the balance that Nash looks to strike all year— offensive beauty with enough defensive tenacity to keep them atop the Eastern Conference. 

This graph tries to categorize the defensive rating of the “contenders” over the past 15 years. These were the four teams that made it to the Conference Finals and the defensive rating they finished with by the end of the regular season. As you can see, every single team finished inside the top-20 except for three different teams. The Cleveland Cavaliers in both 2017 and 2018 along with the 2010 Phoenix Suns. Each one of those teams had something in common: they had the best offensive rating in the playoffs. The Nets have the talent to pull it off, but it’ll be a lot on Nash’s shoulders to create a cohesive structure in a shortened season with players gelling for the first time on the court together. 

There is plenty of wiggle room for the Nets to crash the Eastern Conference Finals this season. It is likely that the Nets have to hover around the 10th best defense in the league, or become an offensive powerhouse that has them rolling their competition throughout the playoffs.

Source: Forbes – Business

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