How Nets built one of the stingiest defensive lineups in the NBA

Between anti-vaccination and trade calls, suspensions and star riots, the networks have a hard time surprising anyone. Or yourself.

But here’s a shocker. Brooklyn — which has been crushed by a sieve-like defense in recent years — has arguably the most effective defensive lineup in the entire league.

No seriously.

“For real?” said Nic Claxton, the man who actually anchored this quintet. “I did not know that. Solid!”

yes they were Surprisingly.

Claxton joined superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and wingers Royce O’Neale and Joe Harris to go into Friday’s game with a stunningly effective defensive rating of 94.1 in her 116 minutes on the court. That was the best of any NBA lineup to log at least 75 minutes.

“I’m just trying to stay defensive and do all the little things here [wins]’ Harris said. “Offensively for us, with Ky and Kev, obviously they’ll be able to score and that way carry us against whoever we play against. So as long as we’re stuck defensively, we’re really going to win a lot of games there.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7), forward Nic Claxton (33) and forward Joe Harris (12) hug after a Harris shot against the Portland Trail Blazers in the second half of an NBA basketball game on Sunday, November 27, 2022 , in NYC.
Kevin Durant, Joe Harris and Nic Claxton help create one of the best five-man defensive lineups in the NBA.

“I think just the ability to have boys guarded from one to five. if we have [that] lineup out there you can really put a lot of pressure on the ball carriers because we have people that can change, [and help]. Then we close all the gaps, the communication was good. When you have five guys that are that versatile, it just keeps everyone [in tune]. The synergy is good. I think that’s one of the main reasons we’ve been able to be effective.”

How exactly were they so effective? Especially with a Nets team that has often seen the defensive end of the floor being the Achilles heel that nullified their dominance at the other end?

“[It’s] the effort we put into playing on the defensive side of the ball,” Durant said. “I think we’ve figured out what kind of team we want to be on this side of the ball.”

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Brooklyn ditched its old-school drop coverage when Steve Nash replaced Kenny Atkinson and transitioned to a more switchable defense. They’ve become even more attuned to that approach since Jacque replaced Vaughn Nash on November 1.

To compensate for opponents trying to punish their lack of size, they have relied on “red” tactics. In layman’s terms, this is when they attack the low post and let a second defender come over from the weak side and doubles team.

Watch closely and you’ll see plenty of traps on the baseline to try and negate their size disadvantage. Over the years, Gregg Popovich’s old San Antonio teams have been the best in the NBA at “Redding.” It’s no coincidence that Vaughn spent six years at Popovich as a player, scout and assistant coach.

Kawhi Leonard helps Manu Ginobili with
Kawhi Leonard helps Manu Ginobili with “red” tactics against the Grizzlies.
Via Zak Boisvert YouTube

Then the undersized Golden State Warriors took it on and adapted it. With the highly switchable Claxton – and Ben Simmons, who we’ll get to later – it makes sense that the Nets would also take elements of what the Warriors do.

Endure for a hero

Switching defenses tends to entice teams to look for mismatches and lure them into isolation plays. And that’s exactly what the Nets want, as frankly most players aren’t most effective when they deviate from script and play Hero Ball.

“Frankly, it’s like a trap; because we … change so much, and teams want to play iso basketball, and everyone’s not able to score one-on-one, especially for a full game like this,” Claxton said. “I think it throws teams out of rhythm at times.

“When we’re all on the same page and using our switches astutely, it really causes problems for a lot of teams because a lot of times they just want iso and that’s what we want, especially when they’re trying to iso against me. I like our chances every time,” Claxton added with a grin.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Josh Hart (11) drives to the basket against Brooklyn Nets forward Nic Claxton (33) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, November 27, 2022 in New York.
Nic Claxton said he has responded to the Nets’ attempts to lure opponents into isolation attacks by “trying to take every shot well, no matter who I’m protecting”.

A quality quintet

It loses out that NBA coaches don’t just have to pick a starting lineup and stick with it all night, but instead have to reshuffle five-man units throughout the night like a hustler playing three-card montes.

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But when the Nets can get their defensive Big Five on the ground, they’ve been tough to beat.

“Yeah, I think it’s well rounded,” Vaughn said. “They take Ky’s ability to stay in front of the basketball, which initiates the defense. Then you have Joe and Royce, two worker bees who don’t mind mixing things up and covering up everyone else’s sins. Then you have Nic’s ability to play indoors and outdoors, protecting the rim but also being 30ft from the bucket.

“And I think with that group it really ignites Kevin, his ability to play on the fringes for us – see [in his] blocked shots [and] his ability to correct some of our substitutions and end up with a bigger player. So it was like a [fit], the way it worked together; that really put up a pretty good defense.”

Claxton has always touted the potential of being one of the more moveable centers and better perimeter bigs in the league. What he never showed was the ability to stay healthy and stay on the pitch. When he finally showed that, that career breakout season was a fait accompli.

Atlanta Hawks guard Trent Forrest is defended by Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, December 9, 2022 in New York.
Alongside Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, Nic Claxton and Royce O’Neale, Kevin Durant was able to stand out as a defensive stopper.

Durant has a wingspan of 7 feet and has received votes for the NBA All-Defense team. O’Neale is a 3-and-D winger, and while he wasn’t quite the disruptor he was earlier in his career when he came off the Utah bench, he’s still solid enough at the end of the floor that the then-jazz star Donovan Mitchell regretted the off-season decision to bring him to Brooklyn. And Irving always had quick hands when dialing in.

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Harris was more of a surprise. Simmons was twice named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year in his last healthy season. But in the 130 minutes with him for Harris — the Nets’ most-used lineup before Friday’s game against the Raptors — Brooklyn’s defensive rating soars to 117.3.

“Probably just some level of aggressiveness,” Harris said of why he believes he was effective on defense. “We switch everything, so when you switch out to defend some of these dynamic ball leaders, just try to get them to pick up the ball or get a little out of their rhythm. Only be aggressive on defense.

Simmons has excelled on defense in underutilized lineups surrounded by shooters (with a 98.1 Defensive Rating alongside Durant, Irving, O’Neale and Seth Curry).

Memphis Grizzlies forward Santi Aldama (7) dribbles against Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Harris (12) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, November 20, 2022 in New York.
Joe Harris’ aggressiveness on defense, particularly on pick-and-roll coverage, has helped his teammates close any gaps behind him.

But of the club’s two main quintets, it’s that with Harris and his vast improvements in both boxing and pick-and-roll coverage that have taken the club to new heights defensively.

“You notice … his ability to be more aggressive in pick-and-roll coverage,” Vaughn said. “There’s an element of pick and roll reporting where there’s a brief second where nobody has an advantage and it’s your opportunity to take advantage of that situation or be the recipient of that pick and roll.

“Joe is learning how to dictate and he has that split second where he can be the attacker and then allow his teammates to fill in behind him. So he’s learning that process that has allowed him to be a better pick and roll defender.”

And Brooklyn as a better pick and roll defense. And that five-man lineup is the best in the league to date.

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