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NY Post
New York Post
18 Nov 2023

NextImg:What’s keeping the Nets from reaching their defensive ceiling

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With two Defensive Player of the Year runners-up in their lineup and a third starter who aims to contend for the award this season, the Nets should be a top-10 defense.

But they’re not. Not even close.

So what gives?

The Nets guard the ball. They’re switchable. They even rebound, which — as any fan can tell you — is a minor miracle. Death, taxes and the Nets getting battered on the boards had been sure things until they finally got stout on the glass this season.

But there’s something missing defensively.

And that something is turnovers.

“You look at our group analytically and when we’re whole and healthy, we should have the versatility and the length to be a top-10 defensive team,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn admitted. “Obviously the one thing that’s holding us back — we have great [opponents’] effective field goal [percentage], we’re not fouling, we’re incredibly rebounding at a top 5 rate, which is unheard-of for this group if you think about us last year.

Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn says he sees many ingredients of what could be a top-10 defense.
Robert Sabo for the NY Post

“The one thing we aren’t doing is turning people over. So if we can correct that, if we were middle-of-the-pack in turning people over, we’d be a top-10 defensive team. Now there’s some strategy, there’s some schemes behind that. There’s also personnel behind that. …

“Our group has to have a little bit of that [gambling mentality] if we’re going to move the needle in turning people over. There’s some risk that’s involved, and we haven’t taken the risks needed to increase that turnover rate. I want to see more of it. We’re scheme-wise different from last year. We’ve really tried to turn our guys loose, let them take risks and produce turnovers. A little perplexed to be honest with you that we haven’t created more turnovers.”

The injured Ben Simmons was Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in 2021, and Mikal Bridges finished second in the voting in 2022 as the Suns reached the NBA Finals. Nic Claxton — second in the league in blocks last season and fourth in Defensive Win Shares — has returned from injury and hopes to mount a viable award candidacy this season.

But not if the Nets keep playing defense the way they have. They went into Friday night ranked 22nd in Defensive Rating.

Granted, the roster, the eye test and the underlying numbers say they’re better than that. The Nets ranked third in defensive rebound percentage (73.9), seventh in field-goal percentage allowed (45.6) and eighth in 3-point percentage allowed (34.0).

The rub? Being dead last in opponent turnovers at just 11.6.

Royce O’Neale and Cameron Johnson try to bother Duncan Robinson’s drive during Thursday’s loss to the Heat.

The Nets forced just nine turnovers in Thursday’s loss in Miami.

The Nets’ coaching staff keeps metrics on not just turnovers forced but deflections and similar stats, and has targets to hit every quarter. Though Vaughn was coy about what those benchmarks are, Thursday’s figure was nowhere near what this shorthanded, starless team needs.

“We can’t let a team turn us over more than we turn them over for sure,” Vaughn acknowledged. “So you can look at that stat, and we had I don’t know how many deflections at halftime but not enough to say that we were the aggressors. So we’ll always be able to look at that at the end of the night — that will show how aggressive and physical we’re being. … You see when a team, even though we out-rebound them, we don’t turn them over, we’re still fighting uphill.”

The Nets have been fighting uphill far too often this season.

Turnovers are the absent ingredient in what the Nets are convinced can be — no, strike that, should be — an elite defensive mix.

Royce O’Neale goes for a steal against the Clippers’ James Harden.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

And it’s less of a personnel problem — they have accomplished individual defenders — and more between the ears. Forcing turnovers takes risk, and risk takes trust. That’s hard for a team that’s been injury-riddled and still getting used to each other.

“You could argue right now, the only non-defender in our lineup is myself,” Spencer Dinwiddie said in a moment of self-awareness. “So, you know, we should be stopping people. We have phenomenal defenders up and down the roster.

“You’ve got Dennis Smith and Mikal Bridges at the point of attack, two big-time defenders. You’ve got Cam [Johnson], Royce [O’Neale] and [Dorian Finney-Smith] on the wings, big-time defenders.

“Then you’ve got Nic Claxton, who is possibly a DPOY-type of candidate. And in the background, Day’Ron [Sharpe] catches a lot of flak, but, man, he plays hard. … So that’s a guy cleaning the glass, playing with a ton of effort.

“Then you could argue Lonnie [Walker] is probably our most athletic guy, him and Dennis Smith. So, there’s athleticism, length, and the care factor is there for those guys.”

Claxton’s return should help on multiple levels.

Nic Claxton, whose presence was sorely missed in the Nets lineup, skies for a block against the Wizards’ Kyle Kuzma.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

Thursday’s loss was just Claxton’s third game back after spraining his ankle on Opening Night and missing eight in a row.

“Any defense, when you know you’ve got somebody like Clax protecting the rim, you can be more liable to be more aggressive and maybe get blown by because you know that somebody is at the rim,” Bridges said. “[If] somebody down there is not a rim threat, then it’s difficult because they get a couple of steps on you and they’re just going to finish at the rim. So it’s good to have Clax back. He makes it easier … and makes the team that much better.”

Claxton’s shot-blocking and rim protection isn’t just key for the attempts he actually gets a hand on. It affects Nets opponents’ choices on offense but also influences his teammates’ confidence and aggressiveness on defense.

“Nic covers up sins for us on the defensive end of the floor,” Vaughn said. “…We’re able to mix up our defenses because of him and be aggressive.”

But Claxton has barely played alongside Simmons this season. Injuries have forced the Nets to cycle through starting lineups and different rotations, so the aforementioned trust is still very much a work in progress.

“It’s something we’re still building,” Claxton said. “It’s building trust in the scheme and the coaches and the players because you’ve got to know that somebody’s going to have your back. If you’re giving up a 3 or an open cut to somebody, you don’t want to look crazy on film or give up points. So it’s just trust all around.”

With players such as Ben Simmons going in and out of the lineup, the Nets still are trying to build cohesion on the defensive end.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

That means knowing somebody is going to help the helper. It means having faith before you rotate that somebody will do the same for you — and without hesitation. It means believing in the system, the teammates running it and the lineup permutations involved.

“Just trusting: trusting the defense, trusting the scheme, trusting your teammates,” Claxton said. “It’s not like a one-person job. It’s going to be a collaborative effort from everybody. It can be kind of uncomfortable (gambling), but that’s what JV and the coaches, that’s what they want. So that’s what we’ve got to do.

“We’re trusting the schemes more. Guys are definitely in the passing lanes more. Even when I’m guarding people, going back two years prior, I’m not used to having so much help. I’m used to really being on the island. But we’ve been doing a really good job of loading up and showing bodies on the defensive side of the ball.”

Now they have to have the faith to gamble in those passing lanes.

In short: more risks, more wins.