The True Problem in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets changed forever when they signed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in the summer of 2019. Skeptics at the time predicted the Nets’ moody, drama-prone stars would turn Brooklyn basketball into a circus. They couldn’t have been more correct. 

Kevin Durant demanded a trade this summer and gave the Nets an ultimatum to keep him or their coach and General Manager. It seems Durant has won, as the Nets fired coach Steve Nash after their lackluster start. Durant recently opened up about why he ever wanted to leave Brooklyn. He calls out, by first and last name, his teammates who he believes aren’t talented enough to win him his third ring. 

Kyrie Irving’s issues go beyond basketball drama. Irving missed nearly all of last season because he refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He just returned from a team suspension for tweeting his support for a film that promotes anti-semetic tropes and conspiracies and initially declining to apologize

The Nets enter Sunday’s game against the Blazers at eleventh place in the Eastern Conference with a 9-11 record. Behind all the spectacle, there is a glaring basketball problem beyond Durant and Irving that makes the Nets so mediocre: They are filled with players who are elite on one end of the floor but inept on the other. 

In the NBA, you are a liability for your team if you can’t operate on one end of the floor.

Each of the past NBA champions have players who can both shoot and guard effectively – a so-called 3-and-D wing. A player who can hit threes at a rate higher than the league average of around 35%, be quick enough to defend guards, and have enough height and strength to contend with big men is an immensely valuable piece in today’s NBA. The Warriors won the NBA Finals last season behind Stephen Curry, as well as a cohort of athletes who can both shoot and defend in Otto Porter Jr., Klay Thompson, and Andrew Wiggings. The Milwaukee Bucks won the championship a season prior with 3-and-D stalwarts like Bobby Portis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday, all supporting Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

The Brooklyn Nets have some of the best shooters in the history of basketball. They also have some top-tier and protean defenders. But they lack players who can do both. 

The Brooklyn Nets’ shooters are the most talented but ineffective group in the NBA. Joe Harris, Seth Curry, and Patty Mills could all drain a shot from Flatbush Avenue. Harris is sixth all-time in three-point field goal percentage. Curry is third. Ever. Harris and Curry are third and first among all active players, respectively. But they are specialists, not complete players. Harris, Curry, and Mills are all short for NBA standards and more agile than strong. They have abysmal defensive metrics by virtually any measuring tool. 

Then there is Ben Simmons. The Gods gave Simmons a 6’10 frame coupled with top-tier speed and strength. When he was a 76er he could defend anybody in the gym, and do it very well. He was a Defensive Player of the Year runner-up for 2020-21 and selected to two All-Defensive First Teams in Philadelphia.

The problem is that he can’t, or won’t, shoot the basketball. Simmons won’t even attempt a shot outside of around eight feet and appears frightened to drive to the basket in case he is fouled and must shoot free throws. The same is true of their young center, Nic Claxton: a good rim protector who doesn’t shoot threes. 

Major League Baseball teams can stick a poor defender at Designated Hitter or hide a substandard hitter in the 9-hole and the unit won’t drastically suffer from it. In the NBA, you are a liability for your team if you can’t operate on one end of the floor.

Offenses in the half-court will use the pick-and-roll to force the defense to switch which defender guards which of their scorers. A team can essentially choose the worst defender on the opposing team and attack them specifically, sometimes with their best threat. Patty Mills, for example, has earned little playing time this season because Brooklyn’s opponent can often force him to guard a taller and stronger player and create easy scoring opportunities for themselves. When 6′ 1” Mills was switched onto 6′ 7” Luka Doncic last month, if he looked hard enough, he could see Luka’s eyes widen before he even began to dribble.

A player who is a threat to shoot can position himself behind the three-point arc and his defender must stay near him due to the threat of a catch-and-shoot three. But Ben Simmons can’t shoot. Neither can Claxton. Their defenders can thus wander away from them whenever they don’t have the ball or are directly under the basket. That defender can disrupt passing lanes, mid-range shots, and cuts. Likewise, Simmons or Claxton’s presence adjacent the basket serves to crowd the paint with too many players. This means anyone driving to the basket can’t find a direct lane and must overcome multiple opponents.

Harris, Curry, and Mills are not just subpar individual defenders. They cripple the entire unit’s ability to play consistent defense. Simmons isn’t just a weird offensive fit. He undermines the ability of each of his teammates to generate chances to score. The Nets will always have one player on the court who is excellent on one side but incapable on the other side.

Royce O’Neal is the Nets’ only true 3-and-D wing, granted he’s below the league’s best on both sides. He was traded to Brooklyn this summer to mitigate this exact problem and has currently played more minutes than anybody besides Kevin Durant. Though Simmons could be the game’s best defender, and Harris is an all-time three-point marksman, O’Neal plays because he is not a liability on either side of the floor.

How do they fix this? 

It’d help if Ben Simmons would learn to shoot the basketball. Or if Seth Curry could grow seven inches and put on fifty pounds and be able to guard Jayson Tatum. Moving away from a switch-heavy defense might help avoid nightmare matchups for the Nets’ smaller guards. The development of Nic Claxton into both a rim-protect and viable post threat would do wonders, as well.

Teams can win championships with uncooperative and immature stars. Both Durant and Irving have done it. In Brooklyn, the duo has been brilliant, if not highly unreliable. Durant and Irving will make the headlines but they are not the problem with this roster. The Nets lack something that all winning basketball teams possess: players who can both shoot and guard. Brooklyn cannot become a competitive unit with one-way players who destroy them on one the other side of the court. This is the existential problem behind Durant, Irving, and the entire circus in Brooklyn.

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