The Brooklyn Nets have officially settled into their offseason. And needless to say, it is a critical one. Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young are free agents. The Nets want to spend in 2016. But they want to pay Lopez and Young. They have $45 million (approximately) invested in a backcourt they do not want. The Nets want 2016 fireworks but face 2015 conflict and questions.
Clearly, things have not gone to plan for the Nets in Brooklyn. But, remember. The Cavaliers were a 33-49 mess just last year, the Warriors a lottery team in 2012, the Rockets a middling team seen as incapable of grabbing stars in 2012. Fortunes can change, and change quickly. Do the Nets do not have a developing Steph Curry, the hope the league’s best player is a Brooklynite, or the asset trove Houston used to trade for James Harden? No. But, there are still pages the Nets can take from the books of the teams that have gone further than them this year, in the hopes they can do something similar three years down the line.
This piece takes on the Warriors.
Sports VU: Per NBA.com Stats, the Warriors led the NBA in shots taken where the ball handler had the ball for just 0-2 seconds.
When the Warriors play, the ball move. Not just that, the players move. Players set screens. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run around those screens. The defense is forced to constantly rotate. As shown by this stat, when players get the ball, they do not hold it. They make quick decisions: I will shoot this jumper, or I will pass, or I will dribble and get to the rim.
The NBA loves the narrative of its being a “superstar league.” And without a doubt, Curry is a superstar. But so is Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder are a lottery team. The Warriors only have one superstar. 46% of Thompson’s shots this season came without a single dribble: he is a very good player, but is not a creator of offense for others. Rather, he is a tool who enhances the offense with his catch and shoot ability (and good, but not great, ability to make plays off the bounce). Draymond Green? He takes even more of his shots as a catch and shoot or quick hitter option, rather than making plays off the dribble for himself.
The Warriors are proof, as talented as you are, that multiple superstars are not a necessity offensively. Everyone in Golden State is good, there is no doubt. But Curry is the only superstar on the team, which is a team full of talent, but only one top 15-25 player.
Perhaps more importantly, the Warriors are filled with skilled passers, an underrated asset on a contender. Curry, Thompson, Green, and Bogut are all plus passers at their positions. Passing, notably, is a skill not seen in the box score, so finding talented passers among the league’s fringe players could be an exploitable market inefficiency for Brooklyn.
The Nets, if they can build a roster of players who can shoot, pass, and while are not superstars, are good enough to attack the openings and gaps created by a team oriented offense like Golden State’s, can turn their fortunes.
The Eye Test: Defensive Versatility is Huge in the Modern NBA; the Warriors Have it and the Nets Don’t
Commonly, defense is associated with big men. However, the modern NBA is not built around the behemoth bigs of the 1980’s and 1990’s. The centers remaining in the playoffs: “undersized” (Horford), “clutsy” (Mozgov), elite but playing injured (Dwight), and a once “bust” at number one overall (Bogut).
Yes, rim protection is important. But the single most important thing to an NBA team defensively is the ability of multiple players to guard multiple positions. The dribble drive and pick and roll is a staple of any good NBA offense: the constant switching makes it imperative for players to … switch. You are at a disadvantage defensively if a player cannot switch onto another position.
The best defenses are built around the ability to guard multiple positions, and you can begin to build a contender by acquiring players who can do just that. The Warriors have Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Klay Thompson are all plus defenders, who guard multiple positions. It allows Golden State to switch seamlessly. Let a 4 guard a 2. Let a 3 guard a 5. That second the offense loses when you switch is the difference between shooting a gap, and closing the gap. Even the 2013-2014 Nets carved a decent defense together — an old team in a young, fast league — because in Livingston, Paul Pierce, and Joe Johnson at similar sizes, they had developed some of that interchangeable personnel defensively.
The Nets should look into acquiring players who can guard multiple positions. The size of the names does not matter: there are many nondescript names in these conference finals as bigger names watch from home.
Roster Building: Forget What the Fans Say and Don’t Do it All At Once
It seems that the 2010 summer in Miami has created the idea among fans — and among a few too many organizations (ahem, Nets), that the way to build a team is simple: open cap space, enter free agency, sign a bunch of superstars, and you’re in!
It’s not that simple. A look at all of the teams remaining in the playoffs, particularly the Warriors, show that there is no real need to acquire a superstar in free agency in order to build a contender. Taking LeBron’s teams out of the equation, look at how the contenders of recent seasons have built: primarily through drafting their personnel, using assets in deals, and smart and selective free agency signings (as opposed to the bigger signings).
Take a look at how the Warriors were built:
2009: they drafted Curry.
2010: they signed David Lee. Ironically, the one time they decided “let’s open up cap space and sign a big name” resulted in the roster’s lone albatross.
2011: they drafted Thompson
2011-2012: they traded Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut-more on that below
2012: they drafted Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. This is a note that all draft picks matter. Sure, many second rounders flame out. But if you hit paydirt, you can get an excellent, supremely cost controlled piece
2013: they sign and traded for Marreese Speights and Andre Iguodala. Yes, that was a large free agency strike. But it came after the methodical building of a roster, ground up. It came after patience. It was a supplement to a core, rather than trying to build an entire core through free agency.
2014: they signed Livingston and Leandro Barbosa. Again, free agency was used as a tool to round out a core, not completely built from ruins.
The takeaways. Sure, one obvious one is that the idea contenders do not draft their talent is totally false: Curry, Thompson, Green, and Barnes were drafted by the Warriors, and Bogut was acquired for Ellis, whom they drafted.
But the other takeaway are what matter to the Nets almost as much. The Warriors did not enter a summer and decide, “we have to make a splash. We have to sign a superstar.” They built the methodical way, rather than fixating on stars. They essentially added 1-2 rotation pieces a year, until they got the pieces they wanted. There is no mandate that the Nets have to sign Durant in 2016. Sure: it would be nice. But it is not mandated.
Rather than heading into free agency with no talent (allowing Brook and Young to walk for cap room, etc) and saying “we can have all the stars”!, the Nets should be patient. Keep Lopez. Keep Young. Keep Bogdanovic. Maybe even resign Johnson in 2016 to a much smaller deal than his current one (maybe), if it makes sense. Durant says no to Brooklyn? (it’s highly unlikely he signs here). Add a free agent, maybe 2, that fit the core. You need athletes? Add athletes. You need a point guard. Add an affordable, sensible point guard with quickness that the roster lacks. It will not make a splash. It will not win free agency.
But guess what. The Warriors entered the 2010 sweepstakes and got David Lee. They entered the Dwight sweepstakes and lost to Houston. They entered the Kevin Love sweepstakes and lost to Cleveland. It doesn’t matter who wins the headline, or the free agent sweepstakes. The Warriors are 67-15 and 2 games from the finals. You can have your headlines.
The Bogut-Ellis trade. That is a reminder to the Nets: do NOT worry about what the fans want this summer or in 2016. Do not shape personnel decisions around fan desires, what will sell the most merchandise, or what is easiest to package to fans in a season ticket renewal package. Just consider one issue: what move is best for us in our goal to build a sustainable winner. Warriors fans booed Joe Lacob off stage when he traded Ellis for Bogut. Ellis was a huge fan favorite. He also took grief for that matter when he fired Mark Jackson.
Funny. I don’t see any of the complaining Warriors fans of 2012 and 2014 complaining now.
Can the Nets replicate what the Warriors have done? Probably not. But they can learn from their focus on multiple willing passers who guard multiple positions, and their prioritization of methodical, piece by piece roster building over one huge summer strike.