Steve Nash with mask pulled down no opponent visible
Being the coach of a super team is a double-edged sword. If the team wins, it’s due to their massive talent. If the team loses, the game plan was the reason for the loss and the spotlight shines bright on what strategies would have been taken to win.
Nets head coach Steve Nash came into his rookie season in Brooklyn with significant expectations. With a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as well as an early season trade for former MVP James Harden adding to the mix, Nash faced high expectations in his first season on the job.
Brooklyn (and Nash) lived up to the hype, finishing with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at 48-24. Even with the trio of Durant, Harden and Irving only able to play a total of eight games together, Nash pushed all of the right buttons on the offensive end. Brooklyn ranked first (117.1 points per 100 possessions) in the NBA in offensive efficiency.
Thinking on the Fly
What stood out the most was how Nash found roles for players at the end of the rotation and was able to get the most out of them. Nash found gold in guard Bruce Brown. A combo guard, Brown was used primarily as a screener for Harden and thrived in the role as a 6-foot-4 center. Nash also was able to get the most out of unheralded players like Alize Johnson who was signed to a 10-day contract and, soon after had a 20-20 game against his former team, the Indiana Pacers.
Nash deserves credit for being able to change rotations on the fly and tinker with different lineups. His experimentation with the roster also allowed young players like Nicolas Claxton and Landry Shamet to play significant roles throughout the regular season.
Now, it’s more clear that Claxton can be a contributor and has more to build on what he’s been able to contribute as a switchable defender at the center position. Expect for the young center to play a more prominent role next season under Nash.
The Nets defense was a mess to start this season. Through the first 24 games of the regular season, the Nets were 26th in defensive efficiency. The team made modest improvements after Nash and the coaching staff changed from a normal drop defense where their center drops back on pick and rolls to a switch-everything base defense.
The move helped the Nets improve to 21st in defensive efficiency over the final 48 games. With more experience using that strategy and success in the playoffs, the Nets will likely run with that defensive philosophy next year.
In the postseason, the Nets leaned in heavier to their stars and isolations. In the first round, Harden, Durant and Irving were unstoppable together. Utilizing their ability to create their own shots off the dribble against a switch-heavy defensive strategy by the Boston Celtics, the trio combined for 85.2 points per game. Brooklyn cruised to an easy 4-1 series win.
The second round was tough for the Nets from the jump against the Milwaukee Bucks. Harden went down with a Grade 2 hamstring strain less than a minute into the series. In Game 4, Irving sprained his right ankle when he landed on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot.
With Irving out for the rest of the series and a severely limited Harden returning for the final three games, the Nets were forced to rely heavily on Durant. Durant was great, averaging 43.0 points, 12.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists over the final three games. Alas, it wasn’t enough as Milwaukee managed to escape Game 7 with an overtime victory.
Nash’s rotations became tight in the playoffs as several players outside of the starting five saw their minutes reduced. Nash completely excised DeAndre Jordan from the rotation in the postseason after Jordan saw semi-regular minutes in the regular season.
There were always questions of how the Nets would keep Jordan in the rotation since he is not the best option for a switch-everything defensive principle, and his lack of a perimeter shot can muck up the space for their stars. He makes sense in the right matchup (i.e. Joel Embiid, Deandre Ayton or Nikola Jokic), but the Nets never ran into a center of that magnitude in the first round.
Now, the Nets can only hope that their three stars are primed and ready to play for next season as they will likely be a title favorite heading into next season. Though there will always be extremely high expectations for this Nets team, Nash has done well for a rookie coach.
If the Nets can add a few ancillary pieces and keep key rotation players from this year like Brown and Blake Griffin to complement their superstar trio, they will be in good shape. Based off of the job Nash did as a tinkerer, he should make even more progress with a Brooklyn team next season.