Nets Smaller Starters Playing Elite D

BROOKLYN — Typically, teams play faster and are better offensively and worse defensively when they play small. The Brooklyn Nets are different.

Brook Lopez broke his foot and was lost for the season on Dec. 20. And it was on Jan. 2 when the Nets went to a starting frontline of Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on a permanent basis. Since then, the Nets have played slower, and have gone from the third worst defensive team in the league to top 10 on that end of the floor.

Nets record, pace and efficiency

Timeframe W L Pace Rank OffRtg Rank DefRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
Through Dec. 31 10 21 94.6 25 101.9 18 106.7 28 -4.8 26
Since Jan. 1 12 4 92.6 28 105.9 13 101.8 9 +4.2 9
Season 22 25 93.9 26 103.2 17 105.0 20 -1.8 19

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

The Nets’ original starting lineup, with Garnett at the four and Lopez at the five, was OK defensively, allowing 101.4 points per 100 possessions. Of 71 lineups that played at least 75 minutes through Dec. 31st, it ranked 34th in DefRtg.

Not great, but not terrible either. And Brooklyn was better defensively, allowing just 100.3 points per 100 possessions, in the other 167 minutes that Garnett and Lopez were on the floor together. So playing big wasn’t necessarily a big problem.

But that’s not a lot of playing time. The Nets’ issues started with the lack of minutes (just 90 over 10 games before Lopez broke his foot) that their $82 million starting lineup played together. It was their other combinations that were truly awful defensively.

Nets lineups through Dec. 31

Lineup(s) MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Williams, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, Lopez 90 96.9 96.5 101.4 -4.9 -14
Other lineups 1,413 94.5 102.2 107.0 -4.8 -160

And here’s the thing. Their bench units are still pretty bad defensively. But since Jan. 1, their starters, with either Deron Williams or Alan Anderson as the third guard, have been ridiculously good on that end of the floor.

Nets lineups since Jan. 1

Lineup(s) MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Livingston, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett + Anderson or Williams 167 88.6 102.7 89.4 +13.3 +39
Other lineups 610 93.8 106.8 105.0 +1.8 +23

Allowing less than 90 points per 100 possessions is elite defense. The Pacers have the best defense of the last 37 years, and they’ve allowed 93.9.

There’s some logic to improved D. Replacing Lopez with an extra guard has allowed the Nets to be more aggressive in defending pick-and-rolls, switch without worrying about mismatches, rotate and recover quicker, and better challenge 3-point shooters.

It helps that their top four guards are 6-foot-3, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-7. Length goes a long way.

Through Dec. 31, the Nets ranked 30th in 3-point defense, allowing their opponents to shoot 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. In 2014, they’ve ranked 15th (35.7 percent). And opponents have shot just 31 percent from 3-point range against the two starting groups.

Those two groups have also forced 19.4 turnovers per 100 possessions, a rate that would lead the league. In fact, the Nets do lead the league by forcing 18.6 since Jan. 1. Livingston, Williams, Pierce and Andray Blatche have all averaged more than a steal per game since Jan. 1.

In regard to the how good the Nets’ starters are defensively, we’re looking at just 167 minutes of playing time. But 113 of those 167 have come against above-average offensive teams (and we’re not including the 14 minutes they played against the depleted Spurs on Thursday), so it’s not like the numbers are schedule-aided. They’ve shut down good teams.

And while the starters have played great D, the bench has held its own offensively. The Nets have scored a ridiculous 127.3 points per 100 possessions in 102 minutes with Blatche, Mirza Teletovic and Andrei Kirilenko on the floor together.

Kirilenko’s health has been critical. His passing and off-ball cutting are two elements the Nets were desperately missing for most of the first two months of the season. Even on Thursday, the Nets were going to their typical mismatches (Johnson and Livingston in the post) early, but were rather stagnant offensively until Kirilenko entered the game.

Shooting is so important in this league, but while Kirilenko has shot just 1-for-13 from outside the paint this season, he has the highest on-court OffRtg of anybody in the rotation.

It makes you realize that, even though Lopez is done for the season, the Nets are still one of the deepest teams in the league, so deep that Jason Terry got a DNP on Thursday.

The talent was always there. The healthy bodies were not. Ironically, Lopez’s injury has helped the Nets find an identity that works and start to live up to their lofty expectations.


  1. Wanker says:

    I call it the kirilenko effect!

  2. wanted: superstar says:

    Your article is untimely, they were beaten in the Palace of Auburnhills by the Pistons by 16 today

  3. mcrandall324 says:

    Livingston has been the spark for these guys, which is great to see him come back. d-will is should not be the “face” of the nets…yes, sweet cross-over, can score, etc…but I don’t think he’s much of a team player. they are cohesive when he’s not out there…trade him while you can, before he has more ankle problems

    go nets!

  4. Drago says:

    No team with Garnet Peirce can be as bad as they where i knew they would not tank the season.Kirilenko is on the same level as Gasol Ginobili Parker and Novicki he is a bonifide Euro superstar and i would like him to get his ring just like those guys he desereves it.The Nets can go all the way they have the man power and the experience in Peirce and Garnet and Kid let’s hoppe they have luck with injuries.

  5. Henrik Jensen says:

    yeah i see nets going to be a tough opponent to Raptors and Hawks for 3rd place in East, and if they end in 3rd or 4rd place and can get easy wins over their opponent in first round, they will be a tough tough opponent for Miami or Indiana in the 2nd round and east finals because Kevin Garnett have been rested all season long, playing 6 less games than other teammates as well as only playing about 20-25 minutes pr. game, thats why his stats are so low this year, but when he comes in more fresh than anyone else in the league this could be why they are a championship contender…

  6. dustydreamnz says:

    They look a new team, different things work for different teams. They should cruise into the playoffs. Pistons are starting to battle with poor team chemistry.

  7. dwllist says:

    Great article! The Nets have truly figured a formula collectively. I love the strings that Jason Kidd has pulled in his brief tenure thus far, but from his standpoint, its encouraging to know that a team that is rather an old one; with injury riddled guys, can be as effective as they in this revival stretch.

  8. allaroundballer says:

    Lopez is a joke, 7’0″ allstar but made only 5-6 rebounds/game

    • J Prophet says:

      Brook Lopez is the best offensively skilled center averaging close to 21 points per game. Overall, he can be consider the 2nd best center in the game, with Dwight Howard in front of him. The NETS go to Brook on the offensive floor as much as one would say of Kobe Bryant. He was their number 1 scoring option. So, it can get hard being a big part of the offensive and running back just to get a rebound especially when he needs to be prepared for when they go back on offense, for a big man. So, he just let them loose balls go to REBOUND EATERS like REGGIE EVANS, KRIS HUMPRIES (Former NET), Mason Plumlee, and KG.

  9. wew says:

    though i think that the nets could enter the play-offs if they contnue at this pace. they wouldn’t still be championship contender.
    just leave it to miami or pacers for the eastern conference finals