By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
BROOKLYN — The Brooklyn Nets are the most expensive team in NBA history, and their most important player right now is a guy making the league minimum.
The key to the Nets’ 22-9 record since Jan. 1 has been their defense, which is fifth-best in that time and has forced 19.2 turnovers per 100 possessions. No team has forced that many turnovers over a full, 82-game season since 1997-98.
The most important element of that improved Brooklyn defense is the length of Shaun Livingston, a guy who was signed to be the back-up point guard but who ranks third on the team in minutes and has started every game he’s played (he’s missed one) since … Jan. 1.
- NBA.com/stats video: Watch Livingston’s 43 steals since Jan. 1
Playing small, the Nets have struggled on the glass, haven’t blocked many shots, and haven’t done a great job of keeping their opponents off the free throw line. But they’ve had defensive success due to contesting shots and forcing mistakes.
Kevin Garnett has been Brooklyn’s defensive anchor since Brook Lopez was lost for the season, but the Nets have gone 5-1 without KG in March. They’re allowing less than a point per possession because they still have backcourt length, which allows them to switch screens, help and recover and both get into the space of ball-handlers and into passing lanes.
As a 6-foot-7 point guard with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Livingston is the embodiment of Brooklyn’s new identity. He can smother opposing guards and switch onto forwards. With the game on the line in the final minute on Monday, Livingston poked the ball away from Toronto’s Terrence Ross.
“He’s so versatile,” Deron Williams said of his backcourt-mate after the win on Monday. “He’s been guarding the best players a lot of nights.”
It’s more than that. Livingston’s size unlocks everything the Nets do defensively. Without his size and activity, the scheme doesn’t work nearly as well, and the numbers bear that out. The Nets have been 8.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively since Jan. 1 when Livingston has been on the floor.
We all know Livingston’s story and it’s great to see him playing such a big role on a playoff team seven years after his gruesome and devastating knee injury as a Clipper. Less than 15 months ago, he was waived by the 3-22 Washington Wizards.
After doing a solid job in Cleveland in the second half last season, Livingston was Jason Kidd‘s choice to back-up Williams. Some of us thought he was a bad fit because of his poor (non-existent, really) perimeter shooting. But Kidd was right all along … although he couldn’t have known that he’d be relying on Livingston as much as he has.
The 28-year-old has already started more games (39) than he ever has and will surpass his career high in minutes next week.
“I didn’t know what to expect, coming in, being a back-up,” Livingston said. “But things happen in the NBA.”
This isn’t just a feel-good story, though. The Nets need Livingston, who has given them the identity that’s turned them into the team we’d thought they’d be at the beginning of the season with their $82 million starting lineup.
“You just try to find your niche,” he said. “Sometimes, you got to find your value on the court. What’s going to help my team win games? [Andrei] Kirilenko is the same way. We’re active. We’re long. So we have to use that to our advantage.”
The Nets are just two games over .500 and in sixth place in the weak East, but that 22-9 mark is the conference’s best in 2014. They’ve established themselves as a tough out for any team they’d face in the playoffs, including the Miami Heat. Brooklyn is 2-0 against Miami as the Heat host the Nets tonight (7 ET, ESPN).
It’ll be another game featuring a bunch of high-priced stars. And a guy making the minimum will play a big role.