What makes the Brooklyn Nets’ offense an unsolvable puzzle?

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images /

The Brooklyn Nets’ star trio has led them to the most efficient offense in NBA history, and there isn’t much the rest of the league can do to stop them.

Any attempt to thwart an NBA superstar requires some amount of concession. The league’s best players are skilled enough to score in multiple ways and have counters to every defensive gambit. There’s no sense in trying to take a superstar out of the action completely because he’ll find his way into it somehow.

The challenge is in mitigating the damage, which requires determining the least painful of several excruciating options. You try to take away something, knowing full well that it could open up an entire other set of problems and ways for this star to beat you. Still, with some luck, you might bother this superstar into a few more tough shots or force the ball out of his hands on enough possessions for his supporting cast to buckle under a heavier workload. But suppose an opponent has not one of these immutable scorers, but three, any one of whom can flip into destroyer mode when given the chance. What is a defense supposed to do?

How can a defense try to stop these Brooklyn Nets?

This is the question upon which the Brooklyn Nets’ championship aspirations hinge. All three of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving are currently averaging at least 25 points on genuinely historic efficiency, and the Nets have become the most lethal regular-season offense in NBA history as a result. With a 120 offensive rating, Brooklyn is scoring three points more per 100 possessions than last year’s record-setting Mavericks, and with its star trio having played only seven games together, there’s reason to believe that mark could improve.

Scheming for and matching up with the Nets is a cipher with no correct solution; you just keep trying different combinations until you’re out of options. Let Durant or Harden “get his,” to borrow a coaching axiom, and they’ll punish you with devastating precision; “make the other guys beat you,” and they will. Suppose an opponent accomplishes the improbable task of forcing Durant, arguably the best volume-scoring forward in NBA history into an off night; does it also have the defensive personnel and schematic infrastructure to corral Harden in a pick-and-roll without giving up wide-open kick-out 3s? If so, who could this defense possibly have left to check Irving in isolation, track Joe Harris off of screens, or even think about other shooters or cutters orbiting the three stars? Even on perfectly-executed defensive possessions, Durant, Harden, and Irving are still liable to make impossible shots over helpless defenders:

In 383 possessions with all three of their creators on the floor, the Nets have outscored opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions, with a 126.7 offensive rating; the starting lineup (the All-Stars plus Harris and Green) is plus-26.7 per 100 possessions with a preposterous 136.4 offensive rating — the second-highest mark among lineups to log at least 150 possessions. All five starters currently shoot at least 40 percent from beyond the arc (Irving, at 63 percent true shooting, is the least efficient scorer in Brooklyn’s healthy starting five), which only gives three of basketball’s preeminent scorers more room to operate. As a result, all three All-Stars fall in the 90th percentile or higher in isolation scoring efficiency.

There are no breaks, either. If Durant or Irving goes to the bench, the team leaves its second unit in the hands of a perennial MVP candidate and walking top-10 offense. When Harden rests, Brooklyn can lean on two undeniable one-on-one scorers with above-average passing vision. In fact, the Nets have produced at least 1.17 points per possession in every configuration with at least one star on the floor.

The beauty of Brooklyn’s offense isn’t just in the way it overwhelms but in the elasticity of its parts. Trading for Harden may have been slightly redundant with Durant and Irving already in tow, but the three are still eminently compatible with one another. Two are MVP candidates who can also function as cogs in the machine by making the right pass or occupying a defender with the threat of a catch-and-shoot jumper. Irving is an isolation savant who also happens to be a deadly spot-up shooter. And an offense with three indomitable scorers amounts to even more than the sum of its parts because it also allows specialists like Harris to move into clean jumpers, or non-shooters like Bruce Brown and DeAndre Jordan to find open space in the paint:

The natural cost of surrounding three dynamic offensive catalysts with an offensively-slanted supporting cast is a striking lack of defensive presence. As hopeless as most opponents have looked trying to stop them, there are moments when the Nets’ defense looks just as lost. The team is a meager 23rd in defensive efficiency, with personnel that doesn’t inspire much hope for improvement. “We’re not a defensive roster,” head coach Steve Nash conceded earlier this year. “We just have to take more pride in it.”

Pride can only take a team so far, but the Nets have shown flashes of competence, particularly against the best teams in the league. They’ve found success by switching ball screens so as to avoid fighting over picks, and their containment at the point of attack has been surprisingly strong at times. Brooklyn limits both 3-pointers and shots at the rim fairly effectively while forcing more than a third of opponents’ shots from the mid-range. Surprisingly, the Nets have the best net rating and sixth-best defense in the league against teams with top-10 point differentials. Part of that is noise from a relatively small sample size, but it may also be a sign that Brooklyn can Flip the Switch™ against better competition in the playoffs.

In the slower, matchup-hunting style of the playoffs, employing multiple weak links on the perimeter will cause real issues that will demand Nash and his staff get creative. For the moment, that’s all that keeps Brooklyn from being a prohibitive favorite in the East. Yet the Nets also have three players fully capable of targeting and incinerating limited defenders in the postseason. An offense so prolific may only need a functional defense to contend for a championship. However, concerning this team’s weaknesses, its opponents will always have more to worry about.

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