The Big Picture
Tonight, two teams at opposite ends of the NBA spectrum will face one another; this is neither an indictment on the Brooklyn Nets nor a boastful claim about the L.A. Clippers. Both teams simply happen to be at different points in time in each of their own trajectories, in addition to playing in competitively-differing conferences. For the Nets, seeking to escape the past indulgence of team owner Mikhail Prokhorov and ineptitude of former general manager Billy King appear to the organization’s primary goals. For the Clippers, who currently hold the league’s best record at 9-1, any result other than a championship this season will be considered a failure.
Since making the transition from New Jersey to Brooklyn back in 2012, the Nets have had six different head coaches. Despite the inherent allure of the New York market, the bevy of talent that has played for the team, and the touted championship aspirations, the Nets have very little to show for it; they made some playoff appearances but managed to lose high-level talent and a ton of draft picks in the process, over-spending all the while. There were certainly a myriad of questionable roster and coaching moves over the last several seasons, but the Nets finally appear to have a clear vision, as well as the personnel to make it happen.
Last season, after re-assigning King from his general manager duties, firing head coach Lionel Hollins, and letting assistant coach Tony Brown serve as interim coach the remainder of the season, Prokhorov was set on making sure he put forth the best minds available to begin bringing a new vision to fruition. Hitting the reset button began with the hiring of general manager Sean Marks back in February, who was most-recently the assistant general manager for the San Antonio Spurs (basically the league’s gold standard in maintaining front office and coaching communication, balance, and success). During the offseason, Marks’ first move was the hiring of head coach Kenny Atkinson, who most-recently served as assistant coach under Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer (perhaps the best-known disciple of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich).
Brook Lopez (out tonight for rest), the only Nets player who has remained with the team since they began playing at Barclays Center, is their leading scorer and appears to remain the focal point of their offense. And they still rely upon Bojan Bogdanović, a valuable, bargain contributor to the team as an outside threat. But the summer of 2016 was all about finding the pieces to begin to establishing a new identity and a new system, while maintaining financial responsibility and thinking about the future. During the offseason, the Nets acquired skilled and often-overlooked veterans Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker, Randy Foye, and Luis Scola. Lesser-known players like Sean Kilpatrick, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Justin Hamilton will likely become incrementally more impactful to this team’s success, or at least gain enough value to become future assets.
Pace and Space
This Nets team loves to play with pace, and they love to shoot the three-ball; per NBA.com, the Nets rank 2nd in the league in Pace (104.25), 3rd in the league in 3-point attempts per game (34.2), and 4th in the league in 3-point shots made per game (11.3). Atkinson clearly wants to keep opposing defenses from getting set, while scoring quickly and efficiently
Unfortunately for the Nets, however, the Clippers enter today with the league’s best Defensive Rating at 92.5. The Clippers need to continue their dominance at that end of the floor, particularly in transition against the Nets. Despite the Nets’ ability to play up-tempo basketball, they are 5th in turnovers committed per game (17.3). The Clippers have been able to maintain their defensive excellence largely due to their ability to read offensive sets well and get their hands on errant passes, ranking 4th in the league in steals per game (9.7). The Clippers also possess the depth and athleticism to keep up with this Nets team; the Clippers must find ways to convert Nets turnovers into fast-break points, beating the Nets at their own game.
Netting the Boards
Thus far, both teams rank favorably in terms of rebounding; the Nets and Clippers rank 5th and 8th in rebounds per game, respectively. The Nets rank 1st in the league in defensive rebounds per game (36.8) and the Clippers rank 4th (36.2); this is only a modest margin, so the Clippers must remain active and be especially-mindful of boxing-out Nets front court players.
Protecting the Rim
The Nets rank 10th in the league in blocked field goal attempts per game (5.4); while this may appear somewhat favorable in most matchups, the Clippers happen to be the best in the league at drawing fouls. The Clippers average 25.9 fouls drawn per game, while ranking 1st in free throws attempted per game (29.6) and 2nd in free throws made per game (21.6). This simply means that the Clippers are converting physicality and contact into points quite well.
Expect the Clippers to go to DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin often in their starting rotation, in an attempt to get the Nets into foul trouble early. Also expect to see Austin Rivers play like a downhill guard the majority of the game, possibly gaining extra minutes if he’s able to draw contact and disrupt the offensive movement initiated by Nets guards. Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Marreese Speights should expect to get open looks throughout the game once front court presence can be established. Griffin will likely be the most important playmaker in this game; his ability to play through contact and score will likely draw double-teams, allowing him to become a more of a facilitator and capitalize upon inside-out passing opportunities.
This likely won’t be the prettiest game of basketball we’ve seen this season, but don’t expect a blowout either. Both teams are committed to defense and taking advantage of fast-break opportunities, and this certainly has trap-game potential for the Clippers. But as long as the Clippers can remain aggressive down-low, expect to see their seventh-straight win, thus continuing the team’s best start in franchise history.