• Erik Slater

Inside the Brooklyn Nets defensive struggles

Through the first few weeks of the NBA season, two overriding themes ring clear for the Brooklyn Nets: They score a whole lot and struggle to stop opposing teams from doing the same.

Brooklyn ranks third in the league in offense (119.8 PPG), but 29th in defense, allowing 121.7 PPG.

General Manager Sean Marks took a defensive approach when surrounding Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant with role players this offseason.

Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, David Nwaba and DeAndre Jordan were all brought in largely for their defensive capabilities. There were also high hopes for the defensive development of Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert heading into their third and fourth seasons.

This makes the Nets' defensive struggles thus far alarming.

While it may take time for a team with several new rotational pieces to develop defensive chemistry, a higher intensity level was expected for a team with so much offseason buzz. To be virtually last in the league in defense is completely unacceptable.

However, it is clear at times that the Nets have the talent to be a successful defensive team.

When examining Brooklyn's defensive deficiencies, it is apparent that they can be attributed to a lack of focus and hustle.

It all starts with defending the most frequently run play in basketball: the pick and roll. The Nets rank dead last in the league defending the pick and roll, allowing opposing teams to score on 48.4% of possessions.

Head Coach Kenny Atkinson instructs his guards to fight over the top of screens. This prevents ball handlers from stepping back for what is often an open three if a defender goes under the screen, as you can see here:

The Nets coach their big men to hang back in the paint while their guards attempt to fight over screens. However, with guards often struggling to get over the top, this leaves ball handlers open for easy midrange shots.

To combat this, Brooklyn's guards must make a more determined effort to pressure ball handlers and fight over screens. They have shown the capability to do so, as illustrated here by Taurean Prince:

Atkinson sat LeVert late in several games this season in favor of Spencer Dinwiddie, who he sees as the team's best pick and roll defender via Greg Logan.

“It was more defensive matchups,” he said. “It’s not just Spencer and him, but Spencer is an elite pick-and-roll defender, and sometimes we feel like if we’re getting hurt there, we’ll throw Spencer at that matchup."

If the guard cannot get over a screen, the big man must be able to challenge ball handers rather than allow them easy midrange opportunities.

Allen was noticeably more aggressive in this area against Portland and he had success. The 21-year-old displayed solid lateral quickness and an ability to stick with ball handlers.

There is a downside to this because big men will often be drawn out of rebounding position, but this should not happen frequently if the guard does his job.

The Nets could also choose to blitz ball handlers off of screens and rotate. Another option is to ICE the screen.

When icing a screen, the guard turns his body so his shoulders are parallel to the sideline, forcing the ball handler away from the screen. Once the ball handler dribbles away from the screen, the big man stays in front of him until his teammate can get back.

At the end of the day, no pick and roll defense is perfect and coaches must tweak their gameplan relative to the skillset of the team they are playing.

The Nets also struggle in several areas defensively that do not require any strategic planning. Brooklyn often allows penetration without any high ball screen and lose track of their men on backdoor cuts.

Another major issue is situational awareness and understanding the opponent. For an NBA team, the Nets make some decisions defensively that leave many fans scratching their heads.

LeVert pointed to this as a problem area after Sunday's blowout loss in Phoenix via Brian Lewis:

“It’s more attention to detail. That’s what it was [Sunday],” LeVert said. “We messed up on some scouting report things, letting guys who’re shooting the ball really well get clean looks, and denying guys we weren’t supposed to deny. So it’s more scouting report than anything else.”

The Nets frequently lose track of shooters, leading to wide-open looks. In a league that is now predicated on pace and three-point shooting, this cannot happen.

Garrett Temple is guarding JJ Redick, one of the top shooters in the league, in this clip. When guarding a shooter of Redick's caliber, coaches often instruct that defender not to help off him. Here, Temple helps off Redick on consecutive plays when he is not needed, leading to back to back threes:​​

Defenders must be aware of the skillset of their man and adjust their mindset accordingly. At the NBA level, this should be a given.

Transition defense has been another deficient area for Brooklyn. The Nets play at the fifth-highest pace in the league, which leads to plenty of missed shots and transition opportunities for the other team.

While it is inevitable that teams will get out in transition, there has often been a blatant lack of hustle by Nets players getting back on defense.

Despite these early struggles, there is hope for this Nets team. All of the areas outlined are controllable and boil down to focus and hustle.

LeVert and Irving must be better anticipating screens and being physical fighting through them. Prince must be able to be the on-ball stopper he was expected to be late in games. Temple cannot lose shooters off the ball.

The players must buy-in and take accountability for their individual responsibilities on the defensive end. For this to happen, a leader must emerge.

Last season, that leader was Jared Dudley. This Nets team has not found theirs yet.

If they hope to be successful, someone better step up fast.