Brooklyn's glaring roster hole and the former Net who could fill it
The Brooklyn Nets made headlines across the NBA last week when they traded for eight-time NBA All-Star James Harden.
The trade paired Harden with former teammate Kevin Durant alongside Kyrie Irving, forming arguably the most talented big three in basketball history. Expectations for the new-look Nets are quickly on the rise. Brooklyn now has the second-best odds (+260 via FanDuel Sportsbook) to win the 2021 NBA Finals behind only the Los Angeles Lakers.
However, general manager Sean Marks' work constructing Brooklyn's championship roster is far from over. The Harden trade opened three roster spots and the Nets still have several holes that must be addressed if they hope to compete at the highest level, particularly on the defensive end.
Brooklyn has struggled defensively thus far this season. The Nets rank 15th in defensive rating and dead last in second-chance points, allowing 16.3 per game. These eye-opening stats hold a distinct historical significance for championship teams. Five of the last seven NBA champions ranked in the top five in defensive rating and only one champion in the last 19 years has ranked outside the top 10. The 2018 Golden State Warriors finished 11th.
The Nets defense took a blow in the trade as Jarrett Allen is among the top young rim protectors in the league. While this need must be addressed, the lack of sizable defenders on the wing poses a major problem down the line.
Brooklyn will inevitably have to go through ball handlers the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, and eventually, LeBron James. As of now, the burden of defending these players will likely fall on Durant or Jeff Green. Bruce Brown can be thrown in as a change of pace option, but at just 6'4" the aforementioned players would be able to shoot over him.
Head coach Steve Nash will likely be wary of putting too much stress on Durant's restructured Achilles, especially given the load he carries offensively, and Green will struggle to keep up with elite scorers at 34-years-old.
This reality points to the need for a plus defender on the wing and former Net Rondae Hollis-Jefferson could fill that void. Standing 6'6" with a 7'2" wingspan, the 26-year-old has shown a high motor and impressive defensive versatility throughout his career.
Hollis-Jefferson was drafted by the Nets 25th overall in 2015. He played four seasons in Brooklyn before signing with Toronto in 2019. The forward signed a training camp deal with Minnesota prior to this season but was later waived.
Playing with Toronto last season, Hollis-Jefferson ranked 19th in the league amongst small forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. This stat shows a player's impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.
The 26-year-old has above average athleticism and strength at 217 pounds, allowing him to defend one through five. Here was the percentage of possessions Hollis Jefferson spent guarding each position last season prior to the NBA shut down via Krishna Narsu and Patrick Miller of The BBall Index:
PG - 18%
SG - 24%
SF - 19%
PF - 21%
C - 18%
This statistic ranked Hollis-Jefferson as the most versatile defender in the league last season up to that point. Brooklyn would value this skill set, especially if they choose to move to a switch everything scheme.
The fallback with Hollis-Jefferson is his offensive capabilities. He is extremely limited as a ball-handler and shooter, forcing him into a small-ball center role in most offenses. Despite this, Brooklyn's surplus of shooters and playmakers could offset his offensive limitations. A lineup featuring Harden and/or Irving, Joe Harris, and Durant would allow Hollis-Jefferson to act as a screener and rim runner, frequently crashing the offensive glass. It would also allow him to fully focus his energies on the defensive end.
Hollis-Jefferson has had trouble finding a role in the NBA given his limited skill set. However, Brooklyn's offensive firepower coupled with the need for a sizable defensive stopper could present his next opportunity.
Andre Roberson is another option that has been linked to Brooklyn since the Harden trade. The wing played with Durant for three seasons in Oklahoma City and is the brother of Spencer Dinwiddie’s girlfriend.
Roberson ruptured his patella tendon in 2018 and returned for just seven games last season. While there will be concerns over the 28-year-old's knee, Roberson was an NBA All-Defensive Second Team selection in 2017 and has playoff experience.
The Harden trade cemented Brooklyn's status as a legitimate title contender. It also further exposed Brooklyn's defensive weaknesses.
Marks will look to patch up remaining holes via free agency and the buyout market. He would be wise to target a sizable defender with one of Brooklyn's three open roster spots.