As I mentioned in my first installment of this series on the Nate Bjorkgren Indiana Pacers, the opening months of an NBA coach's tenure are the most illuminating to watch for me. As they unroll their schemes and offensive principles piece by piece, we get to see what is most important to them and their philosophy - what they put in first.
For Steve Nash, a first-time head coach with zero assistant experience on the bench, its particularly illuminating. Guess work is done more on the origins of his playing days and less from staffs he's been a part of. Nash will ease into his duties, leaning on the sage experience of his mentor Mike D'Antoni, who sits next to him on the bench.
But Nash, a two-time MVP and legendary passer in D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" offense, has other mentors and experiences to his name. He played for Don Nelson in Dallas, the coach who originally embraced up-tempo movements before D'Antoni. He served as an adviser and player development consultant for the Golden State Warriors, perhaps influenced by their ball-movement emphasis and the relationship-based approach of Steve Kerr. Nash, Kerr and D'Antoni all were in Phoenix at the same time, so those teams were where all eyes went while trying to anticipate this offense.
Anticipate no more. A few postseason games are in the books and the Brooklyn Nets really impressed. Pace, spread-floor and switching defenses were on the docket for them. Their individual talent has shined, and nothing too complex has emerged from Nash. What we can take away, though, are a few key tidbits that could show how the D'Antoni Suns offense has evolved to an even smaller and faster NBA.
When it comes to legacy and coaching tactics, D'Antoni always gets pegged as this revolutionary of up-tempo offense, popularizing the trends that have taken root in the modern NBA. While those wouldn't be inaccurate claims, they also do little to point out the last few years he's coached in Houston, as well as the failed experiments with the Los Angeles Lakers. D'Antoni customizes to his star players and knows when to get out of the way.
He didn't discourage Kobe Bryant from taking pinch post isolations, nor make James Harden run a billion pick-and-rolls. He found what his guys were best at and inculcated it to the attack.
Nash is likely to take a similar approach where, in the words of the great philosopher Ludacris, will "get out the way, bitch, get out the way." He features two of the best one-on-one scorers in the league today, if not in its history: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. To try to cage them into strict patterns of movements or sets would be like asking Brock Lesnar to be a mat wrestler only -- there's no need to constrain the brilliance of someone so versatile.
The principles of "space" and "pace" are therefore not always connected in stride. "Pace" is the heavy emphasis on playing fast and up-tempo; the Nets want to run, as evidenced by 20% of their preseason offense coming in transition. They also value "space" - when Durant or Irving get to carve up their guy, the floor remains open around them in a way where they maximize their abilities. But when those guys want to isolate, the action must slow down; pace is not applicable when these guys have matchups they want.
Look for lineups to be constructed around Durant and Irving in patterned ways. There will be one big man: DeAndre Jordan or Jarrett Allen, a screener-rebounder who occasionally sets ball screens but is used a ton as an off-ball screener. There will be one shooter: Joe Harris or Landry Shamet, darting off screens and in constant movement as a threat to create space for the alphas.
It appears their starting lineup -- Irving, Durant, Jordan, Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie -- will help balance those rotations. Shamet and Allen come off the bench to replace their role-playing comrades, while Caris LeVert is the next-best isolation scorer who has his minutes staggered with Durant and Kyrie the most. Bigger wings Jeff Green and Taurean Prince round out the rotation.
âWhen it comes to pace, transition figures to be a large part of their attack -- and emphasizes the need for getting stops and rebounding. Even after makes, they will push tempo and hit-ahead to streaking teammates, a frustrating occurrence for opponents. They encourage Kyrie and KD to be the creators here, while shooters will be rewarded for sprinting with them to the 3-point line:
Those hit-aheads and transition looks from deep, even if they only occur two or three times a game, are dangerous enough to make it onto scouting reports and inform how NBA teams defend. It collapses the defense a bit and gets them on high alert, meaning perimeter screening combinations in early offense have greater effect.
That's where the Pistol offense comes in, a staple of the Nash and D'Antoni attack for years. Nearly every team runs Pistol, so seeing it in Brooklyn shouldn't be a surprise. But they use it a lot, and use it well. It helps when their players are as talented as they are.
As someone who used to coach the Pistol for my own teams, they put on a clinic for timing, spacing and appropriate reads within each tenet of the action:
Pistol is great because it creates some movement around a quick-striking ball screen and has a ton of options built in. Nash was masterful at reading these flares and ball screens as a player. He'll certainly have some wrinkles to add throughout the year.
The leash needs to be long for guys like Irving and Durant to break off these sets and play out of middle ball screens, or drag screens. Again, nothing revolutionary or unique about something that every team runs -- just a high frequency and high success rate from these actions.
Playbook design in early offense for the Nets is built around finding ways to involve the other guys as well. Jordan and Allen, the two bigs, are mainly screeners who do little creation when swung the ball. But Brooklyn will also run a fair deal of small lineups with Jeff Green or KD at the 5, so a playmaker could be in that spot. Even if not, the threat of having two scoring wings/ guards screen for each other opens up a lot when the ball is in the middle of the floor.
The Nets will swing to their trailing center occasionally and run some double down screens to spread the floor out of the Delay series.
It may seem counterintuitive, but playing through guys like Allen and Jordan occasionally keeps them energized to fulfill the rest of their role as screeners, rim protectors and vehement attackers of the offensive glass. Sure, they're not known for their playmaking prowess, but their involvement is key.
More impactful to involve are shooters like Landry Shamet and Joe Harris. The threat of the 3-ball is so vital in today's game. These two are specialist snipers who are great off screens, and they have the autonomy to hide behind and call for transition single screens to start the offense. If they're trailing the play opposite, expect to see them quickly jump to the middle of the floor and either shoot or play:
All these simple actions come when they play at pace. They aren't too innovative and are exactly what we've seen before from numerous NBA teams. There's no need for complexity when the players on the floor are more offensively-talented than most that you play against, and the juggling of opportunities to utilize the role guys will only help raise the quality of looks for Durant and Irving.
As we mentioned earlier, pace and space don't have to be conjoined at the hip. When pace ends, space takes a front seat, and there will be plenty of times when the two iso-heavy scorers on the Nets slow things down to go at their guys one-on-one.
We've seen a propensity for the Nets to let them isolate in two locations -- the pinch post or the top of the key -- through two preseason games. In the edit below, you'll see the two ways they get into offense. One is in early pushes up the floor, noting an advantage immediately and working to attack it. The other: breaking off offense for an iso or defaulting to one after a few ball reversals.
Autonomy for decision-making is a big deal. Players love to have control, and great players deserve it. Kyrie took a lot of flack for quotes on coaching earlier in the season about how Nash could be the coach, Jacque Vaughn could be the coach, or he or KD could be the coach. To me, this is what he was referring to. A system designed where the coaches and star players have shared input. The coaches leave much of the reads to the players, and the players can call their own number when they see fit -- and not face scorn for doing so.
Few other teams could pull this off well. Durant and Irving are generational scoring talents. The roster features other really good scorers; the balance is in giving everyone their opportunity and not marginalizing guys like LeVert or Dinwiddie to stand-and-watch duty. By playing Durant and Irving together for heavy minutes, there appears to be plenty of opportunities for those guys to go out and "get theirs" as well.
When the possessions slow and we get into the half-court, Durant is the star. He's a unique once-in-a-lifetime talent, a seven-footer who can take anyone off the bounce or in the post, scores from literally everywhere and is a wildly good playmaker off the dribble.
Kudos to Nash for bringing back an old play from Durant's Oklahoma City tenure, an area where he crushed the rest of the league: wide pindowns. When Scott Brooks was coach and Russell Westbrook had the ball, this was a really effective way to create offense. Kyrie will now be playing the Westbrook role, and the spacing on the weak-side with positive shooters means more room for Durant to play with than ever before.
You'll note the same concepts from above off these sets: Durant can break off play calls and ask for isolations when he feels them:
Feel is a big part of this team. They'll rely on the championship experience of Durant to create offense in the half-court and slow things down. He can feel his defender cheating off screens and involve others. He can sense when to break off the play and do something entirely different. Golden State was great for him to avoid doing all the heavy lifting, but there's something refreshing about seeing the greatest scorer in today's game have free reign once again.
Nash has found ways to get him the ball at the elbows, too. They'll run a middle down screen to free him for an elbow entry, and are toying with a few different actions around him to create movement and leverage his versatility. You can see in these sets that the entire side of the floor is cleared for him on his catch, so isolations out of this formation are easy to call for:
The last series I'll leave you with is what I refer to as the "special teams" of basketball: inbound plays. It's a really smart opportunity to run a different set or series that makes the guys feel comfortable.
Brooklyn's is great, not because it's innovative, but it puts all their guys in perfect situations to succeed while possessing enough counter options to keep defenses guessing. Durant and Irving get to a two-man game; Kyrie zips off for handoffs and screens while Durant can mismatch post. Shooters chill on the weak-side waiting for a screen. Durant can get snug ball screens from the 5 and create. there's so much they can do:
What are the main takeaways in Brooklyn so far? How should they inform what coaches learn from them or fans hope to enjoy?
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).