The Brooklyn Nets entered the 2023-24 season with their highest defensive expectations in years. The team's new-look roster is ripe with length, athleticism, and versatility, posting an average height of 6-foot-6 and an average wingspan of 6-foot-9. Brooklyn has eight players who ranked in the 80th percentile or better in defensive-estimated plus-minus last season, per dunksandthrees.com.
That personnel has translated to success in several areas: the Nets are allowing the NBA's sixth-lowest field goal percentage (45.7) and eighth-lowest three-point percentage (34.8). They've even managed to fix their putrid rebounding, posting the league's third-best defensive rebounding percentage after ranking 29th last season.
Yet, 11 games in, Brooklyn ranks 23rd in defensive rating. According to head coach Jacque Vaughn, his team's defensive strengths are overshadowed by one main deficiency: they don't force turnovers.
“You look at our group, we should have the versatility and the length to be a top-10 defensive team,” Vaughn said before a Nov. 14 matchup with Orlando. “We have great effective field goal percentage allowed, we’re not fouling, we’re incredibly rebounding at a top-five rate, which is unheard of for this group if you think about us last year. The one thing we aren’t doing is turning people over. If we can correct that, if we were middle of the pack in turning people over, we’d be a top-10 defensive team.”
The Nets rank dead last in opponent turnovers at 11.1 per game. They forced the 76ers into just four Sunday while committing 15 of their own, allowing Philadelphia to cruise to a 121-99 victory.
Brooklyn is mustering just 15.2 points off turnovers per night, the 24th-most in the NBA. For a team Vaughn admitted is not built to succeed in the halfcourt offensively, that's not a recipe for success.
How does the coach propose his team fix the league-worst deficiency? Like millions who flock to Las Vegas each year, they have to be willing to gamble.
“There’s some risk that’s involved and we haven’t taken the risks needed to increase that turnover rate,” Vaughn said. “There's an element of having guys who are just naturally defensive-minded to go for steals. There's a mindset to guys who have come across this league who play more sound basketball and have been admonished in the past for gambling too much. And so, how can you turn that dial to a group that has played positional defense to make them go ahead and gamble?”
“That's what we're trying to do. Be okay to gamble, and I've told them that: Go take a risk, go take a steal, go for it, go gamble, we'll deal with the consequences. If we could do that, our defense will be better, but being 29th and 30th the last couple of weeks in forcing turnovers, something we can definitely improve on.”
Injuries have undoubtedly played a role in Brooklyn's tepid defense. Nic Claxton, the team's defensive anchor, missed two weeks after suffering an ankle sprain in the season opener. Without Claxton at the rim, failed gambles were a near guarantee to result in layups. The 6-foot-11 center has been back in Brooklyn's lineup for the last four games and continues to look like a perennial All-Defense candidate, swatting 2.5 shots per game.
However, Claxton's return coincided with an extended absence for Ben Simmons, who has missed the Nets' last six games due to a nerve impingement in his back. Alongside Claxton, the 6-foot-10 point forward offers elite versatility and a secondary rim protector on weakside rotations.
Dennis Smith Jr., the team's highest-rated defender from last season, was also ruled out ahead of Sunday's loss vs. Philadelphia with a lower back sprain. Smith Jr. has been Brooklyn's only player willing to take the frequent risks Vaughn is encouraging.
The Nets showed a brief uptick in defensive intensity during last week's blowout win over the Orlando Magic, turning 16 turnovers into 27 points. Following the game, Spencer Dinwiddie made it clear: Brooklyn is more than capable defensively.
“We have phenomenal defenders up and down the roster,” he said. “You got Dennis Smith and Mikal Bridges at the point of attack, two big-time defenders. You’ve got Cam (Johnson), Royce (O'Neale) and Dorian (Finney-Smith) on the wings, also big-time defenders. And then you got Nic Claxton, who is possibly a DPOY-type of candidate… There’s tons of athleticism and length, and the care factor is there for those guys.”
Despite Dinwiddie's assertion, Brooklyn's defense could be summarized as passive and inconsistent early this season. The athleticism, length, and care he referred to must translate to pressuring ball handlers and jumping passing lanes if the Nets hope to live up to their expectations.