The Brooklyn Nets have come a long way since trading away Jarrett Allen last season and having no option at center other than a past-his-prime DeAndre Jordan. Since then, they've picked up LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin off the buyout market and developed players like Bruce Brown and Nick Claxton into quality options. Aldridge's Nets tenure was short-lived, as he was forced to retire after five games due to heart issues. However, these issues seem to have been resolved, and the seven-time All-Star rejoined the Nets earlier this week on a one-year, $2.6 million deal. Now the question for Head Coach Steve Nash becomes: who should start at center for this title contender? Let's examine each of the options, assuming everyone is healthy and the other four starters are Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Joe Harris and Kevin Durant.
Griffin was the starting center for 16 of the Nets' final 22 regular season games and all 12 of the their postseason games, though he was never able to play with all three of the Nets' superstars in the regular season or the playoffs due to various injuries. Griffin's passing ability makes him an excellent offensive option next to their big 3, not to mention his floor-spacing (he shot 38% from deep after joining the Nets). He's undersized as a center, not offering a ton of rim protection (which the Nets desperately need with defensive liabilities like Irving and Harden). For continuity's sake, Griffin might get the starting nod, but Nash has proven he's willing to experiment.
In the five games Aldridge played for the Nets (also without their complete big 3 and alongside other pseudo-bigs like Jeff Green and Bruce Brown), Aldridge was solid, averaging 12.8 points on 52.1% shooting, though he rarely attempted any threes (he knocked down four of his five attempts through five games). If the Nets' big 3 are healthy (by no means a given), then Brooklyn will not need Aldridge's post-up and midrange offensive creation. He'll need to station himself along the perimeter as a spot-up shooter and run pick-and-pop with Brooklyn's various ball-handlers. If he can't adapt, he might be better suited as an innings-eating bucket-getter on second units.
Aldridge could seperate himself from Griffin and the rest of the pack if he can prove himself as a rim protector. In a small, five-game sample size, Brooklyn allowed 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Aldridge on the floor (though it's not fair to give Aldridge all the credit, seeing as he was playing alongside other defensive-minded players like Brown and Green). He's been a part of great defenses before in his career, and while the Nets will probably never reach that level given their personnel, he could give them a bit of a boost in that department.
This would be daring for Nash, but not unreasonable. The Irving/Harden/Harris/Durant/Brown starting five played just one game together: a February contest against the Golden State Warriors that the Nets won by 17. It's unconventional, Seeing as Brown is listed at just 6'4, but his ability to switch, battle with bigs for rebounds and set solid screens make him a unique power guard. Harden is least exploitable in a switching defensive system, and Brown's versatility allows the Nets to switch across all five positions. Similar to the Griffin-at-center lineup, Durant would have to take on more of a shot-blocking, rim-protecting role with Brown at center.
Milsap signed with the Nets earlier this week as well, and the Athletic's Shams Charania reported that he would be looked at as a potential starter. Milsap is also undersized as a center, but he's arguably the best defender of this group. He's spent the past four seasons cleaning up after a defensively-challenged Nikola Jokic, often guarding the opposing team's best frontcourt player despite his 6'7 build. He's a 34.3% three-point shooter from three for his career, which is solid enough given the amount of spacing the Nets have when everyone is healthy. Like Aldridge, he's 36 years old, and might be a bit long in the tooth to play starter-level minutes.
Claxton quietly led the team in blocks per 36 minutes last season (minimum six games played) at 2.4, and proved to be a solid rim-running center in limited minutes last season. He's an athletic lob threat that Harden found often in pick-and-roll scenarios. It's unlikely that Nash will start Claxton over the above bigger names, but he's a solid option on both ends of the floor. He doesn't offer the spacing that Griffin or potentially Aldridge do, but if the big 3 are all healthy alongside Harris, they have enough shooting to get away with a traditional center.
He's by no means a perfect solution, but the Nets' offensive ceiling is highest with Griffin starting. His passing, ability to run the floor in transition (or even run a fast break) and floor-spacing make him a solid glue guy alongside three ball-dominant players in Irving, Harden and Durant. Durant will have to make up for Griffin's defensive weaknesses, but they can win quite a few games, at least in the regular season, with unstoppable offense alone. If Aldridge commits to being a floor-spacer and rim protector, he could take Griffin's spot.
It's also worth noting that given the injury history of the three stars and the Nets' willingness to forgo the regular season in exchange for postseason health, all of these players might be given chances to start at certain points throughout the season. Brown can slide down to either forward spot, and Griffin and Aldridge both played power forward for the majority of their careers.