The Long Two: Nets need Nic Claxton, Jalen Brunson helps lead the Mavs

Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, NBA

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Nic Claxton has played fewer than 70 NBA games, but the Nets’ wiry big man could be the key that unlocks the best version of a title contender.

Kevin Durant and James Harden excluded, the most crucial variable in Nets’ championship aspirations isn’t a former All-Star big man, a sharp-shooting wing or a mercurial, galaxy-brained point guard, but a lanky third-year center with fewer than 70 NBA games under his belt.

At age 22, Nic Claxton may be the Nets’ ticket to the inner circle of NBA title contention — a position they have yet to earn this season — and the player most likely to show significant growth over the course of the year. As Brooklyn gets healthy and on the same page (Kyrie Irving just played his first game of the season while Harden and Durant recently got out of the league’s health and safety protocols), developing its young center into the kind of dynamic, versatile threat required to unlock its best lineups should be among the team’s primary goals for the remainder of the regular season.

Right now, Claxton’s utility lies as much in the lack of other suitable options as in his own capabilities. Neither LaMarcus Aldridge nor Blake Griffin offers the kind of perimeter defense or rim protection required to contend with the league’s best playoff offenses, while Paul Millsap and James Johnson’s athletic declines have left them in similar places. Steve Nash often deploys non-shooting wings as functional centers on offense while Durant protects the rim, but it’s hard to see those lineups surviving extended minutes on defense against offensively capable frontcourts.

Nic Claxton can give the Nets what none of the other big men can

At his best, Claxton helps remedy those issues, offering the Nets not only a unique skill set but a distinct identity. He’s a far better complement to Durant and Harden than his older, more plodding teammates, and Brooklyn plays with a different kind of verve with him buzzing around the court.

Shooting-heavy lineups featuring Claxton, Durant, Harden and two of Irving, Joe Harris and Patty Mills are some of the Nets’ most intriguing units, but they’ve seldom had the chance to share the floor. Claxton has played just 267 non-garbage time possessions with Harden and Durant this season, 115 of which have come without another big man on the floor. Brooklyn has been badly outscored in those sparse minutes, but should get a clearer idea of those lineups’ effectiveness now that Nash has his rotation (mostly) intact.

Because of his ability to get behind defenses and play above the rim, Claxton is a particularly clean offensive fit with Harden, who does more standard pick-and-roll operation than the more isolation-minded Durant. Claxton is shooting a dazzling 79 percent at the rim (where he takes more than 80 percent of his shots), and the threat of a 6-foot-11 aerialist in the paint helps open passing lanes to shooters:

He also collects extra shot opportunities on the offensive glass, and will occasionally even put the ball on the floor to maneuver around help defenders in the paint — a key counter to opponents blitzing Harden and Durant:

More importantly, Claxton could be the piece that unlocks Brooklyn’s most stable defensive lineups. As both an adept rim protector and nimble perimeter defender, he provides a degree of versatility the Nets can’t get from anyone else, seamlessly fitting into a switching scheme and executing more conventional drop pick-and-roll coverage.

The Nets have defended slightly worse overall this season with Claxton on the floor this year and lineups with him, Durant and Harden have been atrocious defensively, though some of that is due to opponent 3-point shooting variance. In the areas of the game for which Claxton is responsible, he has made the Nets meaningfully better. Opponents shoot 2.5 percentage points worse at the rim with him on the floor and just 44 percent at the rim when he’s the closest defender; that kind of rim-protecting acumen is rare among such inexperienced players, and it’s feasible — if not likely — that Claxton could grow into an even more fearsome deterrent by the start of the playoffs.

That doesn’t mean the 22-year-old is without defensive faults: he’ll still miss the occasional rotation or help responsibility, and his slender frame limits his impact in situations that require real physicality. Brooklyn’s 71 percent defensive rebound rate with Claxton on the floor would rank dead last in the NBA, and he’s vulnerable against physical post scorers (like Joel Embiid) and drivers (like Antetokounmpo) who can barrel through him. On offense, Claxton has yet to show any real playmaking ability, and his inability to shoot muddies Brooklyn’s spacing when he plays with another non-shooter.

Still, the Nets can work around those limitations in ways they can’t with their other centers on the floor. The tradeoff of constructing a team around three electric guards is that each of the team’s bigs imposes constraints on offense, defense or both, and Nash’s goal between now and the postseason is to figure out which of his limited options will be most complementary of his stars and least damaging in the playoffs. That answer may change from one series to the next, depending on how Brooklyn matches up with each opponent. For now, Claxton seems the logical choice for most every possible scenario.

Jalen Brunson, picking up the slack

Luka Dončić’s entry into the NBA’s health and safety protocols last month could have spelled disaster for the Mavericks, who were 12-13 before losing one of the NBA’s most relied-upon offensive players for 10 games. Yet Dončić returned to a 17-18 team playing its most competitive basketball of the season, largely because of Jalen Brunson’s readiness to step into the role Dončić temporarily vacated. Few players in the NBA — and certainly no one on Dallas’ roster — can lead an offense the way Dončić does, meticulously picking apart defenses with one pick-and-roll after the next, so the Mavericks didn’t ask Brunson to do that. Instead, they used him as the spearhead of a more balanced offense, working in a variety of situations both on and off the ball that allowed every Maverick to become a more involved part of the offense.

Brunson possessed the ball for 8.2 minutes per game during Dončić’s absence, per NBA.com — twice as often as any other Maverick and only slightly less than Dončić’s season average. But he did so by continually giving the ball up and getting it back rather than holding it for longer, less frequent intervals, thus allowing Dallas to keep it moving around. Even without one of the NBA’s leading assist men, Dallas set up more shots and scored more points via assist in the time Dončić missed than it did before, and the offense felt more varied as a result. The Mavericks scored 117.5 points per 100 possessions without Dončić — the fourth-best mark in the league over that time — and climbed from 21st in the NBA in offensive efficiency to 16th in the span of 10 games.

Brunson, meanwhile, had arguably the best month of his career, scoring 23 points per 75 possessions on well above-average efficiency as the Mavericks’ primary initiator. His usage rate surged to nearly 30 percent, and he assisted on over 35 percent of Dallas’ buckets while taking pristine care of the ball.

On the whole, Brunson is creating more offense this season as both a scorer and passer while turning the ball over less often than he did a year ago, and though his own scoring efficiency has slipped, the Mavericks’ offense is nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.

At just 6-foot-1, Brunson is shooting a career-best 74 percent at the rim — tied for the best mark among guards with at least 70 such attempts — and doing so largely off of self-created opportunities. A crafty pick-and-roll technician with a stout frame, he overcomes his small stature by shielding off defenders with his body and catching shot-blockers off-guard with the trickiest below-the-rim layup package in the league:

Brunson is also a reliable 3-point shooter both off the dribble and off the catch, which allows him to serve as either a primary or secondary creator depending on the personnel around him. As a team, the Mavericks get to the rim more often, attempt more free throws and turn the ball over less frequently with Brunson on the court, and actually have a more efficient offense when he plays without Dončić than in the opposite alignment.

That isn’t to suggest Dallas is a better team without Dončić (10 games is far too small a sample to extrapolate over a full season), but rather to wonder what it could be with him. If the Mavs can score at one of the most efficient rates in the league with Brunson captaining the offense, how devastating might they be with a 6-foot-8 virtuoso in that role and Brunson attacking easier matchups? How much more dynamic could the team be if every player were a live threat rather than a bystander? And how much easier might Luka’s life be if he were more willing to play without the ball and let his teammates set him up for easy looks?

Dončić has yet to embrace the kind of off-ball activity required for another ball-handler to flourish alongside him, but a slashing guard like Brunson could allow Dončić to find easier shots by playing off of others. Dallas has scored 116 points per 100 possessions when its two point guards share the floor, and while those groups have real defensive shortcomings, there is potential yet to be unlocked in that backcourt partnership. It isn’t hyperbole to call Dončić a historically great pick-and-roll playmaker, and it’s generally a pretty good idea to put the ball in his hands when he’s on the court. But there’s a delicate line between a team running its best stuff and its best player monopolizing the ball at the expense of other opportunities. The Mavericks may finally be inching toward the right balance.

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