One of the most basic sets in basketball will be the catalyst for a monster season for Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets.
In a weird way, people will look past the Brooklyn Nets as a viable contender in the Eastern Conference next season. Although they added Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, until the former MVP returns to the court, most expect Brooklyn to finish as an “also-ran” in the East.
But overlook Irving at your own risk. He’s one of the best shotmakers on the planet and a two-time All-NBA player. He made the second team last season despite the fact that his tenure with the Boston Celtics ended in dubious fashion.
That being said, expecting Irving to fail in year one with Brooklyn would be folly. He’s entering a system that facilitated D’Angelo Russell‘s rise to his first All-Star appearance and a max extension in the offseason. As great as Russell is, he’s not on the same plane as Irving.
Brooklyn is poised to exceed expectations for the 2019-20 season and Irving’s pick-and-roll game will be a major reason for it.
First things first, every team in the NBA runs the pick-and-roll. Some teams feature it more heavily than others. The Nets fall under that category. It’s safe to say that Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson‘s system puts an emphasis on the pick-and-roll.
Last season, Russell was second in the league behind Kemba Walker for most possessions as the pick-and-roll ballhandler with 11.4 per game. Irving finished further down on the list with 6.6 possessions per game.
Irving’s possessions in 2019-20 might not climb as high as Russell’s last season, but there’s no doubt he’ll see an uptick in that category. This bodes extremely well for Brooklyn next season.
Russell scored 0.89 points per possession (PPP) on those types of possessions last season which was good for 67th percentile. The 2018-19 season was Russell’s most efficient as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, but Brooklyn fans ain’t seen nothing yet.
Irving, on the other hand, clocked in at 0.99 PPP which was good enough for the 86th percentile in the league. While Irving’s efficiency might decrease slightly with increased possessions, in the four years of data, his lowest PPP came in at 0.89 during the 2015-16 season.
In his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he posted a 0.96 PPP and in his first season with the Celtics, he finished with a ridiculous 1.10 PPP. That number was good enough for 96th percentile in the NBA.
For the record, Brooklyn clocked in at seventh in frequency and 10th in PPP last season on this play type. Adding a better point guard to the mix should position Brooklyn for a marked improvement on the offensive end.
Obviously, there’s more to it than raw numbers, but the data suggests that the Nets will be an even better team out of the pick-and-roll than they were last season.
So what’s the “more to it” part of this equation? Well, the old saying goes, “It’s not about the X’s and O’s. It’s about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s.”
The Nets don’t have a Jimmy on the roster, but they do have a Joe—who we’ll circle back to later. DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen are two integral pieces to Irving’s success in the pick-and-roll next season.
While Allen might be the better all-around player at this point in time, Jordan has made a living as a roll man in the league. Pairing him with Irving in the starting lineup looks like the most prudent move for Atkinson. Not many in the league can run the pick-and-roll like Jordan.
Joe Harris is coming off a career season where he solidified himself as one of the best pure shooters in the league. He finished the season No. 1 in three-point field goal percentage by shooting an astounding 47.4% clip. He’s hardly the most important part of the pick-and-roll formula, but his 48.1% on catch-and-shoot threes could be deadly with Irving and Jordan drawing all the attention in the paint.
Newly-acquired Taurean Prince knocked down catch-and-shoot threes at a more-than-respectable 42.8%. Additionally, Spencer Dinwiddie, another primary ballhandler for Brooklyn, will have no trouble playing alongside Irving. He shot 36.8% on catch-and-shoot threes last season.
Caris LeVert (27.3%) will need to improve on his catch-and-shoot numbers next season, but he showed a smooth stroke in his breakout playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers last April. It’s a small sample size, no doubt, but it was a positive sign nonetheless.
Letting Irving and Jordan run the spread pick-and-roll while spacing the floor with those shooters will be a daunting task for opposing defenses. Even without Kevin Durant in the lineup, Brooklyn’s offense will no doubt take another step forward with Irving leading a readymade supporting cast.
Playing Off the Ball
Although the Nets will feature a steady diet of Irving in the pick-and-roll, he’s versatile to play off the ball as well. This will come into play more often when Durant makes his eventual return. However, with ballhandlers like Dinwiddie and LeVert, Irving will be forced to spend some time without the rock.
Irving shot 45.4% on 3.3 catch-and-shoot three attempts per game last season. Not to mention, the superstar point guard spent three years playing with LeBron James in Cleveland. He spent tons of time playing off the ball as a part of that dynamic.
And don’t get it twisted, playing off the ball does not mean sticking the New Jersey native in a corner and hoping he gets a kick out for an open look. Atkinson can be creative with how he uses Irving.
The Spain pick-and-roll set is something the Nets have run with success in the past. That set could slot Irving in a screen-the-screener action to free him up for open threes.
If Brooklyn’s coaching staff really wants to spice things up, they could use Irving in inverted pick-and-rolls. Having Irving set the ball screen won’t necessarily result in a mismatch. But it will put opposing point guards into unfamiliar situations on defense.
The 2019-20 inverted pick-and-rolls would only be a taste of what’s to come in 2020-21. Irving setting a screen for Durant will result in mismatches galore and opposing point guards not named Pat Beverley will get brutalized.
That always seemed like something the Golden State Warriors should have exploited more with Durant and Stephen Curry. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr favored more motion and spacing. But as noted earlier, Atkinson will run the pick-and-roll to death as long as the other team isn’t stopping it.
It will work next season. Even without Durant, the data points to Irving having a monster season offensively. He has a strong supporting cast around him and Atkinson’s creativity as a tactician should shine through with a talent like Irving.
Brooklyn’s offense was a joy to watch before the All-NBA talent arrived. Expect big things from Irving and the Nets next season.
All stats per NBA.com.