Kyrie Irving flashed a smile, then he deadpanned.
He knows the basketball world is watching, listening and reading everything about his Nets and their changing offense this summer. Some of those eyes and ears belong to opposing teams, so he doesn’t want to give away any secrets about schemes his team is installing this offseason.
“Nah,” Irving said. “Got some guys out there in the league [listening], so just gotta wait and see.”
Yet the changing offense might be the team’s worst-kept secret, the elephant in the room for a head coach forced to rely on isolation possessions so often, it became predictable.
Steve Nash never truly had a chance to get creative with his team’s offense. Between Irving being unavailable due to New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Joe Harris suffering a season-ending ankle injury early on, Kevin Durant missing a month-and-a-half with a sprained MCL and James Harden requesting a trade with the Nets receiving Ben Simmons (who never played), Nash spent many nights leaning heavily on isolation because there were few other routes for his team to score.
“You look at some of our possessions last year, it was a lot of one-on-one,” said Irving, one of the most gifted one-one-one players in NBA history. “You guys [beat reporters] talked about it often and we were well aware of it. That [kind of] offense, when the ball sticks, it’s just not the greatest brand of basketball you can play. We’re giving the defense some nights off when we just go one-on-one.”
That stagnant offense, however, is well on its way out the door — at least the team says so — and it’s due to a combination of factors that have unlocked the team’s offense just three days into training camp. The Nets are enjoying an influx of shooters, installing a new offense and putting the ball in Simmons’ hands as a primary playmaker alongside Irving.
“Having Ben be one of our lead guards and him getting up and down the court, the ball’s hopping. It feels good. Everybody feels good. That’s all that matters,” Irving said. “Having a point guard 6-10, 6-11, I’m also a point guard, lead guard, whatever you want to call my position. It’s good to get off the ball and have him get up and down the floor. Just wait for him to look like he’s in All-Star form again, which I know will happen soon.”
Through last season’s ups and downs, Patty Mills remained the most consistent.
Mills played a team-high 81 games and didn’t even miss time when three-quarters of the roster entered the health and safety protocols.
But Mills comes from a background that includes both the San Antonio Spurs and the Australian national basketball team. Both organizations pride themselves on ball movement, specifically the Spurs, who have five NBA championships since 1999 to show for their brand of selfless basketball.
So of course Mills was frustrated, at times, when the ball would stick in the Nets’ offense. That’s part of the gift and the curse of having a team built around two of the most lethal one-on-one scorers in NBA history.
“Definitely felt the stagnant type of offense last year, but it was just trying to find ways to stay involved and keep the movement,” Mills said. “It was a challenge.”
The offense has had a philosophical shift from forcing Durant and Irving to take tough shots over the defense to creating looks for them, according to Mills.
“I think what we’ve put in this year is definitely different and learning from those [iso-ball] times [last season], as well,” he said. “How can we get easy buckets for Kevin? How can we get easy looks for Kai, and Ben makes a massive difference in that sense, too, [with him] bringing the ball up the court. I think all of these subtle changes make a big difference.”
Naturally, however, much of that shift is a byproduct of having fresh bodies.
When Harris sprained his ankle in mid-November, the Nets didn’t only lose their only lights-out shooter, they also lost a 6-7 body who helped crash on the boards and defend on the wing. After Harris’ injury and before the Nets acquired Seth Curry in the Harden trade, Mills was the only other role player on the roster shooting better than 35% from downtown.
Now with Mills, a healthy Harris, a soon-to-be healthy Curry, and at least two other players — Royce O’Neale and T.J. Warren — who project to be high-efficiency shooters this season, there will be much more space for the offense to function. The Nets even have a center in Markieff Morris who is a career 34% shooter from three-point range.
“I think I try to compare it to my earlier seasons [in Philadelphia] with JJ Redick, Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli,” said Simmons. “We were playing Miami in the first round and just the way we were flowing and playing, that’s how I know how to play basketball. I’m the kind of player where I like to see everybody scoring and contributing whatever way they can. That’s the way you’ve got to play to win.”
KEY TO NETS POTENTIAL
If the offense is going to work, it’s going to start with the player whose reputation doesn’t include scoring.
The Nets are going to use Simmons all over the floor, from protecting the paint to defending the opposing team’s best perimeter players; from being the pick-and-roll ball handler to setting the screen and rolling to the rim.
“There will be lineups where he’s the five defensively, but the point guard [offensively]. There will be lineups where he’s out there with [starting center Nic Claxton],” Nash said. “He can guard different players in different lineups and have slightly different roles offensively. That’s what makes him special is his versatility.”
The Nets have more shooters and are working on a re-imagined offense, but coincidentally, it’s the player who passed up on an open dunk in the playoffs two seasons ago who holds the key to activating the best version of this Nets team. On a team full of snipers, Nash is in no rush for Simmons to start jacking threes.
“I don’t need him to shoot,” the head coach said. “I’m not going to ask him to shoot. If he’s open and he wants to shoot, I’m not going to yank him out of the game. But that’s not what he does.”
What Simmons does other than shoot is the key to unlocking what has the potential to be the NBA’s most lethal offense. The Nets have the size and shooting needed for proper spacing. They have a healthy third star and they have new offensive schemes Nash is ready to deploy.
Now, they need to test it out against an NBA defense and the pre-season starts on Monday.
“I have confidence our offense will be good, it’s just a matter of how good early and how many layers we can get to,” Nash said. “Offense is one of the things the team shows you. They show you what stays.”