From the moment the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving trades were finalized, Jacque Vaughn has stuck with the same Nets starting lineup, not penciled in but written in ink.
But whenever Vaughn wants to throw a changeup at opponents, he’s been just as consistent about that twist being a smallball unit that’s meant to harry and harass.
Just call them the disruptors.
“It allows us to fly around,” Vaughn said. “If you don’t cover for each other, we’ll get punished: We’ll get punished on the glass, we’ll get punished just by overall strength and the size of dudes that you have to guard. So [you’ve seen] us fly around, cover for each other, really have a tight shell and be in the right spots.
“And when it wasn’t perfect, we somehow figured a way to cover for each other — because you get exposed if you don’t. And our guys have felt that, and the scrappy, grimy, gritty part of that I love about it [is] that you have to have some sort of physicality in order to play that way. I’ve enjoyed seeing it.”
In part, it’s a case of Vaughn trying to be creative and to turn a weakness — the Nets’ lack of a backup big — into a strength. That’s the essence of coaching.
Vaughn lost Durant, who was like a great white shark in the NBA waters. But he’s trying to make do with an uber-active smallball lineup that’s more like a school of piranhas.
‘Wreaking havoc’ with a new-look lineup
Since the Nets remade their roster prior to the trade deadline, Vaughn has consistently deployed his preferred starting lineup of holdover center Nic Claxton surrounded by long switchable newcomers Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie.
And for the most part, it has worked.
That starting lineup goes into Sunday’s game against the Nuggets having logged 176 total minutes in 14 games together with a plus-2.4 net rating (107.4 points and 104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions).
The next-most-used unit replaces Claxton with wing Royce O’Neale and deploys Finney-Smith as a stretch five.
That quintet has a stellar plus-13.5 net rating — 106.7 on offense and a superb 93.2 on defense. That defensive rating ranked second in the NBA going into Friday night’s games among the 65 lineups that had topped 40 minutes since Feb. 11. (No. 1, ironically? A Suns lineup of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Josh Okogie and … Durant.)
“Defense is our identity, and that’s something JV has talked about since Day 1,” Dinwiddie said. “We understand with the background of the group of guys that we have — and especially the long, switchable unit that we typically put out there when we go small with Royce, Do, Mikal as premier defenders and wreaking havoc — that we just got to fall back on our principles and get one more stop.”
Vaughn increasingly has leaned on that undersized lineup over the past couple of weeks, and it has coincided with the Nets’ improved form — five wins in their past eight games.
Is there a cause-and-effect there?
Since March 3, the starters have posted mediocre ratings of 105.5 and 108.3 for a minus-2.7 net. But the smallball disruptors have been much better: 105.0 and 89.9 for a plus-15.1.
In a limited sample over that span, the Bridges-Johnson-Dinwiddie-Finney-Smith-O’Neale lineup’s 89.9 defensive rating was the best among the 35 lineups that had logged 33 minutes or more and second-best of any of the 67 combinations that had exceeded 20 minutes together (going into Friday).
“It’s just throwing a little wrinkle out there,” Finney-Smith said. “You’ve got Nic, who can fly around and guard multiple positions.
“But when you put me at the five, we’re 6-5 or 6-6 across the board. Then we’re helping each other when small guards get on bigs. We’re doing a good job of communicating, rotating, getting guys off big guys.”
Using O’Neale and Finney-Smith as bigs is more than a wrinkle — it’s been a secret weapon. And considering the Nets’ problems in finding a reliable backup to Claxton, it might just be a necessity.
The backup big bungle
Ben Simmons’ lack of health and Day’Ron Sharpe’s lack of form have forced Vaughn’s hand in searching for ways to fill those backup big minutes.
“[Using Finney-Smith at center] just gives us extreme versatility, because you have to be concerned about him,” Vaughn said. “I mean, there were multiple possessions where we were literally five-out.
“So if you want to trap Spencer, then you’ve got to rotate to a shooter. If you want to give extra attention to one of those shooters, then we can swing-swing and Do can end up shooting the basketball. So his ability to do both for us hopefully — play Do as a big small, but having him on the perimeter against bigs — it’s a huge versatility advantage for us.”
Neither Finney-Smith nor O’Neale is prolific on the stat sheet. But both have been vital in keeping these reconstructed Nets afloat until the end of this season when general manager Sean Marks can fix an unbalanced wing-heavy roster.
Vaughn has admitted he overtaxed Claxton early in the season, and Claxton visibly wore down as the Nets headed into the All-Star break. The young center already has logged 162 more minutes this season (1,917, 29.5 per game) than he did through his first three years combined (1,755, 18.7 per game). He needed a respite.
The problem is Simmons, who had been serving as Claxton’s backup, has missed 28 games this season due to various ailments, including the past 12 because of knee and back woes.
Though Vaughn said Thursday he expects the All-Star back on the court at some point this season, Simmons has struggled through a career-worst campaign and looked physically compromised when he has played.
Sharpe hasn’t developed as fast as his fellow 2021 first-round draft pick Cam Thomas, and is nowhere near cracking the rotation. Markieff Morris is gone. The Nets handed Nerlens Noel a 10-day contract, but the veteran didn’t look particularly healthy (icing his knees after each appearance) and wasn’t extended for a second 10-day.
Next up is young developmental 7-footer Moses Brown, who was signed Friday.
In each case, Vaughn must weigh the potential positives and negatives of trying to go big versus playing smallball.
“That is really interesting in how … do you want to go into that area [of going small]?” Vaughn asked rhetorically. “Last time we played [OKC], Day’Ron Sharpe is a good rebounder, so we decided to try to use Day’Ron. So then you have to add up, well, how many possessions did he impact getting the rebound, conversely to maybe he had to guard Josh Giddey on the other end?
“So that counterbalance of: Is it enough to play big and try to hurt them and get offensive rebounds, to conversely is it an advantage on the other end, and how does that wash out over the course of the game?”
Playing the matchups
Smallball wasn’t overly effective in Tuesday’s loss to the Thunder, and Vaughn tried his hand pulling Claxton to have Finney-Smith play drop coverage Thursday night against Kings center Domantas Sabonis.
But on the flip side, it clearly worked in spacing the floor and pulling shot-blocking center Rudy Gobert away from the rim in the win at Minnesota, and was pivotal in upsetting two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets in Denver. Finney-Smith, all of 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, fronted and harassed Sabonis (7-foot-1, 240), Gobert (7-foot-1, 258) and Jokic (6-foot-1, 284).
“All those days of playing small came back to give us a little love [in Minnesota],” Vaughn said. “You take Dorian Finney-Smith’s shot in the corner: Rudy Gobert is guarding him, Spencer is able to drive the basketball, suck in Rudy, [and it leads to a] corner 3. Able to use some matchups to our advantage — that’s what we’ve been preaching, the versatility of being able to play small and big.
“We saw how in Milwaukee, Brook [Lopez] was able to impact the game because of nine blocks at the rim. Rudy has the ability to do the same, so we really wanted to spread the floor, and if they wanted to post Rudy up for the rest of the remainder of the game, we would find a solution for that.”
Vaughn more and more has been tasking Finney-Smith with bumping and banging star bigs (even putting him on Giannis Antetokounmpo) and letting Claxton roam around for weak-side blocks. The rest of the Nets’ wings — each around 6-foot-6 with approximately 7-foot wingspans — can create additional havoc.
“We can use that as an advantage,” O’Neale said. “Especially with guys on the ball, being disruptive, and the backline just creating and helping those turnovers, being aggressive, especially on the defensive end. I think putting the emphasis on [getting stops] and just going.”