On these reconfigured Nets — about as starless as a rainy night in the city — offense was supposed to be at a premium. Defense was going to have to carry the day.
But during a bizarro preseason in which the offense exceeded expectations, the Nets struggled on the other, supposedly stronger end of the court.
The Nets have a plethora of highly regarded individual defenders. Jacque Vaughn intends to leverage that by installing a more versatile, multiple defensive scheme than the Nets has used over the past few seasons.
And that is requiring some growing pains.
“It takes time, as you can see from our first few games,” Nets starting center Nic Claxton told The Post with a wan smile. “But we definitely need to be sharp on that side of the ball to win.”
The Nets were anything but sharp through four preseason games. Now, beginning with Wednesday night’s regular-season opener at home against Cleveland, the games will actually count.
Expected to repeat as a top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers will test the Nets’ developing defensive cohesion right out of the gate.
“I want to see what works best for our group,” Vaughn told The Post. “I’m not totally set that we can play one way for the entire game. Some teams can. I’m not sure we can.
“Whether that’s me realizing what’s going on over the course of the game and what defenses we need to be in, I think that’s going to be a big part of it. Part of that is when we do sub, what do those defenses look like? So it’s really like [me being] a defensive coordinator with the headset on, on the fly being able to get our guys in different coverages.”
Those different coverages are what threw the Nets off this preseason. And they’re also what Vaughn hopes will someday be their strength in the regular season.
It remains to be seen how many days — or weeks — that will take.
Why switching isn’t sufficient
Records mean little in the preseason (the Nets were 2-2). Stats likely mean even less. But for what they’re worth, the Nets ranked just 22nd in the league during the preseason in Defensive Rating, 28th in steals and 29th in opponent turnovers. And that was with their defensive numbers bolstered by beating a second-division Israeli team.
But for Vaughn, those wins and losses don’t matter. The real victory is the long game, having a more malleable defense than in years past.
“We’ve switched from man to zone, to press, to doing some things differently on the ball, off the ball, doing it with for one possession and going back to the original defense,” Vaughn said. “I just feel we really have to keep the offense off guard, which is a challenge because you have to be locked-in.
“So we could say timeout happens, the next two plays we’re in this defense and then we’re going to go back, so can you lock in for those two possessions and then revert back to the defense that we were originally in? So I think you’ll see us do a lot of different things. And it’s a little nuanced.”
The Nets teams of the past few years enjoyed the offensive firepower of superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and merely needed to slow opponents down to get wins.
The Nets switched one-through-five (a scheme known as “Fire”) more than any team in the entire league, leveraging Claxton’s agility and Durant’s length. They aren’t abandoning the switch entirely, but they’re supplementing it with more varied schemes.
“Going into the years prior to this, we mostly just switched,” Claxton explained. “We mostly just switched one-through-five. We didn’t play much drop. So now there’s different concepts. We’re dropping. We’re still going to switch some, but even helping in different ways out there on the court, loading up. So it’s different, and we’ve got to get to it.
“I think as a team we’ve got a lot of versatility on the defensive side of the ball,” he added. “And we need to use that to our advantage.”
Claxton is the epitome of that versatility, and has stated his goal of being first-team All-Defense. He was second in the Defensive Player of the Year odds at one point last season before the departures of Durant and Irving, and aims to be in contention for that award again.
Mikal Bridges was Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in 2021. Ben Simmons was the runner-up the season before, first-team All-Defense in consecutive campaigns. Simmons understands his importance in the Nets’ rebuild, specifically his responsibility to be the spearhead of that defense.
“I’ve got to set the tone early,” Simmons told The Post. “I know Claxton and Mikal, these guys are capable of it. So I’ve got to set the tone and come early, whether it’s a hard battle or getting into bodies. And I think it just trickles from there.”
With the likes of veteran 3-and-D wings Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale, they have the makings of a stout unit — if they can absorb the more varied schemes.
“I think we’re still learning. I’ve thrown a lot of concepts to the guys,” Vaughn admitted. “And that’s purposely done just to see if they can handle it. Whether that’s switching coverages [while we’re] at the free-throw line. We’re going to do [the different defense] one time — can they mentally put themselves in a position to hold on to the concept, move on, come back to a concept?
“Because the offenses are just too good to give them a single look for the entire night. I look at it as football: You’ve got to give those guys different looks. So sometimes we have eight in the box and sometimes we’re going to be in two-deep coverage. And that’s just going to be a part of who we are, just to keep an element of surprise. And I think that keeps our guys engaged on the defensive end, also.”
The constant switching not only made an already poor rebounding team even more vulnerable on the glass, but it kept the Nets’ best defensive rebounder (traditional center Day’Ron Sharpe) from playing much.
Going to more drop coverage (in which the screener’s defender “drops” below the screen, closer to the basket, rather than switching onto the ballhandler on the perimeter) will allow Sharpe to get on the floor for meaningful extended minutes.
In the preseason, the Nets also have pulled out more half-court and three-quarter-court traps, blitzes and 2-3 zones. They showed schemes in which everybody switched but the center, others where both the 4 and 5 men stayed home.
They’re going to have to be more on-point about changing systems not just from game to game but from minute to minute, possession to possession.
“This is a new group, a new set of guys, a new set of players, so just finding that component of understanding KYP what we’re doing at the moment,” said Lonnie Walker IV, citing the importance of the scouting reports, or the time-honored NBA mantra of “knowing your personnel.”
“Are we one-through-four, one-through-five, are we in Fire? Are we blowing it up, blitzing? So I think just the discipline aspect as far as [coming] out of timeouts, what are we in? And knowing what we’re in consistently.”
How long it takes these rebuilding Nets to develop that consistency may well determine how long it takes them to win games with any regularity.