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On a string, down the floor: Looking at Jason Kidd’s defensive influences

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Last year the Nets had no trouble scoring the ball, finishing ninth in offensive efficiency. They struggled all season long on the other side of the ball though, yielding 103.5 points per 100 possessions (18th in the league). If the Nets are truly going to make the jump to serious title contention, they’ve got address their issues on defense. Coach Jason Kidd played for some of the great defensive minds in the game over the course of his career, and now it will be up to him to create his own system.

We’ve already postulated on what to expect on offense from Coach Kidd. Now, let’s take a look at how Kidd’s luminaries will shape what we see on the defensive side of the floor. (All stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats.)

Defensive Influences

After joining the New Jersey Nets in 2001, Kidd played on eight top ten defensive units, including the top ranked Nets units in 2001-02 and 2002-03. Coach Kidd will draw on his Nets playing days and former coaches, Byron Scott and Lawrence Frank. He can also look to Dwane Casey, who transformed the Mavericks into a top ten defense on their march to a championship during Kidd’s time in Dallas.

The early ’00s Nets used a simple formula to win basketball games: generate turnovers on defense that would lead to easy baskets on the other end. With Kidd manning the helm the Nets were seventh in pace factor in 2001-02, and fourth in points off turnovers. Kenyon Martin was at his most destructive during the Nets back-to-back Finals appearances, controlling the paint on both ends of the floor. They allowed only 35.3 points in the paint per game, and just 13.0 second chance points per game. Teams are not going to shoot well if they’re not getting easy baskets and putbacks inside. The 2001-02 Nets held opponents to 42.9% from the field, sixth in the league that season.

When Lawrence Frank took over as Nets head coach halfway through the 2003-04 season he kept the emphasis on defense. The Nets finished in the top ten in defensive efficiency three times under Frank (including his first partial season). After Kidd was traded to the Mavericks in February 2008, the wheels fell off in New Jersey. Frank was fired a year later and then replaced former Celtics lead assistant coach, Tom Thibodeau on Doc Rivers’ staff in 2010. Thibs’ defenses are known for overloading the strong side, and require pinpoint passing and side-to-side ball movement to beat. Ball handlers are forced into the middle where a variety of help schemes are used to shut off penetration. Boston continued using Thibs’ trademark schemes under Frank, who will surely bring them to Brooklyn as Coach Kidd’s lead defensive assistant.

Dwane Casey teams look similar to those successful New Jersey Nets teams who controlled the paint and forced teams to shoot their way to wins. The Raptors hired Casey away from the Mavs after finishing dead last in defensive efficiency in 2010-11. With no major upgrades to the roster Casey took the Raptors all the way up to 12th in his first season by installing his protect the paint system.

What It Means

There’s no doubt interior defense will be priority number one for the Nets this season. Last year, only six teams in the league gave up more points in the paint than the Nets. What makes that stand out even more is that the Nets controlled the glass and gave up only 12.4 second chance points per game. Kidd and Frank will surely make walling off the paint a point of emphasis. Of course, Kevin Garnett will be there to help as well.

Brook Lopez showed sizable improvement on the defensive end a year ago and he’ll need to take the next step in becoming a two way force for the Nets to make a deep playoff run. Last season, Lopez combined a career-high 2.1 blocks per game average with a foul rate of only 2.1 per game. He’ll have to continue challenging shots at the rim without fouling while mastering the finer points of Frank’s system. Lopez needs to get better on his pick-and-roll coverage, something KG should be able to help him do. Typically on pick-and-rolls Lopez falls back to the free throw line which allows the ball handler to get a head of steam as he attacks the paint. Frank’s system will likely require Lopez to step out a bit more toward the perimeter to disrupt the timing of the ball handler.

The Thibodeau system requires all five players to move on a string. There are help rules in place for every space on the court, but if one player is a beat too slow the entire system is compromised. Most of the help schemes involve perimeter players being able to dart from the middle of the paint back out to the three point line to contest jumpers. The big men are required to step out on pick-and-rolls to corral the ball handler, all while not losing sight of their original cover rolling to the basket. KG was a master in disrupting opposing teams’ pick-and-rolls, but with him facing minutes limitations it will be up to Lopez, Andray Blatche, and the rest of the Nets big men to step up their game.

Coach Kidd will have one very important ace in his hand to unleash on opposing offenses. Andrei Kirilenko is a versatile, lanky defender, capable of guarding multiple positions. Other than KG, he may be the most important cog in the Nets defense this season. His ability to check positions one through four will allow the Nets to tailor their lineup to the opponent and game situation. Kirilenko will also be able to switch on almost every screen, thus preventing opposing ball handlers from turning the corner and getting into the paint. If the Nets need defense on the floor at the end of a close game Kidd can roll out a lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson or Paul Pierce, Kirilenko, Reggie Evans, and Garnett.

Conclusion

There’s no doubt about it. In today’s NBA, defense wins championships. Three of last season’s semi-finalists—Indiana, Memphis, and San Antonio—finished first, second, and third in defensive efficiency during the regular season. Last year’s champion Miami Heat squad finished seventh. In order for Brooklyn to make the leap they’ll need to pair their top ten offense with a top ten defense. With Lawrence Frank and Kevin Garnett at Coach Kidd’s side there’s little doubt the Nets will improve. The question is how quickly can they reach championship level.