Brooklyn’s Small Forward Situation

Paul Pierce couldn’t even make it a full week into the games portion of the NBA’s preseason schedule before taking shots at his former franchise. He expressed early interest in returning to the Brooklyn Nets once Kevin Garnett committed to another season, but never received a contract offer from general manager Billy King this summer and spoke about his departure with David Aldridge. The usual clichés of both parties moving in “different directions” and even the cutting costs conversation were innocuous enough, but the “New Jersey” name drop and the “they felt like they weren’t going to be a contender” comment certainly constituted some shade thrown by Pierce. King responded to The Truth’s trolling by reiterating management’s commitment to winning and spending (the Nets will lead the league in team payroll entering the second-consecutive season) but his depth acquisitions at the wing the last two summers and the changing role of the small forward position in the Brooklyn Nets’ new offense this season have helped make Paul Pierce expendable.

That depth at the wing last year helped to save the Nets’ season after starting center Brook Lopez broke his foot just before Christmas. Rookie head coach Jason Kidd often substituted a wing shooter (Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic) or point guard (Shaun Livingston) into Lopez’s starting spot, and the team finished 10th in the league in team three-point field goal attempts, 11th in percentage, and bottom-three in rebounding, shot blocking, and two-point shooting. Pierce’s four most-used lineups featured him at the power forward position, where his declining quickness and play-making abilities were hidden a bit, and it was his rim presence (no, seriously!) in the waning seconds of Game 7 in Toronto that won the series for Brooklyn. The small-ball lineups contributed to three of their four regular season wins against the defending champion-Miami Heat, but the success didn’t translate to the playoffs and the Nets lost their second-round series in five games.

The signing of head coach Lionel Hollins and Brook Lopez’s return from injury this season would presume to put an end to those smaller Nets lineups, and turn the offense into a more conservative and post-based approach. Hollins’s teams with the Memphis Grizzlies featured large lineups consisting of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, and Mike Conley, with the ball usually working from the inside-out. To his credit, he’s adjusted his schemes thus far with Brooklyn and instituted some motion and flex-concepts into the offense. Point guard Deron Williams will navigate his share of high-screens with Kevin Garnett, as the wings work off of down-screens from Lopez in the half-court, but Hollins will look to establish an early post presence through Brook Lopez and in any size mismatches on the perimeter (i.e. Joe Johnson). The responsibilities of the wings will be a bit different this season, as they’ll be asked to move more off-ball and find shots from the post or by spotting up off of Lopez post-ups.

The new style of play and luxury tax implications made retaining Paul Pierce a tough decision for Billy King. Outside of a stretch in 2012 when Zach Randolph tore his MCL and Rudy Gay played 22% of his 2400 minutes at power forward, Lionel Hollins prefers to run conventional lineups featuring two big men, and the GM viewed Pierce as a power forward at this stage of his career. King will instead look to his wing rotation to collectively replace Pierce’s 13.5 points per game and 4.6 boards (on 37% from three), and Hollins will have until the Nets’ opening night game on October 29th to select his starter at the small forward position.

Hollins’s candidates for that starting wing spot are broken down here into two categories; from the in-house to the external options. Each player offers a unique skill-set to the Nets offense but starting in a lineup along high-usage stars Deron Williams (career usage rate of 23.9% possessions used), Joe Johnson (23.4% career), and Brook Lopez (25.1%) will result in good catch-and-shoot looks, and an affinity for playing defense, doing the little things (moving off the ball, setting screens, rebounding, etc.), and scoring in the post will help to acclimate to Hollins’s new system.

Let’s start with the Nets’ vets.


Alan Anderson:

Other than Shaun Livingston, no Brooklyn Net benefited more from Brook Lopez’s absence last season than Alan Anderson. The 32-year old, 6’6” Anderson started 26 games and averaged 7.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, and an assist on 22.7 minutes per game in 2013-14, shooting 46.4% on two-point field goals and 33.9% from three. Half of his shot attempts came from the three-point line, with about 36% of those threes coming from the corners. He was mostly below-average from the corners, though, converting at a 28% rate, and worked primarily as a spot-up shooter in Jason Kidd’s system. Anderson has dealt with an abdominal injury so far this preseason and the missed practice time could affect his adjustment and early opportunities, but he’s a willing – if unremarkable – on-ball defender who can play both wing positions, and the veteran’s low usage rate (15.9% in ’13-14) will allow him to play off of JJ, Deron, or Brook. Anderson’s a valuable rotation player but needs to improve his three-point shooting to permanently claim the starting spot.

Andrei Kirilenko:

Andrei Kirilenko wasn’t exactly enamored with Jason Kidd’s performance as head coach last season. Kirilenko appeared in 45 games and only averaged 19 minutes per contest, by far the lowest total of his 12-year NBA career. Back spasms have limited his time on the court over the last few seasons and his back has already flared up early in training camp, shutting him down for a week. When healthy, however, “AK-47” is still an effective defender with active hands who can play passing lanes or challenge shots and protect the rim. He started 64 games for the Minnesota Timberwolves as recently as the 2012-13 season and would get serious consideration as a starter from Lionel Hollins, as he’s a hustle player whose defense-first mentality would take a lot of pressure off of his teammates – especially Joe Johnson. The trade-off with Kirilenko is his lack of spacing contributions in the half-court offense (31.1% from beyond the arc in his career), but if his back allows him to play consistent minutes at age 33 he’ll be the best perimeter defender on the roster and a solid option to start at the small forward position or back up Garnett at the power forward.

Mirza Teletovic:

Mirza Teletovic is an unabashed gunner, which is absolutely part of his appeal. 64% of his 714 career field goal attempts have been three-pointers, which he converted at a 38% rate. He reduced his two-point field goal attempts in his second season in ’13-14, and increased his percent of shots at the rim and two-point field goal percentage to 15.1% and 47.2%, respectively. At 6’8” and 235 pounds, Mirza is better suited to the small-ball power forward role that he shared with Pierce last season under coach Kidd. He’s not a great lateral-defender at the small forward but if he’s at least able to close out on shooters and funnel drives into Garnett and Lopez, the defense could be okay with Lionel Hollins’s scheming. Much of his role with the 2014-15 team depends on Hollins’s approach to his specific skill set; if the coach will allow Mirza to bomb away as a stretch-power forward off the bench, like last season, or start the super-huge lineup of Deron, JJ, Mirza, KG, and Brook – and allow Mirza to bomb away at the small forward. In Alan Anderson’s absence, Mirza could be the player who benefits the most from another Brook Lopez injury, by starting at the power forward and spacing the floor next to KG. The structure of Hollins’s disciplined coaching style, combined with natural third-year NBA progression and a potential contract year before he hits restricted free agency next summer, could make this a semi-breakout season for Mirza.


Bojan Bogdanovic:

Bojan Bogdanovic is probably our winner for starting small forward entering 2014-15. Every indication is that Bojan has already won the approval of Hollins with his “steady, consistent play” and all-around abilities on the court. Bogdanovic, the 31st pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, signed a three-year deal with Brooklyn this offseason after averaging over 21 points and 4 rebounds per game for the Croatian national team in the FIBA World Cup tournament. He’s been on DraftExpress’ radar since he was 16, and has always shown fundamental skills as a jump shooter and playmaker off of the pick-and-roll. His ball-handling is what might classify him as a shooting guard in Hollins’s starting lineup and move Joey Johnson to the small forward, but he can play either wing position with his 6’8”, 216 lb. frame and shoot from the spot-up, coming off of screens, or from the post. Hollins has experience developing young players from his salad days in Memphis and could use the energy and hustle of the 25-year old rookie to push his grizzled vets on those dreaded back-to-backs or long road trips. Bojan has so many skills in his arsenal that he’ll have to simplify his game in playing with quality teammates, but if he can make the adjustments to NBA speed and defenses, he’ll gradually gain responsibilities on the offensive end. A Rookie of the Year Award might be a bit optimistic but he could be a great sleeper pick, and might settle instead for starting on a potential Eastern Conference playoff team.

Markel Brown:

Another example of the underrated depth-acquisitions by Billy King this offseason were the three second round picks he purchased from the Timberwolves, 76ers, and Raptors in the 2014 NBA Draft. He entered draft night without any picks and ended it with a couple of potential contributors to the rotation. Xavier Thames signed in the Spanish League with Baloncesto Sevilla but the Nets will retain his draft rights going forward, while Cory Jefferson is already getting minutes at the power forward in the preseason. Markel Brown, though, has a chance to sneak into the wing rotation if he can focus on defense and using his athleticism. The 22-year old senior from Oklahoma State is an explosive leaper[18] and improved his jumper in his four seasons at Stillwater but will see minutes under Hollins by learning how to channel his athletic abilities on the defensive end. At 6’3”and 184 lbs., any action Brown sees this season will be at the two-guard, as he’s not a great ball-handler or passer yet, but he’ll bring a young, athletic presence to the team that it might otherwise lack. He registered a DNP-CD (Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision) in the third game of the preseason, so he might not exactly be ready for a starting spot entering the 2014-15 season, but Markel Brown is worth watching going forward.

Sergey Karasev:

Karasev, the 19th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, enters his second year in the NBA with his second franchise, after his trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers to clear room for LeBron James’s return. He only appeared in 22 games last season and averaged 7.1 minutes per game, and shot 34.3% from the field in a tiny sample size. The 6’7” Karasev is a natural shooter and a decent playmaker that still struggles with his shot in games, but is just a few years removed from being a leading scorer for his Triumph club in the EuroCup. His rookie season with the Cavaliers was generally a mess but moving to the discipline of Hollins could be good for his development, and he has the offensive skills to potentially play well in some of the flex-sets. There’s a chance he never fulfills his potential for the Nets but was a nice throw-in to the Jarrett Jack/Marcus Thornton trade, and if the lefty three-point stroke comes around Sergey could be a rotation wing under team control for two more seasons.

My personal pick might be Mirza Teletovic at starting small forward, but Bojan is slowly changing my mind. Mirza may be more limited as a player, lacking Bogdanovic’s handle and guard skills, but is a dynamic catch-and-shoot player whose three-point buckets energize the Brooklyn crowd. He might be even worse than the rookie in man defense but he’s scheme-able and strong. If the Deron, Joe, Brook triumvirate are healthy then Mirza’s presence will prevent opposing defenses from doubling down on post-ups and give the conservative offense of Lionel Hollins some much-needed spacing. Bojan isn’t quite the same shooter but is a better creator, and could use more possessions by playing with Jarrett Jack and the second-unit.

The more you watch of Bojan Bogdanovic and his composure on the basketball court, the more you understand how he’s the favorite to start at the wing in 2014-15, and the more you start to sound like Lionel Hollins. Dude is steady. Even if his jump shot isn’t falling he still impacts in other facets of his game, by taking opponents into the post or hitting the offensive glass. Learning the intricacies of advanced NBA defense will be an adjustment for Bojan (and the rest of the roster outside of KG), but he has skills, size, and potential on both ends; it’ll be about the learning curve and development in his rookie season.