NBA regular season

Nicolas Claxton gives Nets a highly versatile defensive option

Joe Viray
Nicolas Claxton gives Nets a highly versatile defensive option

DYNAMIC. Nets forward Nicolas Claxton (left) swats the ball away from Trail Blazers' Derrick Jones Jr.

Photo by Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

The Nets may not be blessed on the defensive end, but perhaps they only need one blessing in the form of Nicolas Claxton

The discourse surrounding the Brooklyn Nets this season has been loud and clear: There’s no doubt that they are the most potent offensive team in the NBA, with 3 of the league’s deadliest scorers bannering their team. That has translated into an offensive rating of 117.3 points per 100 possessions, the best in the league and on track to become the most efficient offense in league history.

It’s on the other end, however, that the Nets have shown a massive chink in their proverbial armor. Considering the makeup of their roster – full of players who aren’t known for their exceptional defensive ability – it was almost a foregone conclusion that defense was going to be a problem for them all season long.

The Nets currently have a defensive rating of 113.5 points allowed per 100 possessions – 25th in the NBA. For a team that has championship aspirations, that is not a promising development. Defense has always been a major ingredient in the championship-winning recipe. Since 2000, only two teams have won an NBA title without being a top 10 defense: the 2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers (21st) and the 2018-2019 Golden State Warriors (11th). 

The Warriors’ case is an interesting one, since they pretty much cruised defensively throughout the regular season but pressed the switch during the playoffs, resulting in them becoming the best playoff team in terms of defensive rating. It certainly helps when you have the likes of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant on your team – all of which have historically been considered plus-defenders who were capable of the interchangeable, positionless, and switchable scheme the Warriors helped popularize.

Consider the Nets one of those teams whom the Warriors influenced. They rely on a switch-everything scheme that aims to stifle ball and player movement. Their end goal is to make opposing teams’ offenses bog down and rely on isolations and other forms of inefficient shots. The caveat to such a scheme, however, is that you need like-sized defenders who are able to pass off perimeter players in exchange for bigger forwards and centers, and vice versa.

Unlike the dynasty Warriors, the Nets have a dearth of like-sized wing defenders who can defend up and down the positional spectrum. Kyrie Irving and James Harden can’t survive long periods guarding players bigger than they are. Role players such as Joe Harris and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot can’t be counted on to survive on their own in prolonged periods. DeAndre Jordan is a ticking time bomb on the perimeter against quicker guards.

Durant is arguably the Nets’ most versatile defender – the Nets allow 3.6 points per 100 possessions fewer with him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.

But with Durant missing a significant number of games, the Nets had a vacancy that they needed filled, one that called for a highly-switchable and highly-versatile stopper who could switch onto guards without looking like a lost child, as well as being long and tall enough to hold their own against bigger forwards and centers.

Enter Nicolas Claxton.

Claxton, the 31st pick by the Nets in the 2019 NBA Draft, is a diamond in the rough. He played only 15 games with the Nets during his rookie season and played 9 games with their G League affiliate Long Island Nets, averaging 16.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.2 blocks.

Claxton returned to the Nets’ big-league lineup in late February after recovering from a surgery to repair a torn labrum on his left shoulder. He has played 13 games so far this season, averaging 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.8 assists, and 1.5 blocks in 18.7 minutes per game – numbers that don’t necessarily pop out, but don’t tell the entire story in terms of the value that he provides.

Claxton’s physical profile is astounding: 6-feet-11-inches tall, with a wingspan of 7-feet-2-inches and a standing reach of 9-feet-2-inches. His wiry frame and quick feet provide him with a mobility most players of his size don’t possess – with the exception of his teammate Durant, who is of similar size and build.

Naturally, Claxton has been played by Nets head coach Steve Nash as a 4 or a small-ball 5, but he has spent a considerable amount of time guarding smaller guards and wings in pick-and-roll or off-ball-screening situations, which in the Nets’ base defensive scheme is almost always defended with a switch.

Here is Claxton on one such possession against the Indiana Pacers:

When the Pacers try to run Doug McDermott off a down screen, Claxton seamlessly switches onto him to prevent an open catch-and-shoot look. When the ball goes back to TJ McConnell – a smaller and quicker guard – Claxton switches onto him and moves his feet well, keeping up with McConnell and using his length to shut down any attempts at a shot. McConnell is goaded into a bad pass that turns into points off a turnover for the Nets.

Claxton’s mobility on one-on-one defensive possessions is a joy to watch, but it also allows him to be a roamer. It requires one to be cognizant of every off-ball event that may occur, whether it be someone relocating/cutting from the weak side or the ball being moved around within a split-second.

Claxton zips around, ready to plug holes that are momentarily created. The speed of his recovery, coupled with his length, allows him to close out quickly to discourage potential spot-up attempts, like in this possession against Jordan Clarkson, a shifty perimeter scorer and the leading candidate for this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award:

Claxton starts off on Georges Niang and veers toward the paint to help on the Mike Conley back cut. He prepares to rotate over to Joe Ingles in the corner, but when he sees that his teammate already has that covered, he quickly goes over to Clarkson. 

Imagine being Clarkson and seeing someone as huge and long as Claxton closing out on you; pulling up and pulling the trigger would likely end up as a blocked shot. So Clarkson opts to isolate against Claxton – remember, the Nets’ switching wants these kinds of possessions – and despite Clarkson’s dribble and hesitation moves, Claxton is unfazed, contests the mid-range shot, and forces the brick.

On possessions where the Nets don’t opt to switch screens but instead opt to hedge and recover – that is, the screener’s defender jumps out to momentarily impede the ball handler’s ability to turn the corner or pass to a potential release valve – Claxton is near flawless:

On the ball screen above for CJ McCollum, Claxton jumps out and hedges against McCollum in order to give time for Bruce Brown to catch up. Tyler Johnson picks up Robert Covington, but that leaves the strong-side corner wide open. Seeing this, Claxton, with his recovery speed and long strides, gallops over to the corner and shuts the window on Rodney Hood.

This possession against the Washington Wizards is a doozy:

Off the side pick-and-roll, Claxton jumps out and blitzes Bradley Beal all the way to the half-court line, even getting his hands on the ball and almost forcing the turnover. When Beal passes out, Claxton recovers all the way to the corner to take away that option.

Claxton’s awareness while recovering has also been top-notch, like on this possession:

He switches onto Beal momentarily, then recovers back to Robin Lopez. But once he sees that Blake Griffin has already rotated over to Lopez, Claxton turns into a roamer in the paint and helps on the Deni Avdija drive, contesting and forcing the miss despite not getting his hands on the ball for the block.

When he gets blocks, he does so often as a help-side defender:

Claxton recognizes the mismatch on the right block and is slightly sagging off his man at the elbow. When Domantas Sabonis spins around Harden’s steal attempt, Claxton comes over to block Sabonis from behind.

Claxton’s impact on the Nets defense has been monumental, even if the sample size has been relatively small – he has only played a total of 244 minutes. But in those minutes, Claxton has been stellar. In non-garbage time minutes – 238 of his 244 total minutes – the Nets have allowed opponents to score 14 points per 100 possessions fewer, which leads the team by a significant margin, per Cleaning the Glass.

With Claxton on the floor, opponents have a harder time making their shots – their eFG% goes down by 6.7%, which also leads the team, per Cleaning the Glass.

Additionally, according to FiveThirtyEight’s proprietary RAPTOR metric, Claxton has a defensive RAPTOR of plus-6.8, 1st among 378 players who have played at least 200 minutes this season.

Both the film and the advanced stats support Claxton’s emergence as the Nets’ most versatile defender, a position he has temporarily usurped from Durant. But Claxton is seeing minutes as a result of Durant’s absence; what happens to him when Durant inevitably comes back from his hamstring injury?

It’s hard to imagine that Nash will keep Claxton glued to the bench and out of the Nets rotation when they have recovered to full strength. It’s even harder to imagine that Claxton won’t see some playing time in the playoffs, even if only for a few spot minutes where his switchability and overall versatility could be put to good use against opposing stars.

It’s the kind of versatility the Nets sorely need in order to prevent them from suffering the same kind of fate they have often dished out to opponents throughout the season. When push comes to shove, the Nets have plenty of weapons in their arsenal – in the form of Durant, Harden, and Irving – to act as ballasts when defenses grind possessions into isolation contests.

The Nets aren’t as blessed on the defensive end, but perhaps they only need one blessing in the form of Nicolas Claxton, whose Swiss-Army knife skillset, athleticism, and physical traits could provide them with just enough survivability that will allow their offensive juggernauts to blaze a path toward an NBA title. –