As the NBA shifted away from two-big lineups in recent seasons, we saw a relative devaluation of the center position. While big men used to be the centerpieces of teams’ plans on both ends of the floor, they are now more often complementary members.
There are exceptions, of course. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokić and runner-up Joel Embiid are the planets around which their teams’ respective offenses orbit. And there are plenty of centers who still carry tremendous responsibility on defense: Rudy Gobert, for example, can damn near guarantee the Utah Jazz a top-10 defense just by being on the floor.
But rule changes have made the game more perimeter-oriented, which has in turn facilitated the rise of switch-happy defenses and a corresponding move by offenses to get their most skilled players on the floor — and that often means removing their center. So, many other teams have instead elected to split the job between multiple players. If you don’t have a game-changing star, the thinking goes, why not simply acquire a group of players who can fill different archetypal center roles and rotate them through the game, depending on matchup and situation?
Perhaps no team has ever taken this idea further than the 2021-22 Brooklyn Nets, who appear set to platoon the center job among as many as seven different players filling six different roles. Each brings something distinct to the table.
First, there’s Blake Griffin. Acquired in the middle of last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, Griffin did not play that much early on in his Nets tenure1 and did not become the starter until the sixth-to-last game of the regular season. But down the stretch and in the playoffs, he emerged as the logical choice due to the ease with which he fit into the team’s offense.
Griffin is a Connector, a playmaking big man who can facilitate side-to-side ball movement between Brooklyn’s stars. Griffin was a star himself not all that long ago, so he’s used to handling the ball out on the perimeter and near the elbows. From there, he can execute dribble hand-offs and pick-and-slips and even pick out cutters who sneak through the back door while the defense is scrambling to account for Kevin Durant, James Harden or (in road games) Kyrie Irving.
He averaged 4.1 assists per 36 minutes in Brooklyn last season, and we’ve seen throughout his career that he’s got the upside for more than that. (His 15.5 percent assist rate with the Nets would actually have marked a career low had it been his full-season figure.) Especially in the games Irving has chosen to sit out, Griffin’s extra dose of playmaking will be valuable to the Nets, even if only to relieve some of the burden on Durant and Harden, who each missed time due to injury last season.
If Basketball Twitter gets its way, Griffin’s primary backup will be third-year big man Nicolas Claxton. He’s played just 781 regular-season minutes during his young career but in those minutes has showcased tantalizing potential. Claxton is an explosive Athlete, and the Nets showed last year that they are willing to weaponize his agility and acrobatics to great success.
Case in point: No center in the NBA switched pick-and-roll plays more often than Claxton. Not just last year, but maybe ever. During the Second Spectrum era,2 there have been 610 player-seasons in which a center has defended 250 or more screen and rolls. Among those 610 seasons, Claxton’s 2020-21 campaign had by far the highest rate of switched screens. The next closest player was not even in the same zip code.
Claxton switches more than anyone else
NBA centers with the highest switch rate on screens in a single season since 2013-14
|Nicolas Claxton||Brooklyn Nets||2020-21||66.1%|
|Clint Capela||Houston Rockets||2018-19||47.1|
|Tarik Black||Houston Rockets||2017-18||44.7|
|Bam Adebayo||Miami Heat||2020-21||41.5|
|Kevon Looney||Golden State Warriors||2017-18||41.2|
|Clint Capela||Houston Rockets||2017-18||40.4|
|Johnathan Williams||Los Angeles Lakers||2018-19||37.6|
|Kevon Looney||Golden State Warriors||2018-19||36.9|
|Chimezie Metu||Sacramento Kings||2020-21||33.6|
The Nets switch a lot due to their scheme (and because it’s the only way Harden is comfortable playing defense),3 but Claxton is also really, really good at it. Even stuck in space against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jrue Holiday in the playoffs, he handled himself just fine.
Claxton is no slouch as a screen-and-roll man himself on the other end of the floor. He dives hard to the rim almost every time he sets a screen (85 percent, per Second Spectrum), and when he does, the Nets benefit to the tune of 1.161 points per possession — a figure on par with players like Zion Williamson, Deandre Ayton and Bam Adebayo. His pogo-stick legs make him an appealing lob threat: He was on the receiving end of nearly 2.5 alley-oops per 100 possessions last year, one of the highest rates in the league.
While Griffin makes plays and Claxton makes dents in rims, LaMarcus Aldridge operates as a Post-up Hub. There is nobody in the league with more experience on the block than LMA; over the past eight seasons, he was fed the ball down low 1,157 more times than the next-closest player, and that’s despite barely playing last season.
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Do the Nets really want to run their offense through Aldridge in the post? Ideally, of course not. But you could do a lot worse when looking for a late-clock bail-out option. Per Second Spectrum, Aldridge’s 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons ranked 20th and 23rd, respectively, in points per chance among the 262 player-seasons with 250 or more post-ups during the player-tracking era.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Bruce Brown.4 Brown and childhood friend Terance Mann essentially invented a position last season, which I have elected to call the Biggie Small. At 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds, Brown is the size of a guard — which makes sense, because he played point guard and shooting guard growing up, at the University of Miami and in his first two NBA seasons. But the Nets decided he was going to play like a center on offense, and the results were awesome.
Defenses simply did not know what to do with this guy when he set a screen and rolled into the paint, or when he camped out in the dunker spot, or when he cut from an odd angle into the middle of the lane for an easy floater. It’s practically unheard of for a Brown-sized player to set 34 screens per 100 possessions, as Brown did during the playoffs, but when it keeps working, why not just keep going to it? Among the 277 instances of a player setting at least 100 ball-screens during a playoff run over the past eight years, Brown’s 2020-21 run ranked fourth in points per possession.
Free agency brought the Nets two more players to add to this group, each of whom can fill the Small-Ball Center role, but James Johnson and Paul Millsap were essentially signed for one reason: to give the Nets more options against Antetokounmpo. Griffin handled the primary responsibility during last year’s playoffs, but the results weren’t ideal.
Johnson may be the single best Giannis-defender in the entire league. His combination of length, strength and agility is tough to match. Millsap — who is like a slightly smaller, slightly thicker and somewhat less manic version of Johnson on defense (and a headier passer on the other end) — is no slouch, either. There are 28 players who have defended Antetokounmpo on at least 250 halfcourt possessions over the past eight regular seasons, and few have gotten better results than these guys.
Johnson and Millsap have played Giannis well
Defensive ranking in key NBA statistics for James Johnson and Paul Millsap when guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, since 2013‑14
|Stat (per 100 possessions)||Johnson||Millsap|
|Bucks team points||1||14|
|Giannis free throw attempts||8||7|
Neither player brings as much to the table as a shooter as last season’s small-ball center (Jeff Green), but that’s not as much of an issue when the Nets still have Durant. He’s the Slim Reaper, dealing death blows to opponents whenever the Nets use him at the 5. He played only 149 minutes with none of Green, Griffin, Claxton or DeAndre Jordan last season, per NBA Advanced Stats, but the Nets outscored opponents by a flabbergasting 21.8 points per 100 possessions during that time.
Few players in the history of professional basketball shoot the ball as well as Durant from any area on the floor, and his rim-protection numbers were on par with those of Anthony Davis last season. That is just not fair. (And it’s not out of character for him, either.) Brooklyn likely doesn’t want to tax Durant by using that configuration too often, which is a large part of why the Nets brought in so many other options. But rest assured, they will go to it at important moments, and it will be deadly.