Brooklyn Nets Head coach Jason Kidd has distributed minutes pretty evenly for his players this season. No one player sees more than 32 minutes per game, and ten different players average at least 18 minutes, a testament to the team's depth and Kidd's guiding hand.
Kidd will probably abandon such balance in the playoffs. All year, Brooklyn has been limiting the minutes of its aging stars with the postseason in mind. Now that the playoffs are here, the Nets can burn up all that stored strength and stamina. Guys like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are focused on a championship right now, not extending their playing careers and will grind their knees to dust for another ring.
There's more to consider than just the will to win, though. Brooklyn has a slew of role players—three-point assassins, defensive specialists, etc.—who have earned playoff responsibility.
Here's a breakdown of how Kidd should dole out the postseason minutes.
Much has been made of the Nets' unconventional starting five this season. A season-ending injury to Brook Lopez forced the team to adopt a smaller lineup, with Pierce moving to power forward and Garnett to center. The switch, effected around the end of the holiday season, catalyzed Brooklyn's resurgence, as the team has gone 33-15 since the calendar turned to 2014.
Given this unit's success, it would be surprising if the quintet of Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Pierce and Garnett were not Kidd's starters every night during the playoffs.
There is some argument to be made that Mason Plumlee should get the nod at center. When back spasms recently forced Garnett to sit for over a month, Plumlee took his starting position for 21 games, 16 of which Brooklyn won. Plumlee proved to be an excellent finisher at the rim and even picked up a signature moment with his controversial game-ending block of LeBron James last week.
|Unit||Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficency||Plus/Minus|
|Williams, Livingston, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett||1.06||0.90||+38|
|Williams, Livingston, Johnson, Pierce, Plumlee||1.13||1.04||+22|
Statistics from 82games.com.
However, the lineup with Garnett is significantly better on defense, a priority during the postseason. Plus, it's hard to imagine Kidd not having a former NBA champion, MVP and Defensive POY on the court to start playoff games, and it's even harder to imagine Garnett accepting such a bench role.
So the real question is how much playing time each of the aforementioned five will see. Following are some proposed totals:
Deron Williams: 35 minutes
Shaun Livingston 32 minutes
Joe Johnson: 35 minutes
Paul Pierce: 30 minutes
Kevin Garnett: 24 minutes
These figures basically indicate a bump to each individual's regular-season average, which is a standard occurrence for playoff teams. The rationale isn't terribly complicated: In the postseason, the team's best players—the starters—need to be on the court as much as possible.
There are also more specific reasons behind each player's increased usage, though. Williams and Livingston complement each other well, forming a two-headed backcourt that opponents have trouble containing. Williams is a more explosive offensive player, who can find his own shot or create one for a teammate with more regularity than Livingston.
On the other hand, Livingston is an excellent defender who can shut down his assignment in a way that Williams can't. Together, the two balance out as an effective two-way combination essential to Brooklyn's success. Plus, aside from the occasional Marcus Thornton scoring surge, the Nets don't have much depth at guard.
Moving on, Johnson needs to stay off the bench because he is the most consistent Nets scorer. He's known as a good clutch performer, but he's also the guy who puts ends to deadly offensive droughts with his ability to score on isolation plays. When Brooklyn needs a momentum swing, it'll be Johnson backing down a defender and working his way into a quality look.
Garnett still won't be playing as much as he has in postseasons past, but 24 minutes a night will be enough for him to make an impact. It's likely that the Nets will use him like they have all season: early in the game to set the tone and late for a proven crunch time presence, with minutes sporadically mixed in between.
Brooklyn's bench has been one of its greatest strengths all season. Even though the five starters will exhaust most of the playing time, the Nets will need key contributions from their sixth through tenth men if they wish to advance past the first round. Here's a potential distribution for bench minutes:
Mason Plumlee: 20 minutes
Marcus Thornton: 17 minutes
Andray Blatche: 16 minutes
Mirza Teletovic: 13 minutes
Andrei Kirilenko: 13 minutes
The bulk of second-unit minutes comes from the big guys, as everyone on the above list, save Thornton, stands 6'9" or taller. This pattern, of course, results from Garnett's inability to provide 30 to 35 minutes a night for Brooklyn, creating demand for bodies in the paint. Plumlee has earned the lion's share of those frontcourt bench minutes, since he gives Brooklyn an explosive pick-and-roll dynamic and runs the court better than anyone else on the list.
However, other worthy recipients remain. Blatche is, somewhat surprisingly, one of Brooklyn's most valuable defensive players by certain metrics. He trails only Garnett on the team in Defensive Rating (104) and Rebound Rate (14.4 percent). Against a team known for snatching up boards—like possible first-round opponent Chicago Bulls—the Nets will lean on Blatche to clean up the glass.
Neither Teletovic or Thornton are shutdown defenders, but they are bona fide scorers who can create shots and score in bunches. Thornton in particular has rewarded the Nets for acquiring him before the trade deadline in February by regularly indulging in remarkable scoring binges. He's not afraid to take contested shots, either from the perimeter or in the lane, and his ability to drop a quick ten or twelve points has been the difference in several Brooklyn victories this spring.
Finally, the Nets will continue to depend on their Swiss (well, Russian) Army Knife, Andrei Kirilenko, for a little more than a quarter per game. Kirilenko doesn't excel in one particular area, but rather he finds a variety of small ways to influence games: a 12-footer here, a steal there and so on. He shoots very well from the floor (53.8 percent), and uses his 7'4" wingspan to pester opponents on defense. Although, his poor free-throw shooting this season could keep him on the bench in late-game situations.
After these five, there's not much court time left. While Alan Anderson has played a lot this season, his inconsistency should doom him to a postseason in warmup pants. He is shooting only 40 percent from the floor, has one of the worst PERs on the Nets at 9.5 and has seen his minutes drop significantly since early in the regular season.
Jason Collins has provided an inspiring national story for Brooklyn, and Jorge Gutierrez is a garbage time spark off the pine, but Brooklyn will not be putting their postseason fate in the hands of late-season additions.
The Nets crunch time lineup should be identical to their starting lineup, albeit with two flex positions: Garnett or Plumlee at center, and Livingston or Thornton at shooting guard.
Williams, Johnson and Pierce, foul trouble withstanding, should all be on the court with the game on the line. The Nets don't pay Williams and Johnson a combined $40 million per season to be spectators with the season in the balance. Pierce has made too many huge shots in the postseason over the last decade to justify sitting him.
In the case of the two flex positions, specific scenarios will, obviously, account for which players get the call. However, the breakdown works pretty neatly in general terms, as the lineup with Garnett and Livingston is stingier on defense, while the version with Plumlee and Thornton is more productive on offense.
Livingston and Garnett have better length and defensive instincts, but Garnett isn't much more than a decoy these days on offense. On the other hand, Thornton spreads the floor better on offense since Livingston doesn't have an outside game, and, as noted, Plumlee is Brooklyn's best frontcourt weapon from close range.
The unit with Plumlee and Thornton is actually the one Kidd used in the final minute against the Miami Heat on April 8. Contrary to the above analysis, they failed to find a good shot on offense, but made a miraculous defensive stop to seal the victory.
This is not to say that other players won't find themselves on the court in a tight game late in the fourth quarter.
If Brooklyn needs a three, Teletovic or Blatche could replace some of their less accurate teammates on the floor. Pierce could even end up at center, as he did during Brooklyn's notable game-tying possession against the Dallas Mavericks on March 23. In essence, Kidd has demonstrated a willingness to abandon convention in key moments, making these predictions more difficult.
The story of the Nets season has been one of immaculate teamwork. They don't have a superstar and seem to depend on a different guy every night. The starting five will lead the charge this postseason, but the bench could easily become a deciding factor.