Brooklyn Nets Bring Options With Expanded Depth in Frontcourt

Nets have added Aldridge and Millsap to big man group with Griffin and Claxton

Chances are, you won’t see Bruce Brown get a start at center for the Brooklyn Nets this season.

In a season of roster and rotation fluidity last season, the center position went through more transitions than any other, with seven different players getting a start at the spot, including — on one night — the 6-foot-4 guard.

For much of the summer, the Nets looked like they would go into the 2021-22 season the way they ended last year, with Blake Griffin and Nic Claxton fronting the position. But general manager Sean Marks’ final transactions of the offseason, signing LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap, gave the Nets a front court makeover that significantly expanded the depth and the options for head coach Steve Nash.

“I think the difficult part is finding minutes for everyone,” said Nash. “The beneficial part is that we have options, we have depth, so hopefully, we not only can help guys get through the season without deteriorating physically, but they also have different profiles and can fit different roles, matchups, lineups, so I think we try to play to our strengths and try to use that to our benefit.”

You can also include veteran free agent James Johnson in the mix among the bigs, and of course the 6-foot-10 Kevin Durant will often be as tall as any Net on the floor.

So while the group has gotten deeper, there’s also a mix of skills. At 6-foot-11, Aldridge has a traditional center’s on-the-block skills but has expanded his mid-range shooting out to the 3-point line. Griffin can also shoot it from deep, and both he and Aldridge work as facilitators as well — Griffin has averaged 4.3 assists per game for his career, and Aldridge 2.0.

The 6-foot-7 Millsap has averaged 2.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting 34.3 percent from 3-point range, while Claxton heads into his third season having shown himself to be an impact defensive player with his versatility, whether switching onto guards or protecting the rim, while working primarily as a pick-and-roll rim-runner on the offensive end.

“It's not a traditional big lineup,” said Aldridge. “Blake can switch a lot. I can switch at times. KD can do it all. I think it's a big lineup, but it's not traditional. You're going to need that. I think teams can play big and play small, and I think having the ability to do both is nice for us. Having shooters is always important in this league and having guys who can score like James (Harden) and KD, you need more shooters on the floor. So we definitely have shooters now.”

With Brooklyn’s season-opener at Milwaukee on Tuesday, Aldridge will be returning to the NBA after retiring last April. After joining the Nets from San Antonio, Aldridge played just five games before stepping away due to an irregular heartbeat. He returned after receiving medical clearance over the summer.

“I tried to stay in the gym,” said Aldridge. “I was trying to shoot every day, run every day, but nothing you do can simulate being in camp, being in a real game, pushing and shoving, things like that. I did a lot to get me to the point that I was at when I got here. I think that helped me take off faster and not be behind and having to do the whole ramp up thing. I was already in a decent shape. I was good to go.”

The quality of the frontcourt options among the four players you might classify as “bigs” — Griffin, Aldridge, Millsap, and Claxton — raises the possibility of seeing two of those players paired on the court at the same time, something the Nets rarely did last season. When they did, it was most likely a combination of Griffin and Claxton, and Aldridge’s arrival frees Griffin up to slide between both forward and center again, rather than having to strictly cover minutes at the 5.

“We’re kind of positionless, and I was playing with Nic today, and Nic was the starting 5 today, and he’s great,” said Griffin after Saturday’s practice. “He’s great at what he does. And I know I can help him a little bit, and he helps me a little bit. The things we don’t bring, I think the other one has, so I really enjoyed playing with Nic, so playing the 4 or the 5, it doesn’t matter to me.”

It's part of an experimental phase that will extend into the season, as Nash has said rotations will be fluid and combinations are still being tried. It won’t be a surprise to see the Nets go small, which they did often last year. The depth in the frontcourt offers more freedom to go the other way when the moment calls for it.

“It definitely adds a different layer to our team,” said Durant. “I mean, every team now is going small, where we’ve got a four-man that's maybe traditional wing player, or a two-guard maybe playing a force sometimes in our league. So to be able to switch it up and throw a wrinkle in the game is always good.”

“It all depends on the opposition, the way the game is being played, how we’re playing,” said Nash. “There’s no black or white. It’s always a shifting landscape and you want optionality, so I think just being able to go big or go small is something that we want to explore. And just figure out combinations as much as anything. Some of it is the size: Are we going with a small, quick lineup with shooting? Or a big lineup that can rebound and take up more space? Or what are the combinations of guys? That also is important. So those are things that, with a lot of new guys, a lot of combinations, it’s gonna take time to figure out.”

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