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Defense key to improved record in 2018-19

The Brooklyn Nets are committed to their rebuilding and the goal is to show more improvement over the 8-win rise in 2017-18. That will be decided by defense.

The Brooklyn Nets made definite progress in their second season under head coach Kenny Atkinson, improving by eight wins and cutting their net rating per 100 possessions from minus-6.6 in 2016-17 to minus-3.7 last season.

Their 28-54 record was actually three games worse than those numbers say they should have been. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s Pythagorean Wins calculation, Brooklyn’s ratings were those of a 31-win team in 2017-18.

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The problem for the Nets last season could be summed up in one word — defense.

There aren’t many ways Brooklyn wasn’t a poor defensive club in 2017-18.

They were 19th in opponent field goal percentage (36.6), dead last in opponent rebounding (allowing 46.8 per game), last in opponent turnovers (12.4 per game), 22nd in defensive rating (110.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) and 28th in raw points allowed (110.3 per game).

While the Nets brought in two players in Ed Davis and Kenneth Faried that should help address their problems on the boards, they are not considered elite overall defenders. So the improvement there will have to come from within.

Atkinson told Bryan Lewis of the New York Post that individual improvements will be key.

“You look at a guy like Jarrett Allen. I think he had an excellent year protecting the rim, he had an excellent year playing pick-and-roll defense. But his rebounding numbers have to come up for him to take a jump.

“And I think that’s the case with each of our guys, they have to make individual jumps.”

Two seasons ago, Atkinson had to scale back his complex defensive scheme because players simply weren’t able to execute it. Keeping it simple helped to a degree, but it also limited the defense’s ability to create turnovers and transition opportunities.

“Collectively as a staff, we can improve on better schemes, more adjustments. We have to provide the schemes that allow these guys to be in positions to be successful. It’s a challenge because the game is changing so fast. A lot more switching, we saw it in the playoffs last year.

“I think we’ve had a long offseason to talk about that as a staff.”

Brooklyn played a lot of close games (defined as a game where the score is within five points of less any time in the final five minutes), but were 19-31 in those games.

The 31 close losses were the second-most in the NBA, better only than the Dallas Mavericks, who were 12-38 in those games.

Losing close games often comes down to being able to get stops on defense or to finish a stop (i.e., get the defensive rebound). Those were two areas where the Nets often came up short.

Early in training camp, the Davis-Faried duo has been dominant on the glass, as has Alan Williams, who is on a two-way contract.

Part of the problem last season simply boiled down to size. Allen was a rookie teenager who was prone to being pushed around under the glass. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played as a small 4.

By the end of the season, Atkinson was getting backup center minutes from Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham. Acy is a small power forward, much less when used at center, and Cunningham’s thin build is more suited to the wing or stealing a few minutes as a small ball 4.

Davis, at 6-foot-10, helps that and he brings with him a 28.8 percent defensive rebounding percentage that would have ranked 12th in the NBA had he played the required 1,500 minutes to qualify (he finished at 1,471 minutes played).

Faried’s rebounding percentage has been between 22.2 percent and 23.6 percent for his career, save for the 20.7 percent figure in 2017-18, when he was buried on the bench behind Paul Millsap and Trey Lyles at the power forward spot and played only 32 games.

Davis told Lewis of the Post on Tuesday that, with him, Faried and Williams, the Nets’ rebounding problems are history.

“I feel like us three, we solve that problem right away. I feel like we’re going to be a top-10 offensive and defensive rebounding team.

“Just with us three, Jarrett getting better, (DeMarre Carroll) and Rondae and all the other(s), I definitely feel we should be a top-10 offensive and defensive rebounding team.”

The other piece of the improvement equation is generating more turnovers. The Nets were also last in the NBA, averaging just 6.2 steals per game.

Atkinson told the New York Post there were good things happening with Brooklyn’s defense last year, but by not creating more turnovers, opponents just had too many opportunities.

“Last year we were 11th in effective field-goal percentage defense … (but) for us to be a good defense, we’ve also got to balance it a little on turnovers and be a little more active on turnovers without extending our defense too much.”

Caris LeVert has drawn raves for his play early in training camp and that has included his work on the defensive end.

LeVert was described as an “elite” defender by Joe Harris, while Atkinson called him out as one of the group’s two most active players on the defensive end. LeVert says the work is paying off.

“This offseason we really focused on conditioning and that’s really going to help our on-ball activity and our ability to force turnovers.”

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The Nets have some players with defensive chops, including Carroll and Hollis-Jefferson. If LeVert is ready to step up as an elite defender on the wing and Allen’s added strength makes him more of a presence down low, Brooklyn could have the blueprint for a better defensive campaign.

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