Despite all the stuff -- the 1-5 start, the coaching change, 11 games without Kyrie Irving, 11 games without Ben Simmons, four straight losses without Kevin Durant -- the Brooklyn Nets are 29-17, just one game back of the second-place Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference standings. On Jan. 9, when they announced Durant had sprained his MCL, they had the second-best record in the NBA and were within a game of the first-place Boston Celtics thanks to an 18-wins-in-20-games rampage featuring a predictably sizzling offense (fourth in the league before the injury, 119 points per 100 possessions in those 20 games) and a less predictably stingy defense (110.3 per 100 in that stretch, now seventh in the league). At full strength, or even close to it, Brooklyn is a championship contender.
The Nets are not in this position simply because Durant is in the middle of the most efficient season of his career (and perhaps his finest defensive season, too). They are here because a plan has come together. Last May, after losing four close games against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, team president Sean Marks said that Brooklyn had to surround the stars with size, versatility, IQ and players "with a chip on their shoulder, with resilience, with something to prove."
The Nets had limited tools at their disposal and Durant inconveniently requested a trade right before free agency, but, more than halfway through the regular season, their summer haul looks like a string of heists. The 23-year-old big man they re-signed for less than the midlevel has taken a giant leap. The glue guy that cost them a late first-round pick is thriving in more than a 3-and-D role. The versatile forward they scooped up off the scrap heap is the league's most accurate 3-point shooter. The gunslinger they signed for the minimum looks a lot like he did two surgeries ago. All of them complement Brooklyn's top-end talent.
Nic Claxton isn't exactly an offseason acquisition, but he wasn't this guy last year. He is stronger, savvier and, as the anchor of the NBA's second-best halfcourt defense, per Cleaning The Glass, a candidate to make an All-Defensive Team. The blocks -- 2.7 per game or 4.6 per 100 possessions, marks that only the Memphis Grizzlies' Jaren Jackson Jr. has bested this season -- stick out, but he's also contesting shots like crazy, fouling less frequently and shutting down the paint by roaming off non-threatening perimeter players, Time Lord-style.
In a less-than-five-minute stretch against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 15, Claxton:
- rejected Darius Bazley at the rim.
- swatted Josh Giddey in transition.
- deterred Bazley in the paint.
- spooked Isaiah Joe on two jumpers, one of which hit the side of the backboard.
- erased an Aaron Wiggins layup.
- chased down Bazley and pinned his shot against the backboard.
Last Friday in Utah, Claxton challenged Collin Sexton's layup with his left hand and, when Sexton adjusted in midair, blocked it with his right. The next afternoon, Durant tweeted that he was still thinking about it.
Claxton, drafted No. 31 in 2019, played a total of 94 regular-season games in his first three years. He believed he was one of the best defenders in the league coming into last season, but an illness, a hamstring injury and a glut of big men hampered his progress. He has already played 276 more minutes in 2022-23 than he did in 2021-22.
"The more reps that I've gotten in the NBA, just guarding guys, picking up on tendencies, knowing where I need to be," Claxton said, the more refined he's been. "It's really taken my game to a different level on the defensive end."
He moves his feet quickly enough to switch onto smaller players, and, if he's slightly out of position or a beat late on a rotation, his length and lightning-fast leaping ability allows him to makes up for it. But those mistakes a less frequent now.
"He's talking to us the whole time, being more alert and protecting the rim, guarding guards, doing everything," Nets wing Royce O'Neale said.
Claxton's scoring output hasn't changed that much when you account for his increased playing time, but he's now leading the league in field goal percentage (.733) and shooting 81 percent at the rim. He's a crafty finisher with soft touch, so he's dangerous in the short roll, faking dribble-handoffs and even pushing in transition. After reaching the 20-point mark once in his career until last Thursday, he has done it in each of his last three games. His 24 points and 15 rebounds in Brooklyn's 120-116 road win against Golden State on Sunday were both career highs.
"I'm more confident," Claxton said. "I'm not worried as much about messing up out there, so I'm able to just try more things and be more creative. And I just have a better feel for the game, just with the experience that I've gotten."
All of this has been there, but Claxton showed it only in flashes. Last season, Brooklyn experimented with three veteran centers -- LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin plus Paul Millsap or Andre Drummond, depending on the time of year -- and smallball lineups with Bruce Brown or James Johnson rolling to the rim. After Claxton signed his two-year, $17.3 million deal in the offseason, none of those guys were in the mix.
"It's different when you're given the opportunity to be the starter," Claxton said. "It wasn't written that I'm the starter, but I had to go out and prove that I was worthy of being a starting center in the league 'cause I hadn't done that before. And I've done that thus far."
It was a bit clunky at first, but the Nets have a plus-8.7 net rating in the 463 minutes that Claxton and Simmons have shared the floor. In the 20 games that vaulted them up the standings, that number was plus-15.3 per 100. This duo has been viable because of the snipers next to them and because Claxton is always either involved in an action on the perimeter or making himself available near the rim. The Nets are counting on that continuing, so they can be a below-average defensive rebounding team rather than a horrible one, and so they can maintain a defense that is baiting opponents into iso-ball.
"When we have everybody healthy -- me, Ben, KD, everybody -- and we're out there flying around, that's three 6-10 guys on the court that can guard multiple positions," Claxton said. "There's not many teams that have that. And we're switching everything and guys are covering for each other. I'm protecting the rim, guarding 1 through 5. When we're locked in and we're rebounding and everybody's aware of what's going on, we're really, really good defensively."
It is deeply ironic the phrase "very strange trade" immediately brings to mind the deal that brought O'Neale to Brooklyn. From the Nets' perspective, it was the most straightforward trade in the world. In search of spacing in the Boston series, they'd used three of their four small guards -- Irving, Seth Curry, Patty Mills and Goran Dragic -- at the same time. They were beyond desperate for any shooter who could credibly defend wings, and O'Neale had proven to be one of the most reliable 3-and-D guys around.
When you're traded to a team that employs two of the most gifted scorers in history, you do not assume you will have more opportunities to create offense. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that O'Neale found himself putting the ball on the floor regularly in the preseason. Not only was he attacking close-outs, he was getting downhill out of pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs.
"It felt good," O'Neale said. "I mean, I've always kind of been able to play with the ball more. Just reading different situations, and then becoming more comfortable with it, confident."
O'Neale wanted to do whatever the Nets needed, and "from the beginning, it happened to be ballhandling," he said. There were some possessions up for grabs because of injuries and minutes limits, and then it was about "expanding my game and the coaches giving me freedom to play through my mistakes and play within the team."
This did not mean that O'Neale, who had a usage rate below 10 percent in each of the previous three seasons, was suddenly doing a Durant impression. His usage is up to 13.3 percent this season, though, and his 180 drives are 20 more than he had in 77 games last year. Now he's dribbling the ball an average of 1.5 times every time he touches it, which doesn't sound like much but is more than double what it was in 2021-22.
O'Neale is averaging 4.1 assists, too, easily a career high. He's shooting more than ever before on a per-possession basis and he's making a career-best 40.5 percent of his 3s, including 41 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities and 43.9 percent of his wide-open ones, while taking on the same difficult defensive assignments he had with the Jazz. He is also relieving much of the pressure on Joe Harris, who is coming off two ankle surgeries.
In October, O'Neale hit a dagger 3 against Toronto. He has since made two game-winners -- a tip-in after a Durant miss in Portland and a putback after an Irving miss in Miami -- and, on Sunday against the Warriors, nailed the go-ahead 3 with 28 seconds left.
"He's been huge," Claxton said. "He just comes in every day, just works, plays his role, doesn't have a huge ego. He just wants to come out and play basketball at a high level and win basketball games. It's always good to have glue guys like that on the roster who can bring that every single night. And he plays extremely hard defensively, can knock down shots."
Every team needs connectors like O'Neale, and he believes he could adapt to any environment. "As long as I get to play basketball I'm cool," he said. In Brooklyn, though, where coach Jacque Vaughn described him as both a leader and a "tough guy," he has been particularly essential. And he doesn't mind that he'll always, strangely, be connected with a mid-monologue Brian Windhorst pointing his fingers to the sky.
"It was great," O'Neale said. "It was unexpected. I kind of went viral off that. But it'll forever be a meme and a memory that I'm going to have."
The scrap-heap signing
Spencer Dinwiddie was salary-dumped by one team and waived by another before Brooklyn called him up from the G League in 2016. To work your way up from the fringes, you need the "ultimate belief in yourself," Dinwiddie said, but be careful not to come off as cocky. "Because then everybody gets mad at you and they want you to know your place and all that other stuff. So you have to walk this really fine line, but you can't get discouraged at pretty much any point in time because if you do then you'll probably be out of there."
Yuta Watanabe, the Nets' latest hidden gem, did get discouraged, but stuck with it. At times with the Toronto Raptors last season, he "felt like I might not belong," Watanabe said. When he shot poorly in a game, he'd tell himself the next game that he had to make up for it.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself," Watanabe said.
Watanabe hurt his leg in the preseason with the Raptors, and, aside from an encouraging month of December, never quite got on track. With erratic playing time, his shooting suffered -- defenses left him open, and he only shot 34.2 percent from deep.
It got to the point where "I felt like I'm not comfortable playing out there," he said. "My confidence level was low. And even when my number got called, I wasn't sure I can play well or not."
In Brooklyn, he has never felt that way. "At this point, it's a mental game," he said. "No matter how bad or how good I shoot before the game or in a practice or whatever, I'm always in the present," he said. "I always focus on the shot right in front of me. I think that's the biggest difference between in Toronto and here. Having an experience like that in Toronto is really helping me right now."
This season, after signing a non-guaranteed contract eight weeks into free agency, Watanabe has made a downright ludicrous 64 percent of his corner 3s, the best mark in the league among players who have attempted at least 30, according to Cleaning The Glass. Overall he has shot 41 for 84 from long range, also the best mark in the league among players who have attempted at least 30. On wide-open 3s, Watanabe has shot 59.2 percent.
These numbers are almost inconceivable for someone who shot a combined 5 for 24 in his first two seasons as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. (He shot a more respectable 34.8 percent with the G League's Memphis Hustle during that time.) In November, the morning after Watanabe lit up the Grizzlies with four 3s in the fourth quarter and earned a standing ovation at Barclays Center, the Sporting News' Steph Noh tweeted a video illustrating how much faster and smoother his shot had become:
"That was literally the first time I've seen myself, comparing my rookie year shot and shooting like me now," Watanabe said. "I was kind of surprised how much I've changed. Nothing really changed, but like how quickly I'm shooting now. This didn't happen overnight or like over a day. This is a process of going to the gym every day, getting shots up every day, and it's a process of years. To see a clip like that, I think that kind of like proved that what I've been doing is right."
In December, Watanabe returned to Toronto and scored 17 points in 21 minutes, including a clutch corner 3 from Irving. His confidence is"super high now," he said. "Every time I catch the ball, I feel like my shots are going in." He also said that Durant and Irving have made things easy for him, and not just because they create open looks.
"Sometimes I turn down a shot and I pass the ball, they get mad," he said. "Like, 'You gotta shoot the ball.' I was like, 'Cool. Kevin and Kyrie telling me to shoot, OK, I gotta shoot now.'"
Watanabe "checks a lot of different boxes that need to be checked on the basketball court," Claxton said. He is tough defender and a connector, like O'Neale, and at 6-foot-8 with active hands and a knack for rebounding, he was tailor-made for the Nets' second unit.
"I'm having fun every night," Watanabe said. "I think that's obviously an important thing, too. It's just been so fun."
Asked before a recent game when exactly he knew something had clicked, Watanabe paused and was interrupted by a teammate on the other side of the locker room.
"Don't lie, bro," Simmons yelled to Watanabe. "Just tell him you're f---in' great. That's it. 'I f---ing practice and I'm great.'"
Isolated from the world in the NBA bubble, T.J. Warren lost his mind in the best possible way. He scored 53 points on 20-for-29 shooting in the Indiana Pacers' first game. In the next week, he scored 34 points on 26 shots, then 32 on 17 shots, then 39 on 22 shots. Teammates said he was "on a different planet" and they "want to follow him around for the day and see what he's doing."
But that was August 2020. At the beginning of December 2022, Warren had only played in four regular-season games since leaving Disney World because of his injured left foot. There were multiple stress fractures and multiple surgeries, which led him to sign a one-year, vet-minimum contract with the Nets. That's the price teams are willing to pay for a player who could be a game-changer but has missed two straight seasons.
"I mean, we saw what he did before he was injured in the bubble," Claxton said. "But people don't care what you did in the past, they care about what you're doing now."
Now a microwave scorer off the bench, the most notable thing about Warren's return is how normal it has been. Right away, he was "an automatic bucket," Claxton said. There have been no setbacks since he made his debut in the Nets' 24th game of the season, and he's taking the same funky shots he used to take. Warren was always a maestro in the midrange, mixing pull-ups with flip shots, runners, leaners and turnarounds. As the league changed, he started shooting more 3s and became a more committed defender, but his bread and butter remained the same.
"He got like an old-school, throwback-type game," Claxton said. "You don't see a lot of them dudes that play the way he does."
Warren's numbers don't resemble the otherworldly ones from Orlando, but, adjusting for pace and playing time, they are in line with what he did over the course of that full season. Through 22 games, he's averaging 18.3 points per 36 minutes on 57.4 percent true shooting. After beating the Bucks last month, Durant told reporters that he wasn't surprised by Warren's scoring, but by the way he was sliding his feet defensively and getting deflections. Durant also said he'd assumed it would take Warren "some time just to get his legs, his wind, his confidence back, but I was wrong about that."
Warren, who is shooting 49 percent from midrange, per Cleaning The Glass, can bail out possessions late in the shot clock and is not shy about getting shots up quickly, either. When the Nets are whole, defenses that are preoccupied with Irving and Durant must account for yet another dangerous scorer. At the moment, Warren is an even more important source of offense. As soon as he got on the court against the Celtics after Durant's injury, he made three jump shots in four possessions.
"He's going to be a big help for us," O'Neale said. "As he already is. I think just him being confident on both ends, knowing what he's capable of doing, it's going to help us in the long run. Our depth that we got, he's a big part of it."
Vaughn has elected to continue bringing Warren off the bench with Durant sidelined, in an effort to manage his minutes and the rotation. The Nets don't want to overuse him, and they certainly don't want to lose him. They signed Warren, re-signed Claxton, traded for O'Neale and invited Watanabe to training camp with their eyes on the playoffs, while everybody else was watching Durant. As long as they get back there in one piece, they'll be bigger, better and much more balanced.