As the NBA season approaches and training camps get underway, we’ll be taking a look at the player on each team that holds the key to unlocking their full potential.
In Brooklyn, the real answer here is whether Kyrie Irving comes back, as well as the health of their now Big 2, because it’s pretty hard to see a whole lot of outcomes where they’re anything but great so long as Kevin Durant and James Harden are close to full strength come playoff time. That is certainly not guaranteed, but for a team with championship or bust expectations, the others are still going to be important to just how good they can be. Joe Harris has to knock down shots better than he did in the playoffs against Milwaukee. Bruce Brown continuing to be as impactful as he was as a small-ball center is likewise important.
But I’m most intrigued by Nic Claxton, the third-year center out of Georgia who is, at the moment, the only true center you can be sure of on this team.
In this day and age, and with the collection of talent in Brooklyn, they don’t need to be carrying a bunch of centers. Still, with LaMarcus Aldridge coming back from an irregular heartbeat and Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, and Brown as the other “big” options, Claxton is going to be their defensive anchor in the middle when they aren’t going small, and that’s a pretty important role on a team trying to win a title. Claxton played extremely well last year to usurp DeAndre Jordan as their best center and earn this opportunity, averaging 6.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in just 18.6 minutes per game (in 32 regular season games). His athleticism and timing on the defensive end was incredibly helpful for a Brooklyn team that doesn’t employ a ton of defense-first players, and on offense he is a terrific lob threat on a team filled with great lob tossers.
This season, Claxton’s minutes will likely increase and while the Nets will still look to play small-ball plenty come playoff time, he is, truly, the only real rim protector left on the roster. The improvement of the Nets on the defensive end when Claxton was on the court was very noticeable, as Brooklyn boasted a 102.1 defensive rating and opponents shot just 41.4 percent from the field in the 594 minutes he played in the regular season. That’s not a huge sample, but it’s indicative of how much his presence in the paint bothered opponents.
This year, he is the guy at center and if he can sustain that kind of impact in an expanded role to give Brooklyn a legitimate center on top of the danger they present as a small-ball group, that will only make them more dynamic as the title favorites. We know the Nets have tons of small lineup versatility, but having the ability to go big will only give them more options no matter their opponents in the postseason.