The intriguing rotation puzzle that emerges from Nets’ frontcourt makeover
SAN DIEGO – The Nets frontcourt that will start this season looks nothing like the one that ended last season.
Blake Griffin started every game in last season’s playoffs as a smallball stretch five, but it was almost by default. Nic Claxton was struggling, and the second-year pro averaged just 10 minutes per game in the postseason. DeAndre Jordan never got off the bench for the final 16 games and was essentially persona non grata. Jeff Green was hurt.
Now, in an offseason makeover at the 4 and 5 positions, the depth has gone from wafer-thin to crowded (for a team chasing a championship, it’s never enough, right?). The Nets have been bolstered by the additions of LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap – accomplished veterans who presumably didn’t sign to sit on the bench – plus first-round draft pick Day’Ron Sharpe. Griffin and Claxton are back; Jordan (traded to the Pistons in a salary dump, waived then signed by the Lakers) and Green (joined the Nuggets as a free agent) are gone.
Also in the lineup: an all-universe forward by the name of Kevin Durant.
Nets coach Steve Nash has gone from struggling to patch together the center spot to having to figure out how to get playing time for all of his big men. How can he keep so many players happy with so few minutes to go around?
“I don’t look at it as that,” Aldridge told The Post. “I look at that as a solid rotation. It was a bunch of good guys, and you can never be mad to have that much talent on one team. So I was excited to come join these guys.”
The 36-year-old Aldridge is a new old Net. He arrived last season after being bought out by the Spurs, and promptly beat out Jordan and Griffin to earn the starting center job. Aldridge’s tenure lasted just five games. He felt an irregular heartbeat during an April 10 game in Los Angeles against the Lakers, and had to retire.
Aldridge has been medically cleared, and his return presents legitimate competition for the center spot.
Millsap, 36, will be a seasoned backup to Durant at the power forward position.
“You know, I think, having talent is a luxury,” Griffin said Friday at Nets training camp at the University of San Diego. “Things happen throughout the season, and I’m sure some of our guys aren’t going to play every single game. That’s not smart.
“There are things that you can’t really account for, so having a surplus of talent is as important. We’re all here for a reason. Nobody’s going to be on this bench pissed off or being bad in a locker room, because we as a team, we’re not gonna allow that.”
The Nets haven’t been shy about stating their goal of winning the NBA championship. And there probably wouldn’t be any sense in trying to manage expectations anyway, not with the presence of the Big 3 of Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving stamping the Nets as odds-on favorites to win the title.
In the grand roster-building tradition associated with LeBron James, the superstar Nets trio has attracted ring-chasing veterans, seasoned players who could have made more money or been guaranteed more minutes elsewhere, but opted to sacrifice to have a real chance at a championship.
“Whoever’s out there, you support them, because we’ve all got to buy into that,” Millsap told The Post. “So, I mean, we’re not too concerned about minutes, who’s playing, who’s not playing. We build each other up and we continue to do that.”
Other than the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception – which they used to pry guard Patty Mills out of San Antonio – all the Nets had to work with were veteran minimum contracts. General manager Sean Marks still managed to stack the frontcourt for this season, getting Aldridge, Griffin and Millsap on team-friendly $2.6 million deals. James Johnson, who seems likely to be fighting for minutes as a reserve power forward, also signed at that figure.
“For sure, the way our salaries are structured we have to kind of look for players in the minimum category,” Nash said. “We had an opportunity to get three or four veterans at the minimum. We thought it would be better to get the best players we can and work through that, rather than not having the players and trying to figure it out.
“It will be a challenge. Those guys have to sacrifice. We’ll have to play for something bigger than ourselves and find a way to affect the group positively. Whether they’re playing or in the rotation or not in the rotation or you’re not even suiting up some nights, I think we’re all here for a bigger goal, and that’s to see this team be at its best level.”
The Nets also have Claxton and Sharpe to consider.
The Nets fell in love with Sharpe, a North Carolina freshman center who was the best offensive rebounder in college basketball last season, during the pre-draft process. Sharpe, who turned 20 in November, likely will spend much of the season getting seasoning with G League Long Island.
Claxton is an intriguing case. The Nets find his defensive versatility and ability to switch 1-through-5 tantalizing, but after catching COVID-19 last season and then seeing his minutes slashed upon the arrival of Aldridge, he never recaptured his red-hot midseason form.
And with a dearth of draft picks after last season’s blockbuster trade to acquire Harden, Claxton is among the Nets’ most attractive trade chips should they need to add a piece this season.
Last season was a reminder that injuries always can and will happen. With an aging roster and a cautious performance team, the Nets may well try to spare Griffin (who has dealt with knee issues) and Durant (who tore his Achilles in 2019) from playing in back-to-backs this time around.
“I know probably it’s not going to be every back-to-back like last year,” Griffin said. “I think they’re going to be pretty smart about managing guys, especially coming off the last season (injury issues), short offseason. So I defer to them on that type of stuff. They know what they’re doing.”