During the course of an almost hour-long interview last week on YES Network, new Nets coach Steve Nash described defense as his "No. 1 priority," but he demurred when asked if he had a target goal for points per game allowed.
"We realize to win a championship, we need to be a very strong defensive team, great cohesion, clear understanding of our principles and to be able to execute them with variation every night because every team we play is going to be different," Nash told YES play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle. "It’s a priority, it’s something we spent the bulk of our time working on in this period, we feel good about it."
That makes sense, but make no mistake — the Nets’ identity under Nash is more likely to be associated with their offense. That was the assumption when Nash was hired nearly two months ago, and it was underlined when Nash announced his coaching staff on Friday, including the addition to two-time NBA coach of the year Mike D’Antoni. Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, who also joined the staff as a player development coach, played under D’Antoni’s high-tempo, high-volume three-point shooting offense with the Suns, as did Nets general manager Sean Marks.
Of all the coaches for whom Nash has played, none had a more profound influence on him than D’Antoni, who developed a system that encourages his players to shoot in the first seven seconds of every possession. With a roster that includes two perennial All-Stars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving along with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie and possibly Joe Harris if the Nets can re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent, they figure to be one of the NBA’s most entertaining teams.
As much as people talk about the offense Nash and D’Antoni ran with the Suns and, for the past four seasons with the Rockets and James Harden, Nash said D’Antoni’s genius was the freedom he gave to the players and that he didn’t get in their way as a coach. That dovetails neatly with the collaborative approach Nash said he wants to adopt with Durant and Irving in particular.
"I feel like a lot of coaches feel the need to design every aspect of something," Nash said, "and I feel you leave too much on the table that can be found through the personalities, the connectivity, the dynamic on the floor and in the [locker] room.
"I want us to play fast, I want us to space the floor, I want us to create opportunities to get downhill with our ballhandlers and make plays for one another. Attack closeouts. A lot of high-level philosophical thoughts. Of course, we’ll design and have offensive sets and things that we think fit our group, but we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves with the offense. We want it to stay pretty high-level right now."
Nash mentioned how impressed he was with the Nets’ 5-3 performance in the NBA bubble under interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who remains as lead assistant, before they were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Raptors. But that team was missing the injured Durant, Irving and rookie Nic Claxton, as well as veterans DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler, who were absent for a variety of reasons.
"There’s new players coming in here that are going to have a big impact, that are going to change the way we have to look at things and challenge us to create something unique that identifies with their skills and talents," Nash said.
"I’m going to definitely lean on the experiences this club has had in the past, the development of individual players and how this new group, considering Kevin hasn’t been in the mix, is going to best perform and how we can use him as the cornerstone for much of what we will do."
Trade rumors swirling
Since the end of their season, Nets Twitterverse has been alive with speculation about whom they might trade in any effort to add a third star such as Bradley Beal or a premium defender such as Jrue Holiday. Much of it has revolved around guard Caris LeVert and center Jarrett Allen, who were the first two first-round picks made by Marks. But Nash expressed faith in the future of both young players.
"Caris’ performance in the bubble — he made the all-bubble team — [showed] how prolific he can be scoring and playmaking," Nash said. "He’s a big guard who can get into the ball defensively. He can improve a lot, as well, which is exciting.
"Jarrett, the same. I thought his performance in the bubble showed some big growth at both ends of the floor. He was more dynamic at the defensive end, playing farther out on the floor, covering guards, moving his feet for stretches that we hadn’t seen in the past. Then, his rim protection has been his cornerstone. Offensively, I think he’s getting better in traffic, and he’s going to continue to grow there, too. So, two very talented players who have youth and a lot of upside and are great pieces to put in the mix here for this team."
COVID-19 disrupts first-time coaching
Nash admitted the problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and a shortened NBA calendar in terms of preparation for next season, which could begin anywhere from Dec. 22 to Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 18, has made his transition as a first-time head coach more difficult.
Describing his process of getting familiar with the players, Nash said, "For me, it really was trying to get in front of them as much as I can early on, develop relationships, show them that I care and that my motives really are pure here. I’m here to help this group fulfill its potential."
Nash cited the 2020 champion Lakers as the role model for the collaborative approach he favors. "The Lakers had really important chemistry off the court, and you could see it come through on the TV screen," Nash said. "I think it allowed them to navigate not only a championship season but also all the things that were thrown at them this year…They survived that in no small part because of their chemistry."