There isn’t much debate over Nene’s status as one of the top available two free agents this off-season. What is up for discussion, however, is whether he would be a good fit for the New Jersey Nets – one of the franchises considered to be most interested in the veteran big man.
While he’s been productive and highly efficient in his tenure with the Nuggets, a move to New Jersey would likely mean pairing Nene with blossoming center Brook Lopez. Pairing the most physically imposting frontline in the NBA with Deron Williams has a definite allure, but the Nets should be careful, as playing alongside Lopez would likely negate some of Nene’s value as a scorer.
Nene’s offensive game is basic: post-ups, pick-and-rolls and crashing the offensive glass. According to Hoopdata, of his 11 field goal attempts per 40 minutes last season, eight were classified as at the rim–this means inside of three feet. While his mid-range game is solid (47% shooting from 16-23 feet), he rarely operates from this spot on the floor.
The profile isn’t all that different for Lopez, who spent over half of his total possessions in the post and pick-and-roll sets according to Synergy Sports Technology. The greatest difference here is the Stanford product’s ability to step away from the paint and knock down jumpers with greater frequency and consistency.
But chances are New Jersey isn’t going to want their star center tossing up 18-footers while Nene carves out space on the block (though it probably wouldn’t hurt Lopez’s anemic rebounding rate). Planting both players down low simultaneously is problematic as well, clogging the lane and making it much easier to double the post.
It’s tempting, but resist thinking of Nene and Lopez as an even bigger version of Memphis’ Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, a frontcourt duo that has thrived playing off one another.. For one, Randolph is a much better isolation scorer on the block than Nene is and proved as much in the playoffs. Perhaps more importantly, the Grizzlies frontcourt is significantly better passing the basketball. When looking at pure point ratings, Randolph and Nene are within a few hundredths of a point of each other. However Gasol however has a rating of -0.5 (the best mark of the four), compared to a -3.15 for Lopez, one of the worst ratings of any frontcourt player in the NBA last season. Further, Lopez was also one of the least efficient big men in the league when facing a double team.
The other factor to consider offensively is that neither Lopez or Nene is a threat to create scoring chances for themselves or others. Over 70 percent of Nene’s field goals were assisted by a teammate last season, with Lopez having only a slightly lower mark at 64 percent, and neither is an adept passer. Both players have been lauded for their scoring efficiency, but having to dedicate such a large percentage of the team’s possessions in order for both to meet their scoring quota could reduce the impact of Deron Williams, easily the Nets’ best player.
Defensively, there’s no question the 6-foot-11 Nene would be asked to defend the power forward position – something he has struggled with. Based on data from 82games.com, Nene surrended a much higher PER (32 points!) to power forwards than he did centers. Now, to be fair, this data is skewed given the limited amount of time he spent defending the position. But a look at his defensive profile on Synergy tends to back up this theory. He is at his worst defending spot-up scenarios and was among the worst defenders in the NBA last season when opponents opted to attack off the dribble out of this setting. In simple terms, if Nene is matched up with a versatile four, it doesn’t bode well.
The last three seasons as Nene has blossomed he’s played in a frontcourt where he has been allowed to operate around the rim – this is where he’s at his best. Pairing him with the likes of Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby has kept the big Brazilian close to rim while also helping to cover for his defensive shortcomings. Pairing Nene with Lopez might create two great targets for a pick and roll attack centered around Deron Williams. But might also create an expensive, longterm redundancy between two players who are good but not great, and negatively impact the two big men’s production.