Here’s why the Nets can’t give up on Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap yet

Brooklyn Nets, Paul Millsap (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets, Paul Millsap (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

Roughly six years ago, Bleacher Report dropped an early Game of Zones episode that showed Jarrett Jack and Joe Johnson cower in fear before Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap. Today, guys like Jack and Iso Joe feel like relics of ancient Brooklyn Nets history, completely foreign to this year’s title-contending group.

Millsap on the other hand, finds himself giving the Nets trouble, but this time in a “friendly fire” kind of way—playing for the team, but as an apparent detrimental link within their rotation.

As it stands now, the four-time All-Star averages 2.8 points on 11.2 minutes per game, while shooting 32.6 % from the field and 23.8% from deep. He recently labored through an 0-for-3 shooting night against the New York Knicks, where he slowed down Brooklyn’s offense time after time, and also lost his ankles to Derrick Rose.

Fielding 15 minutes during this “battle for New York,” Millsap’s inflated workload came as a byproduct of Blake Griffin’s recent struggles. Steve Nash removed him from the rotation a week and a half ago and paved a clearer path for Millsap.

Griffin also resembles an aging and less productive player right now for Brooklyn, having peaked during the mid-to-late 2010s just like Millsap. His inefficient offense strikes as his game’s most vulnerable component, with his true shooting currently at a team-low 39.7%.

He recently consulted with DeAndre Jordan about how to deal with being vaulted by the Nets, which certainly sounds like the lowest of lows.

But with all these negatives between Millsap and Griffin accounted for, they still represent two necessary cogs within the Brooklyn basketball machine. They do not deserve all that hatred currently coming their way, nor do they deserve to stay handcuffed to the bench’s back end for a significant amount of time.

First and foremost, unfair expectations for Millsap are plaguing him more than anything else. Casuals need to readjust, and start to understand the kind of player he is before casting stones his way. Visualizing Millsap as a replacement for Jeff Green was by far the worst thing Nets fans did this offseason. Just because these two veterans play the same position and essentially traded jerseys, with Uncle Jeff now in Denver, that doesn’t make them the same person.

Calling Millsap a “Jeff Green 2.0” is lazy, disservices his game, and makes ridiculing him seem warranted when in actuality that could not be further from the case.

With bounce, cutting abilities, a jump shot, but little defensive impact, Green operated almost exclusively as an offensive tool for the Nets last year. But with Millsap being a defensive-minded player for almost his entire career, his game contradicts Green’s entirely. Those expecting him to hit multiple triples each night, run the floor, and throw down dunks like Green are going about things all wrong — and setting up Millsap only to disappoint.

Despite Rose putting Millsap on skates the other night, his defense more often than not impacts Brooklyn substantially during each game. His defensive assignments for the year are shooting 39.3% from the field—the second lowest by any Nets player. He also owns the team’s highest defensive rebound percentage.

This does not entirely excuse Millsap’s shortcomings at the offensive end, but the focus on his game needs to shift. His gritty play might not make you jump out of your seat each night, but he gives Brooklyn the strong defense they notoriously lacked last year, making his minutes well deserved.

On the other hand, with Griffin, fans should feel optimistic about his chances to return as a more productive contributor, exclusively thanks to a certain 6-foor-11 beast currently ramping things up on Long Island.

Everyone seemed to forget that the Nets began their season with Nic Claxton as their starting center, and even when he struggled, only LaMarcus Aldridge was discussed as a possible replacement for him.

In case you haven’t caught on at this point, Griffin was never meant to play as a full-time center, which is what the Nets asked them to do with Claxton unavailable over the past few weeks.

Even though Griffin played some center for the Nets last year, he never resembled a true big man. The former Piston only stepped up to play the five during spurts when Nash wanted to run with quicker unit or due to Jordan’s overall incompetency. Even in his prime, Griffin never worked as a rim defender and instead always played off other bigs.

But by asking him to play as the lone anchor down low, the Nets set him up for failure as well. His stats reflect this, with Griffin having played a career high in percentage of minutes at center, and consequently shot a career-low 52.4% around the rim.

He just needs Claxton to get back on the floor, allowing him to return to a position of comfort. Playing power forward allows Griffin to still work as a role man, crafty passer, and defender on the block, while avoiding the dirty work at the rim where he cannot play effectively.

James Johnson’s more versatile defense and hot shooting of late likely keeps him ahead Griffin in the rotation even when Claxton returns. But against some smaller teams that force the Nets to penetrate inside, Griffin still resembles an ideal piece to sub into the game at the four. They just need that to become an available spot for him to play, which will only occur once Claxton’s back.

Although much farther down the line, Joe Harris’ eventual return promises to help Griffin out as well. Brooklyn already looks disoriented with their spacing minus Harris, and Griffin’s broken jump shot only added to that when he was on the floor.

But once Joey Buckets rejoins the team, his ability to stretch the floor puts less pressure on this Achilles heel for Griffin. Far more leak-outs for corner triples will fall into Harris’ hands rather than Griffin’s, making for a far more potent Brooklyn offense.

Millsap and Griffin both have roles to play. The Nets just need to get healthier and it’ll all come into focus.