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What Do the Nets Need Before the Trade Deadline?

With Nic Claxton breaking out, the Brooklyn Nets could be more dangerous than ever when Kevin Durant returns. But league sources say the Nets aren’t being complacent on the trade market.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nic Claxton has emerged as the third-most important player on the Brooklyn Nets. That’s no slight to Ben Simmons, who remains an important presence as a perimeter stopper and an open-floor playmaker. But with Kevin Durant sidelined because of an MCL sprain, Claxton has helped Kyrie Irving pick up scoring slack and has continued to anchor the defense.

Claxton had the best game of his career on Sunday, helping fuel a comeback road win against the Warriors with career highs of 24 points and 15 rebounds, plus three blocks. It’s the 12th consecutive game in which Claxton has swatted at least three shots, which is one of the longest streaks in NBA history.

Blocks have been tracked only since 1973-74, and only 10 other players have had a streak of three or more blocks per game for this long, according to Stathead. The names ahead of Claxton are six Hall of Famers (Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo) and four players named to at least one All-Defensive Team (Mark Eaton, Theo Ratliff, Manute Bol, and Hassan Whiteside).

Claxton could earn his first All-Defensive selection this year because he’s become one of the best shot blockers in the league (only Jaren Jackson Jr. logs more blocks per game) while continuing to be one of his position’s premier switch defenders.

The Nets switch on pick-and-rolls more than any other team, which makes Claxton an integral part of their scheme and often leads him to defend on an island. Claxton has defended more isolations (183) than any other player in the NBA this season. Second Spectrum tracking data says that when opponents try to score against him, they shoot only 38.3 percent.

In the second half against the Warriors on Sunday, Claxton contained Jordan Poole on a switch in the corner, forcing Poole to reset the offense before Claxton blocked his shot moments later anyway. And he blocked Steph Curry’s midrange pull-up following a late switch defending a pick-and-roll. It was only the fourth time this season Curry has had a jump shot blocked.

Claxton’s ability to clamp down on perimeter scorers is nothing new for the Nets. He’s been a stopper for multiple years, but with a stronger frame, more seasoning, and better conditioning, he’s leveled up this season.

The biggest change of all for Claxton lately has been his increased scoring. He has averaged 19.2 points on 11 shots per game in the past five games, all while Durant is out and the team is in need of more offensive production.

Mostly, he’s scoring the way he usually does, just at a higher volume. Claxton is shooting a league-best 73.3 percent from the field. He’s getting buckets by sprinting up the floor on the break, feeding off Irving in the pick-and-roll, and cleaning up everything around the basket with cuts and putbacks.

Claxton is also starting to get the green light to drive to the basket:

In college at Georgia, Claxton was a primary playmaker, so he has it in him to handle the ball in spurts. Irving and KD will obviously carry the load when they’re healthy, but the fact that he’s reviving this layer of his game shows he can attack when necessary, giving defenders just one more threat to think about on a team that is already so difficult to contain.

Simmons was supposed to be the player absorbing that scoring responsibility, but his habits have not changed much. He still is timid, laying the ball up around the rim. Even after setting a screen, he is reluctant to dive to the basket. He’s shooting a career-worst 43.4 percent from the line, so he has every right to fear getting fouled. But at least he’s not letting his low offensive impact negatively affect his defense. He has looked more like himself as a positionless stopper, helping fuel Brooklyn’s surge on the other end.

The Nets are 27-12 since Jacque Vaughn took over as head coach in early November. After a sluggish start under Steve Nash, the Nets now play with spirit. Claxton, Durant, and Simmons have fortified their heavy switching scheme on defense. The ball gets whipped around the floor on offense, except when it’s time for KD or Kyrie to isolate deep in the fourth quarter. Brooklyn has undeniable championship ingredients with its star power and ability to play different schemes.

But Brooklyn isn’t being complacent ahead of the trade deadline. League sources say the Nets are one of the teams more actively looking for upgrades before the stretch run.

Joe Harris ($18.6 million), Seth Curry ($8.5 million), and Patty Mills ($6.5 million) could be involved in trades because of their short-term salaries and the fact that they’ve been playing lesser roles lately. But the Nets don’t have a ton of assets beyond them to include in any potential trades. Outside of those three movable players, they have only unproven talent like Day’Ron Sharpe and Cam Thomas, their own 2028 and 2029 first-round picks, and a future first from Philadelphia in 2027 or 2028. It’s unrealistic that they’d cough up much value for a backup, but they should feel some urgency to maximize their title odds, whether by adding a better-fitting wing (like Kyle Kuzma, Bojan Bogdanovic, or Alec Burks) or what they really need the most: a backup for Claxton.

The Nets should pursue someone who is a similar size to Claxton but offers better shooting ability. He doesn’t shoot 3s and makes only 46.3 percent of his free throws, which the Warriors tried to expose on Sunday by hacking him late in the game. Hack-a-Clax will inevitably happen in the playoffs (and Simmons, who shoots with the wrong hand, is a likely target too). The problem is there just aren’t many good bigs available.

Spurs center Jakob Poeltl is maybe the most attainable name on the market, but he also struggles from the line. Maybe John Collins? The Nets probably don’t have what the Hawks would want in return. Same goes for the Pacers and Myles Turner.

But the next tier of potentially available big men offers some hope. How about Naz Reid, Mo Bamba, Jarred Vanderbilt, or Kelly Olynyk? Vanderbilt’s youth and contract status give him more value than the other three names have, but all of them are more affordable options and could potentially be within the Nets’ range.

With Irving’s explosive scoring and Claxton’s two-way dominance behind multiple wins, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Nets can clinch a guaranteed playoff spot. But the Nets are only 2-4 since Durant went down, and he will be out until at least sometime in February. Durant was in the NBA MVP race before his absence, Irving is a surefire All-Star, and Claxton has been one of the league’s most irreplaceable bigs. These Nets are a team to be reckoned with, especially if they deepen their bench.

Stats are current through Tuesday’s games.