When you walk into the visitor’s locker room at TD Garden in Boston, the first hutch on your left is separated from all the others, and on game night it is typically occupied by the opposing team’s main draw.
It’s where LeBron James thumbs through Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, or Giannis Antetokounmpo scrolls up and down his iPhone, searching for a new song to trumpet through Milwaukee’s portable speaker. When the Houston Rockets came to town earlier this season, however, NBA All-Star and MVP candidate James Harden did not fill this space.
Nene, Houston’s backup center, did.
This isn’t to say that Nene is somehow more valuable to the Rockets than Harden, but it does serve as a quick reminder that the Brazilian veteran is no ordinary reserve, especially in a souped-up offensive system that has—somewhat surprisingly—managed to squeeze the very best from his fading skills.
When Rockets general manager Daryl Morey signed Nene to a one-year, $ 2.9 million contract last July, expectations were low. Nene was 34 years old, past his prime and injury-prone, a player who had appeared in at least 65 games only once in the previous four seasons. Moreover, the NBA was rapidly moving back-to-the-basket big men of his ilk to diminished bench roles.
Nene made just four three-pointers in his first 14 NBA seasons. He spent much of his time with his previous team, the Washington Wizards, shooting long twos. He was no longer athletic enough to provide the vertical spacing necessary from non-floor-stretching bigs in a spread pick-and-roll attack. How, exactly, would he fit in with Mike D’Antoni’s uptempo system?
On the other hand: there was so little financial risk in bringing him aboard that, well, what the hell, right? At his best, Nene could still blend his big, beach-muscled frame with unusually quick feet and the instincts of a guard. To use a boxing analogy, he was the equivalent of an aging but technically skilled heavyweight champ who could hang in the bantamweight division—if, for whatever reason, he decided to shed 125 pounds.
As it happens, acquiring him for as few years and dollars as Morey did has quietly turned into a roster-building coup.
Yay for Nene. Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Calling Nene a “problem” on the Wizards is a few degrees too warm, but by the end of last season he was no longer reliable enough to consistently complement the team’s young and rising core. That’s fine and understandable, as was the franchise and player parting ways last summer. Each side appeared tired of the other.
In Houston, though, the Rockets are using Nene in ways that the Wizards either wouldn’t or couldn’t. In fact, comparing Nene’s final Washington season with his first in Houston is like pitting a bloated summer blockbuster that barely made its budget back against a scrappy critical darling that enjoyed career-revitalizing performances from its entire cast.
In former Wizards coach Randy Wittman’s relatively antiquated offensive system, Nene was allowed to gorge on post-ups, a traditional means to an inefficient end. In Houston, where mid-range shots and contested twos are closely associated with spiritual satanism, he has adapted to thrive as one of the NBA’s most threatening roll men.
According to Synergy Sports, 31 percent of Nene’s possessions were post-ups last season. That’s about average compared to the rest of his career, and checked in as his most common play type. Even with John Wall—who is as good a playmaker, if not better than Harden—as his point guard, only 16.9 percent of Nene’s possessions were as the roll man. It’s not too warm to say that was a problem.
Things have totally flipped with the Rockets. Not only is Nene rolling more often than he ever has (up a whopping 14.8 percent from 2015-16), he’s also way more efficient. Per Synergy, he generates 1.25 points per possession (which places him in the 90th percentile) after tallying just 0.95 last season. Why is this?
First off, the Rockets don’t employ Marcin Gortat. Nene is almost always the five in a small lineup, either slotted beside sharpshooting Ryan Anderson or anchoring a tiny group that forces Harden or Trevor Ariza to defend the opposing team’s power forward. These units create plenty of space for him to corral a pocket pass while diving towards the basket.
Nene is currently shooting 90.9 percent in the playoffs, making him the most accurate shooter who’s played at least 40 minutes. Of course, basically all of his attempts are at the rim, because the Oklahoma City Thunder are too terrified of giving up three-pointers to come off Houston’s shooters.
Instead of drifting out for mid-range jumpers as frequently as he used to, Nene’s pick-and-pop game has dwindled. He’s constantly rolling towards the rim, either sucking help defenders in to open up a three-point opportunity for someone else, or finding himself open at the basket.
He’s a sandbag with legs whenever he sets a pick. (Of all players who logged fewer than 1,200 minutes, only Aron Baynes and Lucas Nogueira tallied more screen assists, per NBA.com.) Nene erases on-ball defenders with broad shoulders and a thick waist, always smart enough to plant himself at an angle that can spring Harden, Lou Williams, or Eric Gordon on a free run toward his own hapless defender.
When you are surprised at the transformation. Photo by Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
And when defenses prioritize stopping those aforementioned guards by trapping the ball, Nene does a great job slipping the screen—a situation where he’s literally the NBA’s most efficient player, per Synergy Sports—to find even more open room before he attacks. He dunked the ball 86 times this season, his most by a healthy margin, since 2011. He also shot 72.3 percent within three feet of the rim, the highest mark of his career.
This is a unique situation. Not all teams (as in, basically none) are built to attack from the three-point line like this one. Houston’s shooting has undoubtedly made life easier for Nene, but he’s done his part by shoring up the glass and maintaining some perpetually underrated work on the defensive end.
Thanks to his agility, awareness, and zippy hands, the Rockets allow only 102.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor (which leads the team), as opposed to 108 when he sits. That’s the difference between the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic.
The Rockets aren’t surprised by Nene’s positive defensive effect, citing his athleticism, intelligence, and experience as reasons Houston can afford to play him as the lone big in small units that exist to blitz opponents from beyond the arc.
“Bottom line: He cares,” a Rockets assistant coach texted VICE Sports.
Scoring on Nene in the post is harder than climbing a violent oak tree. He’s not fast enough to switch out and guard speedy point guards on an island, but he’s swift enough to stay high on pick-and-rolls, confront ball-handlers at the screen, and then keep them at bay until his teammate resumes responsibility.
He isn’t soaring from the weak side to swat a shot into the third row, but there’s value in always being in the right place at the right time. Nene is a very smart player; he uses his size to just sort of be in the way, and more times than not, that’s plenty.
Nene won’t win Sixth Man of the Year, or even draw the first or second most votes from his own team. But his dramatic transformation is a major reason why the Rockets are well positioned to make a deep playoff run. When starting center Clint Capela broke his fibula in December, many thought the Rockets would tread water, or even fall out of the top four.
Instead, they went 11-4 and rattled off nine straight wins. That’s impossible without Nene. He’s the overlooked veteran presence this championship contender never knew it needed.
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