Nic Claxton has emerged as the third most important player on the Brooklyn Nets. That’s no small feat for Ben Simmons, who continues to be a vital presence as a perimeter stopper and open-floor playmaker. But with Kevin Durant sidelined with an MCL sprain, Claxton has helped Kyrie Irving get his scoring grip 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 a career-high 24 points and 15 rebounds plus three blocks. It is the 12th straight game in which Claxton has hit at least three shots, which is one of the longest streaks in NBA history.
Blocks have only been tracked since 1973-74, and only 10 other players have had a streak of three or more blocks per game. game for that 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 has 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 leading shift defenders.
The Nets turn on the pick-and-roll more than any other team, making Claxton an integral part of their scheme and often having him 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 just 38.3 percent.
In the second half against the Warriors on Sunday, Claxton contained Jordan Poole on a turnover in the corner, forcing Poole to reset the offense before Claxton blocked his shot moments later. And he blocked Steph Curry’s midrange pull-up after a late shift defending a pick-and-roll. It was just the fourth time this season that Curry had a jump shot blocked.
Claxton’s ability to knock down perimeter scorers is nothing new for the Nets. He has been a stopper for several years, but with a stronger frame, more seasoning and better fitness, he has stepped up this season.
The biggest change of all for Claxton of late has been his increased scoring. He’s averaged 19.2 points on 11 shots per game over the past five games, all while Durant is out and the team needs more offensive production.
Mostly he scores as he usually does, just at a higher volume. Claxton is shooting a league-best 73.3 percent from the field. He gets buckets by sprinting up the floor on the break, feeding Irving in the pick-and-roll and cleaning up everything around the basket with cuts and rebounds.
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 the ability to handle the ball in spurts. Irving and KD will obviously carry the load when healthy, but the fact that he is reviving this layer of his game shows that he can attack when needed, giving defenders just one more threat to think about on a teams that are already so hard to contain.
Simmons was supposed to be the player to take on that scoring responsibility, but his habits haven’t changed much. He is still timid and puts the ball up around the rim. Even after setting a screen, he is reluctant to dive to the basket. He is shooting a career-worst 43.4 percent from the line, so he has every right to fear being molested. But at least he doesn’t let his low offensive output negatively affect his defense. He has looked more like himself as a positionless stopper who helps fuel Brooklyn’s surge at 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 are now playing with gusto. Claxton, Durant and Simmons have reinforced their heavy rotation 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 complacent ahead of the trade deadline. League sources say the Nets are one of the teams more actively looking for upgrades before the stretch.
Joe Harris ($18.6 million), Seth Curry ($8.5 million) and Patty Mills ($6.5 million) could be involved in trades due to their short-term salaries and the fact that they have played smaller roles recently . But the Nets don’t have a ton of assets beyond those to include in any trades. Outside of those three movers, they only have unproven talents like Day’Ron Sharpe and Cam Thomas, their own first-round picks in 2028 and 2029, and a future first-rounder from Philadelphia in 2027 or 2028. It’s unrealistic that they would cough up a lot of value for a backup, but they should feel the urgency to maximize their title odds, either by adding a better fit wing (like Kyle Kuzma, Bojan Bogdanovic or Alec Burks) or what they really need most : a backup to Claxton.
The Nets should pursue someone who is similar in size to Claxton but offers better shooting ability. He doesn’t shoot 3s and makes just 46.3 percent of his free throws, which the Warriors tried to expose 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 also a likely target). The problem is that there just aren’t many good big ones available.
Spurs center Jakob Poeltl may be 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 want in return. The same goes for the Pacers and Myles Turner.
But the next batch of potentially available big men offers 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, but all of them are more affordable options and could potentially be within the Nets’ reach.
With Irving’s explosive scoring and Claxton’s two-way dominance behind multiple wins, there is plenty of reason to believe the Nets can clinch a guaranteed playoff berth. But the Nets are just 2-4 since Durant went down, and he’ll 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.
Statistics are current through Tuesday’s games.