Here's the good news for anyone that hasn't paid much attention to the FIBA World Cup this summer: Nene survived. He showed no ill-effects of the MCL injury he suffered back in March, and came away from the tournament injury-free, which is all the Wizards can ask for after seeing their power forward play in his first postseason in three years.
Brazil was ousted in the quarterfinals by Serbia on Wednesday, and it wasn't a particularly close game. Serbia got whatever they wanted offensively and blew the game open in the third quarter, outscoring Brazil 27-10. Nene was rendered ineffective in this one as Serbia packed it in defensively, daring the Brazilian shooters to beat them from the outside.
Packing the paint is made a lot easier with the shorter three-point line in FIBA, and it's even easier against Brazil since they don't have a stretch-4 to draw out that second big man defender. Nene gets the short end of the stick on a lot of these possessions since he's so used to popping out to the elbows and facing up, as he does here.
And he's not operating under the same circumstances as he does in Washington. He isn't the hub of the offense, and Brazil loves to station their second big men along the baseline, in position to catch dump-off passes from the other big man rolling down the lane out of the pick and roll. They use a lot of these high-low actions, and their trio of Anderson Varejao, Tiago Splitter, and Nene are all interchangeable in these roles since they're all great passers.
But there's only so much you can do with substandard guard play. Teams like Serbia were wise in dropping their big men back in pick and rolls, while sending a help defender from the weak side to thwart ball handlers from turning the corner. In the NBA, helping a pass away means death to opposing defenses, but in FIBA, it's more than acceptable.
The ball should be out of Barbosa's hands the second he see's that help defender jump out of position. Instead he takes an extra dribble or two, which is all that's needed for the defender to slide back over to his man.
All of this dysfunction culminated in a poor showing from Nene. He shot a little over 43 percent in this tournament and took just five shots per contest. He was a combined 6/18 from the field against Serbia and Spain, which is concerning since they're one of the few teams that have the NBA size and talent up front to give him fits. He regularly got his shot blocked underneath the basket, and had loads of trouble defending against their floor spacers.
The in-between game in the pick and roll, just as the ball handler zips past the screen and the screener pops out to the three, has been Nene's calling card for years. He's as good as anyone in taking away the ball handlers path to the basket without ever losing track of his man, but in the tournament, he looked like a completely different guy.
This is by far the biggest takeaway from all of this. He looked slow and not like the Nene that's anchored a top-10 defense two years running. And it's something that I've slowly come to grips with last season. He's not as effective on the perimeter as he once was. He zoned up more pick and rolls last season that I could ever remember him doing in the past. It's possible that it has more to do with Randy Wittman wanting to play more conservatively, and doing so means everyone being on the same page, even if it does go against a particular players' skill set. Or perhaps it has more to do with Nene just not being up to the challenge anymore. He's dealt with plantar fasciitis and an MCL sprain in the last two years. He hasn't gone this far into the playoffs since 2009, and is now on a team that is looking to build on that success.
This doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. Washington proved it can field a top-10 defense even with this shift in philosophy, and Nene was still at the center of it all. And he will, without question, continue to be this team's driving force on the defensive end. He was in the top-10 among all players in defensive RPM last season, and second to only Tim Duncan among all power forwards. His teams have always defended and rebounded better with him on the floor, and it stands to reason that the trend should continue even as he ages.
And we can all take solace in knowing that he escaped the tournament injury-free. That's all that ultimately matters.