I keep reading various critics, be they professional writers or message board posters, comparing the 2014 Nets to the 2013 Lakers. These critics say that "we just saw with the Lakers what happens when you put together a super team built with old parts", and use this to suggest that the Nets are not viable contenders this year. As I made clear in my last post, I fully expect the Nets to challenge for and possibly win the NBA title this year, so obviously I disagree with these critics. So with that in mind, let's take a look at some of the fundamental differences between the current situation in Brooklyn and what went on with the Lakers last year.
1) Style of Play/Fit. The core of the issues with last year's Lakers came from the fact that their pieces didn't really fit together that well. Steve Nash is one of the best offensive players of his generation, but in order to have that huge impact he needed to have the ball in his hands with a system that allows him to be the primary decision maker. But LA already had this guy Kobe Bryant, maybe you've heard of him, that has played himself into NBA history by being one of the more ball-dominant scorers ever. I was one that thought that perhaps Kobe might be willing to transition to more of a finisher, ceding creating duties to Nash in Mike D'Antoni's system. But that didn't prove to be the case. Similarly, Dwight Howard wanted/needed to be the primary paint presence at both ends for the Lakers, but that relegated Pau Gasol to the perimeter, which was out of his comfort zone. So from the very beginning, the two best perimeter players and the two best big men on the Lakers were in a fit-based quandary that at-best would have needed to be worked through, and at worst could (and did) prove to be unworkable.
This isn't the case with the group that Brooklyn has assembled. All five starters are versatile in how they do their damage. All can play in the post or have range to the perimeter (relative to their positions). All can play either on-the-ball or off-the-ball. The biggest potential area of friction is between Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams as each has spent a lot of their careers as the focal point for their team's offense. But in this case, both wings have experience playing with a ball-dominant point guard (Johnson with both Nash and Williams, Pierce with Rajon Rondo) and Pierce recently won a championship with another high-scoring wing in Ray Allen. And in the frontcourt there is no friction at all, as Kevin Garnett is perfectly content to operate from the perimeter to allow Lopez to roam inside, or vice versa, at need. And frankly, I'm not sure that Garnett even cares if he takes a shot on a given night which further acts as a release valve with the other four scorers in the starting line-up. Bottom line, unlike the Lakers, the Nets should fit together quite well.
2) Personalities. To piggyback on the previous point, the 2013 Lakers had fit issues off the court as well as on. Kobe was the de facto alpha dog on the team, and he made that fact very clear and very public last year. Howard, on the other hand, was the seemingly insecure superstar-that-wants-to-be-the-man who was very concerned that Kobe wasn't willing to pass the torch. Gasol has been on the trade block consistently for three straight years, and there was speculation as to how that affected his confidence and motivation. Nash would have seemed to be an ideal teammate, but at almost 40 years old with a championship biological clock ticking he seemingly had little patience with Howard's feelings, which has also been cited as a a potential source of damage in their relationship. And the fifth starter was Metta World Peace, who has such a long and storied history of personality instability that I don't even need to address it further.
Again, contrast that with this Nets team. None of the incumbents have anywhere near the maniacal "it's my team!" history that was shown in LA. The most charismatic player on the team now is one of the newcomers, and he is widely lauded as one of the best teammates/leaders in the NBA. The newcomer vets all have championships already and have shown a major willingness to sacrifice for more, and the incumbent young players are all ringless and ultra-motivated to change that. There is none of the attending circus, there are no pending free agents (besides Paul Pierce) that need to jockey for their next contract. Just like on the court, the Nets certainly have the potential to be a good fit off the court as well.
3) Age/injury/depth ratios. The Nets' starting five this year is old with 37-year old Garnett, 36-year old Pierce and 32-year old Johnson. But the Lakers' starters were even older with 39-year old Nash, 34-year old Kobe, 33 year old World Peace and 32-year old Gasol. The Lakers only had one 20-something star in Dwight Howard, and he was coming off of major back and shoulder issues that would linger through the season. The Nets, on the other hand, have two 20-something stalwarts in Williams and Lopez to help lighten the loads of their older teammates. Plus, while the Lakers had very little talent outside of their starting five, the Nets already have another talented young big and point guard in the newly signed Aundray Blatche and Shaun Livingston. The Nets also have a proven instant offense scorer off the bench in Jason Terry and a rebounding machine in Reggie Evans. Without even counting on their developing younger players or the swingman that they are almost guaranteed to sign before the season begins, the Nets are well on their way to a very strong bench to further lighten the load on their starting group.
4) Coaching. Jason Kidd is a complete unknown as a coach. But that is already better than the coaching circus that went on in LA last season, from a pre-season and five games of lame duck Mike Brown to the media frenzy surrounding a potential Phil Jackson hire to ultimately the polarizing presence of Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni has had success in the league as a coach, but he runs a very unique and specialized system that completely did not fit his personnel. Kidd may have no experience, but he's brought in two extremely well thought of assistant coaches to run offensive and defensive systems with track records of success that fit the talents of the team. Coaching friction was a big part of the downfall of last year's Lakers and the ultimate departure for Howard. Whatever you expect from Kidd, it is unlikely that his first year will turn out to be that divisive.
So in summary, I disagree that this year's Nets team is all that similar to last year's Lakers. Outside of the fact that both teams brought in big-name, older talent there isn't much to relate them. The Nets still have their own risks to overcome due to age, injury and building chemistry on a new team with a new coach. But compared to the train wreck in LA, that in hindsight wasn't really that hard to see coming, the 2014 Nets would appear to be in a much, much better position to succeed.