This is my first post here. I usually post on Celticsblog or CLNS Radio. CLNS Radio published my take on the trade from Boston's POV. But I also have a lot of thoughts on the deal for Brooklyn, and a Celtics-based blog wasn't the place for it. So here I am, to break down why I think that this trade potentially moves the Nets to the very top of the league.
Last season the Nets won 49 games and finished 4th in the East, before losing the 4/5 match-up in the first round of the playoffs. Last week the Nets made a huge trade, swapping non-fitting parts and future considerations for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. And, after taking the pulse of the various NBA pundits and experts, it seems that the overwhelming national consensus is that the expected result of this trade for Brooklyn is...no change.
From ESPN, to Foxsports, to CBSSportsline, to the Sporting News, to every NBA outlet that I've found, the trade "analysis" narrative goes like this: the Celtics did what they had to by going all in on a rebuild, which will help them avoid the mediocrity fate they experienced in the 90s after holding onto Larry Bird and Kevin Mchale "for too long". And on the Nets side, the narrative is that Prokhorov has gone all in on his get-a-title-quick scheme, and the team should improve, but that since Garnett/Pierce/Terry are too old the team will still find itself significantly behind the Heat, and also playing catch-up behind the Pacers, Bulls and possibly the Knicks. In other words, the Nets that finished 4th/5th in the East last year made a huge trade, but are still supposed to finish 4th/5th in the East again this season.
I tend to think that this trade deserves a bit more in depth analysis than that, because there is a wide range of potential outcomes of this deal. And while a 4th/5th place finish in the East is in play for the Nets, I would argue that this should be the floor expectation of the team. And that the ceiling is nothing short of an NBA championship. The question to me, then, is just how likely are the various possible outcomes to come to fruition. So lets take a few minutes to look at how the Nets have changed as a result of this trade (and the coaching change), how those changes should translate to the court, and finally how those changes could result in different ultimate outcomes.
1) Team Culture
I'm going to start with both the least quantifiable but also one of the most important aspects of this trade: the team identity. Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez are talented players who have played on playoff teams before. But, respectfully, none were known as inspiring leaders and none had any experience playing at the truly highest levels. Teams tend to take on the personality of their best player and/or leaders, and that personality is what helps sustain squads as they go through the crucible of a long season and playoffs run. That personality is what helps young players learn what level of professionalism is expected of them. It's what helps players settle into their roles. And its what gives entire teams confidence that, no matter what, they know they can compete with the best.
Enter Garnett, Kidd, Pierce, and Terry. All four have championship-winning experience. All four are big, team-first personalities. One is arguably the best 6th man of his generation. One is arguably the best clutch performer of his generation. One is arguably the best floor general of his generation. And one is arguably the best player of his generation. All four have played against, and had huge success during the time of every other veteran player on this team which gives them major weight in the locker room. Garnett, Pierce and Terry also have the distinction of being on the last two teams to defeat a LeBron-led squad in the playoffs, and all did so from the position of underdog.
This is a massive sea-change of leadership, experience and grit-and-balls at the top for the Nets. Last season it was regularly said in basketball circles that the Nets were talented but lacking in fire and leadership. That is, EMPHATICALLY, no longer the case. This season's Nets will all of a sudden have the personality and tenor that the Celtics have had for the past six years. They'll be tough, they'll be edgy, and they'll be fearless. And they'll have both a confidence and a chip on their shoulders against the two-time defending champion Heat.
2) Team Defense
I think that many people, fans and analysts both, get too caught up in 1-on-1 considerations when evaluating. This is especially true on defense. I've seen several note that Garnett is still a great defender, and that Pierce is solid on D, but then conclude that the positional improvement on D doesn't make a big difference to the team D as a whole. I think you should look at it almost diametrically in the opposite direction. You don't plug Garnett in as an upgrade to one position on the existing Nets defense, you instead now fit the entire Nets team into the new defense that is built around KG. In other words, like the leadership infusion noted above, we're talking about a systemic change and not an incremental one.
Garnett's defensive impact, even at age 37, is still massive and somewhat difficult to quantify. However, it is not a coincidence that every attempt to quantify individual defense based on team performance over the last decade has Garnett as pretty distinctly the best defensive player of his generation. Even over the last few years, with Garnett in his mid-30s, he has ranked consistently in the top-5 (if not #1 outright) in the NBA in defensive regularized adjusted plus minus (D RAPM) which is probably the gold standard right now for measuring individual defensive impact.
The relevant question post-trade is, why is Garnett's impact on defense still so huge? There are several answers. For one, he is still 7-1 with almost cartoonishly long arms and perhaps the best lateral mobility of any 7-footer in the league. His pedigree as the best pick-and-roll defender in the NBA is well documented, which is a key because on-ball picks are a universal staple of opposing offenses, but Garnett is also an elite help defender in space. Many get caught up on the idea of "rim protection" as a big's more important defensive duty, but what Garnett does with his help defense is globally lower the percentages of many of the shots inside the arc that offenses are designed to generate. It's all about percentages. Garnett rotates and helps within that 15-18 foot radius around the rim to such a degree that many of the "good" shots that offenses are designed to produce become instead contested/lower-percentage shots, or even better, the offenses start adjusting to the the increased defensive pressure inside the arc and instead setting up the offense and shooting more long range (lower percentage) shots to account for it. Put together, over the course of a game or a month or a season you won't see very many Garnett defensive highlights on the Sportscenter top-10, but what you'll notice is an extremely consistent, extremely robust defensive impact on the entire team when Garnett is around.
In addition to the features laid out above, another of KG's primary defensive traits is his ability to be a coach/middle linebacker/play-caller on defense. He has drawn a lot of comparisons to Ray Lewis over the last couple of years for this very reason. Garnett knows where all of his teammates are supposed to be at any given time on defense, no matter what the situation, and he communicates this to them all game long. Continuously. And loudly. If the teammate is too slow to react, it's not unusual to see KG physically grab a teammate and push him towards where he is supposed to be. In this respect, not only does KG's presence on defense make it easier on his teammates because his help reduces their responsibilities...but also, his constant guidance out there keeps the whole unit performing as a cohesive whole. And it also lets everyone play to their strengths. Johnson has a similar size/athletic ability quotient to Pierce, and don't be surprised next season when "all of a sudden" he-too develops a reputation for being a rugged on-ball defender because he'll be able to focus more fully on that on defense. Lopez will all of a sudden be considered a strong post-defender because he'll be able to concentrate on that aspect of his defense more. Pierce has already had 6 years of experience with this, which is why he went from being thought of as a lazy defender in his prime pre-2007 to a plus defender in his mid-30s. And Deron, too, will only have to stick to his man as best he can and/or play passing lanes while knowing his basic rotations, and his counter-part production will still go way down because the entire defensive unit will be stronger.
3) Team offense
This is the unit that was already more of a strength for the Nets, and this is the unit where Garnett and Pierce will have to fit into the whole as opposed to re-making it. I expect Deron to remain the most important offensive cog, as he will be running the show (for good reason). Joe Johnson has been a professional scorer for a lot of years, and Lopez has a very polished offensive game for a big. The offensive nucleus was already strong. But with Garnett and Pierce brought in to finish off the line-up, the overall offensive potential increases quite a bit.
At this point in their careers, both Pierce and Garnett can operate at the highest efficiency for the long haul if they are utilized more as finishers than as initiators on offense. Both still have initiation ability (shown most recently for Garnett in the 2012 postseason and for Pierce after Rondo went down in the 2013 season), but if they are relied on too heavily in this way it can wear them down. But on a unit with Deron running the show, Pierce is free to be the long-range assassin that he has shown himself capable of in recent years when Boston ran things more through Rondo. A field goal percentage up near 50% with a lot of 3s mixed in is very much in play for Pierce. Meanwhile, Garnett is a metronome on offense. There was a study done last season on who the most and least volatile scorers were in the NBA, among players that score a significant number of points. It was found that Carmelo Anthony was the most volatile scorer...capable of going for 45 points one night and 12 the next. On the flip side, Garnett was the most consistent scorer in the NBA. He scores in the mid-upper teens on about 50% shooting just about every game. His spot-up mid-range jumper is money, he can still operate from the post as either a passer or scorer when called upon, and he still has great court vision augmented by his height advantage. Oh, and he absolutely loves setting repeated, crushing picks that only have the occasional drawback of being (correctly) cited as illegal picks every so often. But he sets these screens all-game every-game, facilitating everything from the on-ball pick-and-pop (someone's always open) to the rim-cutter (someone's often open) to the defensive collapse which leads to good shots on the swing pass.
Focus: what do Garnett and Pierce do for the Nets offense? In short, they are now an offense without a real weakness in the half court. All five starters have range for their position and can post up, none require an extremely high usage of the ball, most are willing and able passers, and there are clutch shot-makers across the board. The pick-and-roll/pop, the iso, the high-low, and the straight post-up are all offensive sets that are now team strengths. The floor spacing should be great with three good three-point shooters and a fourth with range out to the 3-point line. In short, if the offensive sets can take advantage, this team has the potential to be the best offense in the NBA.
4) Possible downsides
If all that I've laid out above were to come true, the Nets wouldn't just be improved next season...they'd be DRAMATICALLY improved. They have legitimate top-offense and simultaneously top-defense in the NBA potential, and they are now chock full of strong-willed veteran leaders for the playoffs. Everything is beautiful, right?
Well, now quite. Here is where the criticisms come in...Garnett, Pierce and Terry will be a combined 109 years old next season. Lopez has foot issues that were apparently bad enough to bend a titanium pin in his foot (wow). Kidd is a rookie head coach, and he has to show that a) he has the chops to be head coach and b) he can lead this group (which now includes several of his direct peers) in a way that takes advantage of their experience without being threatened by it. Deron has to find a balance by which five players that could average 20 points per game if called upon can all get enough shots to be content without taking the team off course. There are egos to manage, injuries to avoid, and a lot of team chemistry to be developed. While I'm not spending as many words here as I may have with some of the points above, I don't want to in any way minimize this: This team has a long ways to go and a lot of hurdles to clear in order to be as good as they might be, and the safest odds might be that all of those hurdles are unlikely to be cleared with 100% success. There will likely be bumps and glitches, and only through luck and good planning can those be prevented from becoming mountains and obstacles. This has to be factored into the bottom line.
5) The Bottom Line
I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell you for sure what will happen. But I can look at history and trends, and make some informed guesses on where the odds lie. And my conclusion is that even with the chemistry/coaching questions to be faced, that on the whole this will be an area of strong improvement for the Nets this year. And while the team defense will be strongly reliant on a 37-year old that is likely to only play 30 minutes per game, I believe that the team defense will improve to (conservatively) among the top-8 in the NBA barring a catastrophic Garnett injury. And similarly, once the dust settles, I expect that the Nets will field a top-5 offense in the NBA with more injury robustness.
So all told, I disagree with the consensus that the Nets are better but still fighting for a 4/5 seed this year. On the contrary, while I think their peak possibility is an '08 Celtics-like run to the best record in the NBA, the more likely outcome is a top-3 seed with a reasonable chance at the best record in the East. I'd set their over-under on regular season wins at 56, and I'd take the over. While a series of the "possible downsides" could occur simultaneously and make this a 45-win team, I think that's only about as likely as it is that they explode to the top.
All in all, I think this trade significantly improved both the expected outcome and the upside of this Nets team. Lacking that crystal ball, no one can say who is actually going to take home the trophy in 2014. But after this trade, I think the Nets are in just as good of a position to take it home as any other team in the NBA. Any other team. And at this point in the off-season, that is just about all that you could realistically ask for.