Twelve months ago things seemed different as the Brooklyn Nets appeared to have experienced the best off-season in franchise history. Gaping holes in the roster seemed to have been filled and a championship pedigree was instilled into a current playoff team. Obviously we know how things transpired.
Fast-forward to the present day and expectations aren’t as grand. The buzz out of Brooklyn seems to have been muted. There’s no longer a "Big Five" and the hype that accompanies being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
For the Nets heading into the upcoming season, the number eight seems to be the number of significance. No I’m not referring to Deron Williams but the Eastern Conference seeding ESPN predicted earlier this summer. A lot has changed and after a tumultuous offseason many NBA prognosticators see more doom and gloom for the team from Atlantic Avenue.
Is there any reason for optimism for the Nets this year? Sure there is! In fact there are eight reasons to view the glass as "half-full" for the 2014-15 season.
1.) The Return of Brook Lopez:
Most people have focused on the personnel losses of Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce but perhaps the biggest acquisition for this year will be the return of their All-Star center, Brook Lopez.
The Nets did salvage their season a year ago after Lopez was injured; however, his absence from the lineup was most felt during the second round against Miami when scoring droughts became the norm during crunch time. The mismatches he could have created would have been a welcomed addition.
There’s a population of fans out there that believe the team may be better off without Lopez, as they view him as someone who slows down the pace on the offensive end. True, most teams lack a "traditional center," with the modern trend of the NBA emphasizing up-tempo scoring with an over-reliance on three-point shooting. However, an offensive big-man who can score efficiently from almost anywhere in the half-court is certainly a luxury many teams would sign up for.
Deron Williams Talks Goals for 2014-15
The last time Lopez missed the bulk of a season, he returned to play in 74 games the following year and earned an All-Star appearance. If this surgery can prevent the recurring problems moving forward, similarly to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, then maybe the 26 year-old can continue to develop into one of the better centers in the league under Lionel Hollins’s tutelage.
2.) Deron Williams’s Health and Motivation:
To Nets fans everywhere, the "Deron Williams Experience" has been nothing more than frustration and disappointment. When the former all-star was acquired from the Utah Jazz, many believed that the organization had traded for arguably the best point guard in the game. Once again a superstar, playmaking floor-general would transform the laughingstock franchise from New Jersey.
Well since he arrived in Newark, there has been ailment upon ailment that has prevented him from performing at the elite level, which we saw consistently in Utah. Aside from the wrist issues, Deron’s ankles have played a major role in hindering his ability in what seems like a complete erosion of skills topped off with a total lack of confidence. This was most apparent during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, when Williams scored zero points against the Miami Heat, a total no one could have ever foreseen from the former All-Star.
For years, Williams has put off the necessary surgery to clean up the bone spurs in his ankles. Through rest and PRP treatment, the Nets saw their point guard play at an elite level during the second half of the 2013 season. Unfortunately that approach didn’t yield the same results this past year. Now that Williams has undergone the surgery on his ankles this offseason, the Nets organization and fan base can only hope that these procedures can restore the health and confidence in their fallen star.
Am I suggesting a return to superstardom for D-Will? Not exactly. Perhaps there’s too much wear and tear on Deron’s wheels to return to elite status; however, if the surgery reduces or eliminates the pain, then perhaps he can return to being a highly effective NBA point guard. The days of 22 and 10 may be a thing of the past, but a consistent 18 and 8 with sound decision-making and good health would be a welcomed sight for fans and the team.
New York is a place where we break people down, only to build them back up again. Pundits have shed light on his underachievement and many fans have essentially written him off. With all of this criticism he has endured over the past two years, I would expect Williams to enter this season with a chip on his shoulder. If there’s a competitive spirit still within, Brooklyn should have a hungry, determined player running the point. The fact that recent photographs show him looking svelte is a definitely a step in the right direction.
3.) Jarrett Jack’s Arrival:
There’s no denying that when Shaun Livingston signed with Golden State earlier this summer, it was a disappointing day for NetsNation. After all, it was his emergence that helped spark the team’s turnaround when the season seemed totally lost. Losing him was definitely a blow, but his replacement Jarrett Jack is no slouch. What they bring to the court is obviously not the same; however, Jack is versatile in that he too can assume either role in the backcourt.
What sets him apart from Livingston is that opposing defenses can’t ignore him on the perimeter. As we saw throughout the regular and postseasons, defenses challenged Livingston to shoot from the outside, an area where he clearly lacks confidence and competence. For all the positives in his game, at times it felt as if he was a liability on the offensive end during the Toronto series – somewhat reminiscent of Reggie Evans. Livingston also seemed to be rattled against the Raptors on the defensive end when he committed several errant fouls while opposing players were attempting jump shots.
With Jack, the Nets acquired a player who is battle-tested and has performed well in the postseason once before. It was just two seasons ago when Jack averaged 17.2 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 50.6% from the field over 12 games for the Golden State Warriors. Perhaps a change of scenery can get Jack playing at the level he was at prior to his pit stop in Cleveland.
4.) A New Sheriff is in Town:
When Jason Kidd forced his way to Milwaukee, many fans felt shock and betrayal by their favorite all-time Net. Although it was a disappointment at the time, the Nets seem to be in a better position today and moving into the future with Lionel Hollins at the helm.
With Hollins, Brooklyn has now a respected coach with a proven track record of success in the NBA. In Memphis, he led the transformation of a run-of-the-mill team into a force to be reckoned with. The Grizzlies improved upon their regular season winning percentage in four consecutive years and experienced deep playoff runs in a highly competitive Western Conference. Had there not been a change in the team’s ownership, perhaps Hollins would still be building what he had started.
Lionel Hollins and the Nets' New Scheme
For years the Nets have sought after someone or something that will help develop toughness in a team that at times has seemed soft. That type of mindset comes from leadership, and Hollins is the type of coach that can instill it in his players. He is a coach that values hard work and defense, while setting high standards. Players like Lopez and Williams stand to benefit the most from his presence.
There will be an adjustment period for the players to adapt to a new coach and system, but the early growing pains will be worth it in the long run. It wasn’t a flashy hire as it was a year ago, but this time management seemed to have gotten it right.
5.) Players Ready for Expanded Roles:
When the organization declined to offer Paul Pierce a contract, many people were left scratching their heads and/or furious that the Nets didn’t resign a player whom they dealt a first round draft pick for just twelve months earlier.
On the surface, the loss of Pierce seemed to be devastating, but what’s overlooked is that the Nets seem to have a plethora of options to replace their veteran leader. In my mind, the candidate to fill Pierce’s shoes offensively is Mirza Teletovic. Now entering his third season in the league, the Bosnian sharp-shooter showed last season what he is capable of when given the opportunity.
Nets Embrace Their Ability to Shoot From Deep
Nearly eight years younger, Teletovic possesses a similar skill-set to Pierce in that he can stretch the floor and create more spacing for Lopez or Joe Johnson in the post. Like Pierce, Teletovic also plays with a sense of passion that exhilarates the fans and his teammates. Now familiar with the NBA and his confidence soaring, Mirza can match or perhaps exceed the 16 points and 7 rebounds that his "per 36 minutes" stats suggest.
Another player who appears ready to take the next step is Mason Plumlee. Thrown into the fire as a rookie, Plumlee showed tremendous athleticism at the center position. With Andray Blatche officially out of the picture, the second year player will be relied on to produce behind, or even next to, Brook Lopez.
His selection to the national team this summer should pay dividends in his development, both in terms of on the court ability and leadership. Combining this experience with a coach who has a track record of developing big men, the Nets should feel pretty good about the player who was a steal with the 22nd pick of the 2013 draft.
6.) Youth Movement:
A year ago, cynics of the Nets mocked the age of some of their more prominent players, mostly the three obtained in the deal with the Celtics – Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry. The Nets traded their future away for an "all-in" attempt to win a championship.
Heading into this season, what seems to be overlooked by critics is the nice blend of youth to supplement the veteran core of Lopez, Williams, and Johnson. When there is balance in terms of age throughout the roster, everyone stands to benefit. The younger players learn from established veterans and in turn their youth provides the much needed energy when the team is in a rut. It seems that successful teams tend to find this balance.
The Nets may have lacked a first round pick this year, but the arrival of Bojan Bogdanovic can be considered the equivalent of having a lottery pick… at least according to scouting reports and the hype. In comparison to his rookie counterparts, he has had a few years of professional experience playing overseas for Fenerbahce.
The key with any young talent is the ability to properly develop it. The Nets benefited last year with Garnett taking Plumlee under his wing. With fellow countrymen on the roster, hopefully the adjustments for Sergei Karasev (Andrei Kirilenko) and Bogdanovic (Teletovic) to the league will be smoother than some other foreign imports. Becoming acclimated to the NBA can be a challenge, so perhaps the international buddy system will prove to be a valuable asset.
Additionally, athleticism was an area of weakness for the team last season. Hopefully the additions of Markel Brown and Cory Jefferson will help ignite the team when they are in need of a spark, similarly to what Plumlee provided during his rookie campaign.
7.) New Team, Same Core:
What people have forgotten about is the Nets had a successful inaugural season in Brooklyn. The team won 49 games and earned the fourth seed in a competitive Eastern Conference. They were able to achieve this while enduring early season turmoil (Avery Johnson’s firing) as well as introducing new talent to the roster.
Certainly the roster has experienced quite a bit of turnover since the 2012-13 season; however, the team is still centered around the trio of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson. Back then, in their first go-around of playing with one another, finding cohesion was the challenge. What was the identity of the offense? Who was the player to carry the team during crunch time?
Two seasons later it’s now apparent that Johnson is no longer an ancillary piece but a main fixture on the offensive end. His full integration led to the team finding its identity. Even with Lopez missing a good portion of last season, there now seems to be some semblance of continuity amongst them.
With the main core intact, consider the surrounding pieces from that 49-win team and compare them to who will play meaningful minutes on this team. Is it safe to declare that Kirilenko, Jack, Bogdanovic, Teletovic, Plumlee, Garnett, and Alan Anderson is a stronger supporting cast than Gerald Wallace, CJ Watson, Jerry Stackhouse, Kris Humphries, Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche, and Keith Bogans? I think so!
8.) The Other Teams in the East:
There is no doubt that the Cavaliers’ acquisitions of LeBron James and Kevin Love will make them the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference. From a talent standpoint there will be very few teams in the entire league that can match their level.
Aside from Cleveland, the rest of the Eastern Conference appears to be weaker. Consider the following:
- Miami will certainly take a step back with James’s departure and another year of mileage on Dwyane Wade’s knees.
- Even if Paul George didn’t get injured this summer, the Pacers were exposed as a broken unit during their second half swoon.
- Chicago’s roster may impress, but there’s no telling how Derrick Rose will hold up over an 82-game season following two major knee surgeries.
- Washington, Charlotte, and Toronto are definitely organizations trending upwards, but are any of their rosters really on a whole different level than what the Nets will put out on the court?
- The Knicks?… Really?
There’s no doubt that the Nets organization has experienced significant change over the past few months ranging from a new coach to the 15th man. Heck, even the Brooklyn Knight was fired!
In the end, their success will hinge upon the health of their two stars – Lopez and Williams. If their respective medical procedures prove to be successful, maybe the Nets can turn some heads in an uncertain Eastern Conference. Maybe things will break in the Nets favor (for once) and they will prove some of their harshest critics wrong.
It may not jump off the screen, but if you look deeper there are reasons for optimism for the Brooklyn Nets heading into the upcoming season.
Perhaps the sky isn’t falling after all.