Two summers ago, Deron Williams re-signed with the Nets for a max contract, giving the team a superstar for the organization's move to Brooklyn. The team also acquired Joe Johnson from Atlanta, a soft spoken scoring wing who has a notoriously lucrative contract. Together, they were owed $190 million. The two were touted as "Brooklyn's Backcourt," leaders of a team that had title aspirations.
The team even trademarked the phrase, "Brooklyn's Backcourt," for clothing, radio and television programming, games, etc. To mark their arrival, there was a pep rally outside Brooklyn Borough Hall where they, Billy King, Avery Johnson spoke and Marty Markowitz welcomed them to Brooklyn. It was all good.
Fast forward to this summer. A lot has changed. Williams hasn't been healthy since the move to Brooklyn, and Johnson has, a bit surprisingly, become the Nets' best player, surprisingly because he was brought in to complement Williams. The Nets' title hopes have been shot down by pundits everywhere and the front office has has to deal with numerous moving parts and injuries. Still, the most constant part of the franchise has been that backcourt.
It might have gone unnoticed last year but Williams and Johnson kept things together. Take out those lineups that included Brook Lopez and Williams and Johnson had the most floor time together of any two-man combination on the Nets last season: more than 25 minutes per game. Playing a lot of minutes together, the Nets were at their best with the two on the floor, posting a net rating of +2.7 the best mark of any Nets combo, according to NBA.com
The two offensive-minded guards guided the Nets to an incredibly efficient offense. The team shot 48.2% from the floor on a per game basis, the fifth best mark on the team, but best number for two-man lineups that played more than 17 minutes together. That percentage was also two percent greater than the Nets' shooting percentage for the season. Furthermore, the Nets were scoring in bunches when Williams and Johnson shared the floor. Brooklyn scored 108 points per 100 possessions last season while the two All Stars --Deron 3, Joe 7-- were on the floor, the sixth best two man paring for Nets lineups that played more than 41 games together.
Could that remarkable offensive production by the two been a result of Johnson moving to small forward during the second half of the season? He traditionally puts up better numbers at small forward than shooting guard. It could have been. Johnson has the size of an NBA 3, able to post up most small forwards. The former Arkansas standout was significantly more efficient during the second half of the season when he was playing the three almost exclusively. His great offense was more the result of Paul Pierce coming on after a slow start, and that the small ball lineups gave him an opportunity to get more spacing and post ups.
Johnson has made a living playing shooting guard in the league, scoring at will against smaller defenders. I think a likely move back to the 2 this year will not be a detriment to his efficiency all that much, if at all ... and he will continue to thrive in this career renaissance in Brooklyn.
On the defensive end, the Nets did well enough with the two on the floor. Though Williams had a rough year on the defensive end, and Johnson had a career worst season in terms of defensive efficiency, the Nets had a better defensive efficiency with them on the floor than they did as a team. Lineups including D-Will and J.J. allowed 103 points per 100 possessions. The Nets averaged nearly 105 points allowed per 100. The two clearly didn't alter the team's defense as much as many believe they did last season. Their defense actually benefited the team when they shared the floor.
The loss of Shaun Livingston may hurt their defensive efficiency. They may have to take on more responsibility, but with Williams being healthy along with Johnson likely facing much smaller defenders, the hope is that the two can make up for Livingston's loss on that side of the ball.
Will their play together continue into the 2014-2015 season? I think it will only improve. Williams is healthy and looks to be in shape from pictures and videos that have surfaced over the past week. Johnson now has experience playing heavy minutes at small forward as well as shooting guard, which could help give the Nets even more versatility then they think they have.
Looking at the roster this season, it is fair to note that there are less mouths, that is minutes, to feed compared to last. Bojan Bogdanovic may or may not be a Paul Pierce clone, but he does not command the ball as much as the former Celtic does but can arguably create more for others than Pierce. Brook Lopez is back and he won't get in the way of Johnson and Williams. He will roam the paint and live off the penetration of the two.
Can this year be the year that "Brooklyn's Backcourt" finally flourishes and lives up to the billing they got in July 2012? If last year was a forerunner, despite all the Nets misfortunes, then yes.
- Burning Q's: Who's key to the O? - Mike Mazzeo - ESPN New York