The Glass is Half Full

Since the season ended in disappointing fashion, there has been much discussion that the 2013-2014 Brooklyn Nets’ season was a colossal bust. After all, they did spend an unprecedented amount on payroll only to last five games into the second round. From afar, the end results were inadequate considering the star-studded lineup, but in actuality there was a much to like about the season as a whole.

Raise your hand if this image made you believe at the time that the Nets were going to win the 2014 championship.

Raise your hand if this image made you believe at the time that the Nets were going to win the 2014 championship.

Although the payroll figures were astronomical, the salaries of some players didn’t match the level of production nor expectations. Did Deron Williams produce like a max level point guard? Were Kevin Garnett’s averages of 6.5 points and 6.6 rebounds worthy of 12 million dollars? Was the 14.6 million allocated for 17 games of Brook Lopez the way Billy King envisioned it?

Yes the final bill was expensive, but in reality the Nets were paying more for what they were actually getting. To assume that spending top dollar for talent is a guarantee for success is foolish. In a bizarre way, the Nets were perhaps the most high-priced, unlikeliest underdog that the game has ever seen. Even though it ended with a bad taste in our mouths, the season could be deemed a success considering how it started.

So what was there to like about it?

The biggest success of this season was that the Nets have found their head coach in Jason Kidd. Of course things didn’t look too promising prior to New Year’s Day, but patience did pay off. How many other head coaches, especially a rookie, could right the ship when the season appeared on the brink of disaster? Ten games under .500, tension in the locker room, and losing your best offensive player would have been the kiss of death for most teams. Just like what he was able to do as a player,  Kidd’s innovative personality was able to figure out a winning formula.

In the process, the Nets developed toughness and resiliency, which we all know was sorely lacking from the season prior. Ask yourself, would this team recover from the poor start and Lopez’s injury had Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries been on the roster? Yes, having Pierce and Garnett helped in this department, but don’t discount the impact Kidd had as well.

Some were upset with Kidd’s rotations in the postseason, but from his body of work as a both a player and coach, I expect him to improve from this experience. From his leadership, the team was able to rally to force and win a Game 7 on the road in front of a hostile Toronto crowd. I don’t think last year’s squad would have been up for the challenge. Do you?

Make no mistake, this is now Joe's team.

Make no mistake, this is now Joe’s team.

Another thing to like about the season was that the Nets have finally appeared to have found their identity. This has been a constant issue dating back to last year, but now it is apparent that this is Joe Johnson’s team. He may not be the vocal leader that people want, but his cool demeanor on the court perfectly aligns with Kidd’s from the sidelines. Even with Lopez’s return next year, the offense should continue to operate through the talented, versatile Johnson.

There’s no denying that player development was certainly a positive that came out of this season. This was most notably seen in Mirza Teletovic, Shaun Livingston, and Mason Plumlee.

Prior to this season Teletovic barely had a role and was viewed as nothing more than a three-point shooter. Unable to crack Avery Johnson and PJ Carlesimo’s rotations, Teletovic was usually inserted into the first minutes of the fourth quarter only to be promptly yanked off the court following a missed shot or two.

Under Kidd’s leadership, Teletovic was given an opportunity and showed the type of impact he could have on a game. Aside from his outstanding shooting, he also proved that there are other facets to his repertoire. Teletovic showed that he can score by putting the ball on the floor and improved his rebounding skills as well. What was most impressive was that he demonstrated a lack of fear of the big stage and relished the opportunity to challenge LeBron James.

Although last season’s offseason was highlighted by the blockbuster trade with Boston and the signing of Andrei Kirilenko, the additions of Livingston and Plumlee proved to be just as valuable. Some will remember Plumlee’s disappointing showing in the postseason; however, he did show tremendous growth during the regular season and should improve with more experience. Both he and Livingston (assuming he resigns) would provide the Nets with quality role players to complement their core.

Mirza's shooting and passion at times conjures up memories of another beloved Net.

Mirza’s shooting and passion at times conjures up memories of another beloved Net.

To judge the entire playoffs as a bust is not a fair assessment. After all, Brooklyn won a playoff series without the home court advantage against a team that was evenly matched up against them. To the casual fan, the Toronto Raptors may lack the cachet, but an educated fan would recognize their capabilities.

After sweeping the season series only to lose in five games, many fans were left disappointed with the outcome against the Heat. To me, the experience was frustrating in that the Nets were competitive and in a position to possibly win each game with the exception of the series opener.

If you consider that they were able to go toe-to-toe with the two time champions while getting inconsistent, sub-par production from Williams and Garnett, being competitive was quite an accomplishment. To beat a team like Miami, you need to be firing on all cylinders and unfortunately the Nets weren’t. Perhaps a steadier performance from Williams would have extended the series further.

In the end, the Nets and their fans got the opportunity they wanted all along. One would have to assume that playing close, competitive games against the NBA’s best would be a quality learning experience as well as a good measuring stick for where they currently stand as a team. Yes it was humbling, but maybe a healthy comeback from Lopez, a return from Pierce, and improved play from Williams can be the difference if these teams meet again next year.

It took a little time, but Kidd is once again their confident leader.

There’s no one else who should be leading the Nets.

Was it a bummer that the season had to end? Of course it was, but think about how unsatisfying it would have been had the Nets lost against Indiana and they never got the opportunity to face the team we were supposedly built to dethrone. A championship wasn’t won, but hopefully this experience was a stepping stone for next year and beyond.

At least now they have the right guy leading them into the future.

 

It’s Time to Remember the Forgotten Man

December 20, 2013

Does that date bring back any memories? Well, it should. It was the night the Brooklyn Nets lost an embarrassing game to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, 121-120 in overtime. The loss dropped the Nets to a 9-17 record and to add to the misery, All-Star center Brook Lopez suffered a broken foot which would end his season. The Nets season appeared to be officially over with their best offensive player on the shelf for the remaining 56 games.

brook lopez foot

Arguably, the lowest point in the early going of the season.

It’s always darkest before the light, and when the morale among the organization and fan base was at a low, Jason Kidd found a way for the Nets to overcome this devastating setback. With the insertion of Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup and shifting Paul Pierce to power forward, the Nets changed the composition of their team. In doing so, they were able to salvage a once hopeless situation and achieve a 35-21 record without Lopez.

Many in the sports world claimed that the Nets decision to play “small ball” was the solution to their early season struggles. The term “small ball” is misleading because in actuality the Nets don’t play a quicker brand of basketball. Make no mistake; this isn’t 2002 all over again where Kidd is leading a fast break alongside Kerry Kittles, Kenyon Martin, and Richard Jefferson.

Even without Lopez, the Nets still play at a slower pace offensively. Deron Williams rarely pushes the ball and there is still a heavy usage of half court sets in which Joe Johnson or Pierce operate on the low block or elbow. It seems like the only time when the Nets get out and run is when Livingston or Andrei Kirilenko create a turnover leading to a fast break opportunity.

With the team’s success since the New Year, many pundits and fans have insinuated that perhaps Lopez was part of the problem and the team would be better off without him. These are the people who state that if he can recover from his surgically repaired broken foot, Billy King should look to deal him in an effort to accumulate future assets. At the end of the day, if trading Lopez or any player for a lucrative package of future draft picks and young players presents itself, then you have to consider what’s best for the future of the team. However, to dump a former All-Star player with tremendous offensive ability for fifty cents on the dollar is foolish.

How many centers can score as effectively from near or far?

How many centers can score as effectively from near or far?

Now I know what you’re all thinking – he slows down our pace, he’s a black hole, and our offense lacks creativity with him playing. As I mentioned earlier, this group doesn’t play with a torrid pace, and who says that all five players need to run the floor? Was Todd MacCulloch or Jason Collins a part of those Kidd-led fast breaks?

Perhaps the reason why our offense lacked cohesiveness earlier this season was because an inexperienced coach wasn’t sure what the team’s identity was and throwing it down low to an effective, efficient scoring seven-footer was the easy thing to do. Now that Kidd has gained a season’s worth of experience, he should know how to properly integrate Lopez into this lineup.

If you’ve been watching these playoffs, it is apparent that we’ve sorely lacked a presence in the post for offense and defense. I am not saying Lopez is an elite rim protector, but there’s no denying that he has improved drastically over the past few years and has become a respectable shot blocker. Does his rebounding still need to improve? Yes, but we already knew that!

Many in the sports media have declared that the NBA has changed and that you don’t build around a center anymore. Although this is true, these playoffs are once again proving that the pace does slow down and scoring in the half-court is still essential. The Nets showed in Game 1 against Miami and in the Toronto series that they miss Lopez’s offensive prowess. When the outside shooting isn’t falling, efficient inside scoring is the perfect remedy. Unfortunately Andray Blatche isn’t consistent, Mason Plumlee is too limited, and Kevin Garnett seems more comfortable away from the rim.

Moving ahead, Lopez shouldn’t be the focal point on offense but his skill set still complements players like Johnson well. Think about how he can dominate in the paint but also stretch the floor with his outside shooting. The key for him is to not hold onto to the ball too long and become better/quicker at passing out of the post.  I trust that with his offensive creativity, Kidd will be able to devise a system that will maximize everyone’s strengths, including Lopez’s.

Wouldn't this be a welcome addition to the Nets' defense in this postseason?

Wouldn’t this be a welcome addition to the Nets’ defense in this postseason?

At the end of the day, an accomplished 26 year old center who can score 20 points consistently is still a valuable asset. Actually, it is a luxury. He has always been a team guy, and even if the coaching staff designs fewer touches for him offensively, I don’t expect his ego to get in the way. It’s a shame that his injury occurred because I think playing alongside Garnett for an entire season would have improved many elements of his game.

Lopez has become a forgotten man when the Nets turned around their season, but now that he is visible on the bench during these playoffs, we are reminded of what he can bring to this team. He is our homegrown player who suffered through the losing and finally got to taste success last year. He deserves to be a part of a winner.

Just remember – you can’t spell Brooklyn without Brook.

No Sympathy from the Devil

How do we sports fans rationalize the miracles we witness on the court?  You know what I am talking about:  the half court buzzer beaters, Cinderella upsets during March Madness, etc.  The only logical explanation is that there is a higher power known as the Basketball Gods who look over and bless our beloved teams.

Well then, who’s to blame when our team is not a beneficiary of good fortunes?

Perhaps there’s another supernatural entity that exists in the sports universe.  If the Basketball Gods are responsible for all that’s good, then maybe there’s the Hoops Devil to balance the equation.  Who else would cause all of the heartbreak, bad luck, horrible calls, freak injuries, unlucky bounces, curses, jinxes, hexes, and championship droughts?

Every organization at some point has been a victim of the Hoops Devil’s cruelty, but doesn’t it seem that he (or she) has more fun tormenting certain fan bases than others?  If you are searching for a case study, look no further than the lovable Nets, both from their days in the Jersey swamp and now in Brooklyn.

The Hoops Devil has been very clever in torturing the souls of the die-hard fans, especially since 1990.  It may seem as if the Nets have been perpetually bad; however there have been many instances in which greatness appeared to be on the horizon until something catastrophic occurred.  This has happened too many times during my lifetime, and this is precisely why I am in need of an old priest and a young priest.

exorcist

Now before you have me committed, consider the following:

Exhibit A (1991-93 seasons):

After several years of futility, an impressive core of young talent was assembled featuring the likes of Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman, and Drazen PetrovicBill Fitch and then Chuck Daly led them to consecutive playoff berths as the sixth seed, but they were eliminated by the Cleveland Cavaliers both times in the first round.

The rematch against the Cavs ended with a decisive fifth game on the road, which should be considered a success considering we were without Anderson to a broken wrist (thanks John Starks!) and Petrovic was hampered and limited by a sprained knee ligament.

(Note: The Nets were 39-27 when Petrovic first got hurt and  finished 4-12.  This dropped them to the sixth seed.)

Although we didn’t advance past the first round, progress was felt and with the legendary Daly at the coaching helm, the Nets appeared to be headed in the right direction for years to come.  Disaster then struck shortly after the 1993 playoffs when Petrovic tragically died in a car accident.  The Nets would never be the same.

Drazen Petrovic shows emotion

They also lost their heart and soul.

Petrovic’s void was filled by Kevin Edwards and the Nets returned to the playoffs the following season to face their cross-river rivals in the first round as a seven seed.  The Knicks eliminated them in four games and Daly ultimately retired.

The Butch Beard era was officially underway, and the Nets would average 29 wins for the next 3 seasons.  Hellooooo Armen Gilliam!

Exhibit B (1997-99 seasons):

The second season under John Calipari saw the Nets finish with 43 wins and a playoff match-up with the defending champion Chicago Bulls.  The Nets were swept out of the first round, but there was tremendous optimism regarding the future with the talented youth of Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles complementing the solid veteran core of Kendall Gill, Sam Cassell, and Jayson Williams.

Nets slam magazine

This wasn’t the only time a Nets starting lineup was over hyped on a magazine cover.

To say the following season was a train wreck is putting it mildly.  The team fired Calipari after winning three of their first 20 games, Cassell was dealt for Stephon Marbury, and Williams’ career essentially came to an end as his leg was broken after a nasty collision with Marbury.

Exhibit C (2006-07 season):

Ask any Nets fan what the missing piece was during the Jason Kidd era, and expect to hear “a big guy who could score down low”.  Enter Nenad Krstic who immediately meshed well with Kidd, Richard Jefferson, and Vince Carter.  Their “Big Three” was quickly becoming a “Big Four” as Krstic had just completed his first full season in which he averaged 13.5 points as a 22 year old.

nenad krstic

If this didn’t happen, Mikki Moore wouldn’t have become a multimillionaire.

Twenty six games into the 2006 season, in which he was averaging over 16 points per game, Krstic tore his ACL.  His breakout season came to a screeching halt, and although he returned the following season, he was never the same player.

Exhibit D (2010 NBA Lottery/Offseason):

Fresh off of their 12 win season, the Nets had the best odds of winning the draft lottery which would have guaranteed them a franchising changing player in John Wall.  Even the second overall pick would have given them what appeared to be a nice consolation prize in Evan Turner.  Luck or lack thereof, the Nets ended up with the third overall pick.

To make matters worse, this was the same off season in which LeBron James toyed with and rejected management’s pursuit. Rod Thorn then had a senior moment when he signed Travis Outlaw (5 years, 35 million dollars) and Johan Petro (3 years, 10 million dollars) to laughably, lucrative deals.

travis outlaw

Not exactly Thorn’s finest accomplishment.

Exhibit E (2013-14 season):

This exhibit is still under construction; however you should be able to recall all that has gone wrong since we aren’t too far down Memory Lane.  Think about how much hype surrounded this team following the prized acquisitions during the offseason in which the Nets appeared to have rectified every flaw with a significant upgrade.  A 60-win season and a deep playoff run was certainly in the realm of possibilities, especially since the team had won 49 games the year before.

Oh well, where shall I begin?  The fact that “Deron’s Ankles” may replace Achilles’ Heel in the English Vernacular or that Andrei Kirilenko has changed how we look at “day-to-day” injuries?  How about Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry aging in dog years?

Aside from all of the other issues, Brook Lopez breaking his foot for the second time in three years was the most devastating blow to their title hopes and the future outlook of the team.  Even on an extremely talented roster, Lopez was their best offensive player whose size gave them a competitive advantage over most opponents.

brook lopez foot

You knew the Hoops Devil wasn’t going to let this season go smoothly, right?

With a roster comprised of aging players in the twilight of their careers, Lopez always seemed to factor into the long term plans.  At 25 years old and still developing, he has earned the recognition of arguably being the best offensive center in the league.

Even with his most recent surgery, Lopez’s future has a cloud of doubt hovering over it as his name is now associated with Bill Walton and Yao Ming.  Nets fans will cling to the hope that his career will resume down the same path as Zydrunas Ilgauskas instead.

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Seems like this is all too much of a coincidence, right?  If you’ve been around the block as long as I have, you learn quickly to expect the worst at any given moment.  What other way is there?  At least now there is a logical explanation for all of these unfortunate events.

Maybe I am wrong here and we should be thankful for the special treatment the Nets have received from the Hoops Devil.  After all, this has always kept things interesting and without it our franchise would just be ordinary- nothing noteworthy.  On second thought, perhaps I have developed a severe case of the Stockholm Syndrome.

Why the Hoops Devil has it out for us, we will never know.  Hopefully the day will come soon when another franchise captures his/her attention.   Until then, keep in mind that we are at the midway point of this season and the second half could get even more interesting…

…or depressing.