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.

Enough About the Money!

Fresh off of their thrilling first round victory over the Toronto Raptors, it is obvious who the Brooklyn Nets’ most valuable player was in that series – Joe Johnson. With the inconsistencies of Paul Pierce and Deron Williams throughout those seven games, Johnson was the one constant who Brooklyn could rely on. It’s pretty remarkable that he averaged nearly 41 minutes on the court and scored at such an efficient rate.

MPG PPG FG% FT% 3FG% RPG APG
40.9 21.6 51.8 82.4 39.1 3.6 2.7

Cynics are always quick to point out that he is grossly overpaid and claim that his contract is amongst the worst in the league – if not THE worst. Yes, his statistical production doesn’t match up with his annual income, but to say that the Nets aren’t getting anything for their money is a joke. It’s not like what the Knicks have with Amare Stoudemire.

Smaller wings don't stand a chance against the Nets' smooth operator.

Smaller wings don’t stand a chance against the Nets’ smooth operator.

When he arrived in Brooklyn, his role was always supposed to be a complementary piece next to Brook Lopez and Williams. With the additions of Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Johnson’s offensive role would continue to diminish. However, even with all of the star power on this team, Johnson is still the guy who the Nets want to have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line.

What makes Johnson unique and underappreciated is that his game  isn’t “sexy”. He doesn’t wow you with freakish athleticism and you’ll never see him playing above the rim. Nope, that’s not Joe. To the casual or younger fan his game may be too “boring” which is unfortunate because it truly is a thing of beauty to watch when he is on.

Johnson’s game is more suited for fans with an acquired taste – post up fade-aways, running floaters in the lane, and the methodical dismantling of opponents in isolation sets. It may not be dynamic, but you can’t deny that it is smooth. If Joe was a boxer, he would be the type who would win a 12-round decision in which he surgically picked apart his foe rather than score a quick knockout.

With all of the criticism over his contract, it’s possible that his skill set is somewhat underrated to the collective NBA fan base. Teams continue to agonize how to defend him, evident with what we just saw in that Toronto series. Assign a smaller player to cover him, and watch Joe use his size and strength to get to the paint. Use a bigger forward, and Joe will use his slick dribbling to get around and create an open look. At this point, it’s pick your poison for the Nets’ opponents.

No time left against the game's best shot blocker - no problem for Joe Cool

No time left against the game’s best shot blocker – no problem for Joe Cool

Of course, his most impressive attribute is his ability to stay cool in the most pressurized situations of the game. For two years now, Johnson has proven that when the game speeds up for everyone else, it slows down for him. At this point, the sample is big enough to dismiss the notion that his knack for being clutch is fluky.

Fans around the league and members of the media will continue to mock his lucrative contract, but the truth is when the game is on the line, the ability to execute is priceless. These are skills that you cannot teach or develop in a player. You either have them or you don’t.

It’s a shame that his stealth demeanor and/or annual salary may be preventing some people from truly appreciating his craft. Aside from LeBron James and Kevin Durant, no player is worth over twenty million per season. Is it Johnson’s fault that the Atlanta Hawks offered that money? What would you had done if it was offered to you?

You aren’t named to seven All-Star Games without having the talent to validate the honor. There aren’t many players around the league who play the game the way he does, and I believe his move to small forward this season will allow him to continue to play at a high level for years to come. Even when he loses some of his athleticism (not like he’s fast to begin with), Joe will be that old guy at the playground schooling the younger kids.

Those who are fixated on the balance sheet are missing what type of asset he is on the basketball court. If you feel so compelled to bring up the dollars, then it’s only fair to admit that Joe is “money” when it really counts.