NBA Season Preview: The New Jersey Nets

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new_jersey_nets_devin_harris_brook_lopez.jpgToday we continue PBT’s run through every team in the NBA, looking at the
changes for the upcoming year. Every weekday from now through the start
of the season a new team will be the focus. We started with the Knicks
yesterday, and will spend this week in the Atlantic Division.

Last season: A nightmare. The worst record in basketball (and nearly the worst in basketball history), and the second-worst mark in efficiency differential last season. The Nets may not have been quite as bad as their record, but then again, their record was pretty atrocious.

Head Coach: Avery Johnson, in his first head coaching gig since being dismissed from the Mavericks in 2008. Avery won’t be able to maintain that .735 winning percentage from his three seasons and change in Dallas, but he’s an effective coach with a lot to work with.

Key Departures: Courtney Lee, Yi Jianlian, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Keyon Dooling, Jarvis Hayes (‘key’ might be a stretch), Josh Boone (same), Bobby Simmons’ massive contract, hopes and dreams for a marquee free agent.

Key Additions: Troy Murphy, Derrick Favors, Jordan Farmar, Travis Outlaw, Anthony Morrow, Damion James, implementation of Plan B, or possibly Plan C.

Best case scenario: Substantial improvement that puts New Jersey just outside the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Nets still have a ways to go before they’re ready to really compete for a playoff spot, but they could definitely take a big leap forward this season.

For that to happen: Avery Johnson will need to change the culture of the team immediately. It’s a delicate thing, but the fresh start offered by a new season should do wonders for a squad looking to get as far away from last year as possible.

The new pieces will have to be integrated seamlessly if the Nets are going to meet their most optimistic projections, and most of them will need to perform at or above their expected levels of production. Devin Harris needs to play like Devin Harris. Brook Lopez needs to stay afloat. Avery Johnson needs to figure out how to best utilize Terrence Williams, without neglecting the talents of Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, and Damion James. Derrick Favors will need to step in and contribute immediately as a back-up for both bigs.

Most importantly, the Nets will need to improve their defense by leaps and bounds. Well, now that you mentioned it, their offense, too. The personnel changes will help a lot, but finding a cohesive fit for all of a team’s pieces is an under-appreciated part of the team-building process, and one that Avery Johnson will experience for the first time. Avery’s never had to work from the ground up. He stepped into a situation in Dallas where the the table had already had been set for him. All Avery had to do was grab a healthy serving of Dirk Nowitzki, dab a little butter on top, and go to work.

The Nets lack that singular star, which means Avery will either have to groom or luck into one. Maybe Lopez or Harris will evolve into the player the Nets need them to be, but from September, I don’t think either one is quite there.

More likely the Nets will: Otherwise, you’re looking at a team
that will surely improve, but not enough for an obligatory mention on
the late-season “playoff bubble.” The Nets have too much left to prove
to think otherwise. Jersey made talent upgrades throughout their
roster, and had a hell of an off-season, even if they did miss out on LeBron James and company. They’ll be better. Much better,
if things go according to plan, but progress is a process, unless
you’re the Miami Heat.

The Nets were a horrible rebounding team last season, so they added Troy Murphy (who is
completely underrated on the glass) and Derrick Favors. Their shooting was
atrocious (New Jersey was 30th in effective field goal percentage in ’09-’10),
so they added Anthony Morrow, one of the top three-point shooters in
the league, Travis Outlaw, who’s made a living off of his mid-range
game and shot creation, and Jordan Farmar, a nice back-up point guard
option with a shot of his own. Not enough? How about Murphy’s range and
Damion James’ scoring, to boot? How about another year of experience
and development from a young core?

How about Terrence Williams playing every game with the potential to absolutely explode?

Watching the Nets last season was sometimes akin to having teeth pulled by a rhinoceros, but this year should be far more pleasant. The rhino may even use anesthesia. Losing seasons aren’t easy for any fan base to swallow, but after a 12-win year, things are looking way, way up for New Jersey. Avery just needs to see what he has and how to use it, and his players need to see what they can offer and what to do with it. There may not be top-tier star power here, but this is a team that could be quite good in just a few years’ time.

Prediction: 34 wins. I know Mikhail Prokhorov had plans to contend almost immediately, but now his patience will be put to the test. Winning 34 games would represent something impressive for the Nets, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

Call it a rebuilding year if you’d like, but New Jersey has pieces in place. They just need to ferment awhile. 

Kevin Love shut down at the rim by Bismack Biyombo (VIDEO)

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Once again, Bismack Biyombo was a force in the paint that the Raptors leaned on heavily during their Game 4 win against the Cavaliers.

His biggest play of the night was this clean block of Kevin Love at the rim. Love passed to LeBron James in the post, caught his defender napping and cut the rim, got the pass back from James and… denied.

Biyombo also got LeBron James at the rim but was called for a foul much to the dismay of Biyombo, Raptors fans, and the ESPN broadcast crew (it was the right call — watch Biyombo leap across the lane, he is anything but vertical, he contacts LeBron’s body, that’s a foul).  Either way it’s worth watching.

NBA VP explains decision not to suspend Draymond Green; says very different play than Dahntay Jones

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 22:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second quarter in game three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 22, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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All day long NBA Twitter — and the Warriors, and the Thunder — waited for the shoe to drop on a decision about suspending Draymond Green for a kick to the “groin” of the Cavaliers’ Steven Adams.

Everyone just waited. And waited. And waited.

It took that long because the league wanted to be thorough — watching the film, looking at similar incidents (and the punishments there), talking to the players and the referees, and thinking it through. It was a decision with a huge impact on the series (Golden State was not winning Game 4 without Green).

So why did NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe decide not to suspend Green, rather upping the foul to a flagrant 2 and taking on a $25,000 fine?VanDeWeghe talked in some detail to Sam Amick of the USA Today in a piece you should read right now. This is just a highlight.

We have professional investigators that conduct the investigation. They talk to the players, they talk to all the referees, including the replay officials, and they all come back and report to me. I obviously discuss it internally, and especially with referee operations, get their perspective. But at the end of the day … every play is different and that’s the problem. You take into account everything. You take into account t what the referees have said. They obviously went with a Flagrant One last night, and you take into account the comparables. The problem with comparables is they never tell the whole story.

One comparable a lot of people supporting the suspension brought up was the one-game suspension for Cleveland Dahntay Jones just a day before (for a punch to the groin of Bismack Biyombo. Except VanDeWeghe says it was not comparable.

But just to talk about the Dahntay Jones situation, I think that was basically a completely different play. That, you had somebody (who was) tussling for a rebound, and Jones brings back his hand his hand is open. And as he brings his hand back forward and makes contact with Bismack’s (Biyombo) groin area, the fist is closed. And so you have contact with a closed fist, so to me that’s a very different scenario and, to me, a different fact pattern, so it’s very different from what we’re talking about with Draymond, that I viewed as a flail that is becoming, you know, pretty common amongst our players in trying to sell calls. Draymond does it a fair amount, Westbrook does it a fair amount, and a number of other players. Unfortunately, in this particular one, Draymond’s leg connected in the same Adams groin area, the same area, as the Jones one, but everything else about the call, or the play, was really different.

That is what the Warriors tried to sell, and the league came to find — Green was fouled but in trying to sell that call a little he accidentally kicked Adams where men least like to be kicked.

None of this is going to change anyone’s mind — if you’re convinced Green’s kick was intentional, and he should have been suspended, there is no evidence that will get you to think otherwise. This is just context, it helps everyone understand the process and the decision. More information is a good thing.

Raptors race out to lead, hang on to beat Cavaliers 105-99, even series 2-2

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball in the fourth quarter against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Now this is some adversity.

After winning 10 straight games to open the playoffs, the Cavaliers struggled in Game 3 in Toronto last Saturday, but that felt almost like a setback rather than a change of direction in the series. At least it did until Game 4 tipped off.

Toronto again came out with fantastic energy again on defense, scrambling and contesting everything. The Cavaliers were not attacking (well, except LeBron James) and were kicking out for threes — and missing. As a team, Cleveland was 3-of-22 from three in the first half. Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry was hot on the other end, both hitting long threes and setting up teammates. Lowry was 8-of-11 shooting in the first half, 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and had three assists as well.

Raptors led 57-41 at the half. They needed every point of that down the stretch.

Cleveland started the second half on an 11-0 run and came back behind Kyrie Irving (15 second half points), LeBron, and a more focused defense. With six minutes to go in the game Cleveland even took the lead. It felt like this was when the Cavaliers would assert themselves as the best team in the East.

Except the Raptors out hustled and out executed the Cavaliers down the stretch. Bismack Biyombo was grabbing key rebounds inside (Patrick Patterson had a huge offensive rebound as well), and Lowry and DeRozan remained hot — the guards combined for 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the fourth quarter — not taking threes (0-of-1) but attacking and getting to the basket an the line.

The result was a 105-99 Toronto win that evens the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2 heading back to Cleveland Wednesday for Game 5.

“I thought we come back, had control of the game, was up three points, then we made some defensive mistakes you can’t do down the stretch, and they cost us — each time we made a mistake they made us pay,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said postgame.

This was another game where Toronto played with great defensive energy and the Cavaliers responded by settling — they took 41 threes in Game 3 (hitting 13), Monday they were 13-of-42. J.R. Smith was 3-of-11, Kevin Love 2-of-7 (and sat out the fourth quarter with a potential injury, he was limping). The guys that kept the Cavaliers in it in the fourth (besides LeBron, who was fantastic again) were Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, who combined 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting. But it was not enough.

“We’ve got to be more well balanced,” LeBron said on a night he finished with 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting. “We started the game, we had some great looks, but when they’re not going you’ve got to be able to switch it up and get into the paint and do what you can do. I was able to get into the paint a little bit, Kyrie as well, but we just haven’t shot the ball from the three point line.”

Offensively, the Raptors were carried by Lowry and DeRozan, which was the case all season. Lowry had 35 points on 20 shots and looked every bit the All-Star version of himself.

“He’s made shots,” Lue said. “He’s being aggressive. He’s making shots. Tonight he made some early baskets that gave him some confidence, I thought, in the first quarter, and he carried it throughout the game.”

DeRozan had 32 points on 23 shots and was getting to the spots on the floor he liked. Once in Toronto both Biyombo and Patterson have done a good job of switching up their screen angles on the pick-and-roll, and the Cavaliers get flummoxed by this.

“We’ve got to find a way to be more consistent,” Lowry said. “(He and DeRozan) need to find a way to be consistent throughout a whole series.”

Then again there was Biyombo, the free agent to be making the case he should get paid big this summer. He finished with 14 boards — including a number of key ones late — and three blocks. His presence inside has the Cavaliers hesitant to attack the paint.

This sets up a lot of interesting questions heading into Game 5 Wednesday.

Can Toronto play with the same energy on the road? Can Cleveland adjust to the Toronto defense and get back to attacking the paint? Will Lowry stay hot? Will Love regain his stroke?

The bottom line is this is a series now — best of three. And the Cavaliers are no lock to advance.

Watch Kyle Lowry’s red-hot shooting second quarter

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Kyle Lowry found his shot back home in Toronto.

After a rough first couple games (actually a rough couple rounds to start the playoffs), Lowry has gotten hot back home, and that seemed to peak in the second quarter when he shot 6-of-7 overall and 3-of-4 from three. He had 15 points, 20 in the quarter, and the Raptors were up 16 at the half.