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. 

Jeff Hornacek on Joakim Noah: “We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on”

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Not that anyone actually thought Joakim Noah would be back with the Knicks this season — not after Noah and coach Jeff Hornacek got into an argument that ended with Noah shoving his coach.

But if anyone thought with Kristaps Porzingis out for the season with a torn ACL the Knicks might turn to Porzingis for a little boost, think again. Via Al Iannazzone at Newsday as the Knicks got back to post All-Star practice.

“There’s really nothing more to say about it, update it. We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on and maybe have an opportunity somewhere else. That’s really our focus to go play Orlando. We have 23 games left. We’re trying to get our young guys to step it up. That’s kind of old story and all done with as far as I’m concerned.”

The Knicks would love to trade Noah, but he has the most untradable contract in the NBA — two years, $37.8 million left after this season. It would take the Knicks attaching a couple of first-round picks and taking back some dead salary to make it happen. The Knicks may eventually buy him out, but the more likely option is they keep him through the summer (in case he is needed as salary in a trade), and possibly into next season (depending upon how big a discount he would give the team to be bought out and move on).

Trail Blazers hope for another post-All-Star break revival

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Trail Blazers have enjoyed post-All-Star break revivals the past two seasons.

Those late-season rallies will no doubt be an ongoing theme in the congested Western Conference playoff race once Portland resumes play on Friday in Utah.

“I mean, I think that’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re usually a better team in the second half of the season,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “We can’t just go into it saying, `All right, we’re always good at this part of the season.’ I think mentally we have to understand how close of a race it is and that we’ve got to be sharp all the way through.”

Portland is 32-26 at the break, tied for sixth in the West, which is better off than it was last season at the same point.

But the Blazers are one of five teams in the West with 26 losses. The Warriors and Houston Rockets sit comfortably atop the standings with the next eight teams jostling for position.

The Blazers headed into the All-Star Game with a 123-117 victory over Golden State, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Warriors. Lillard had 44 points, his third straight game with 39 or more and the best scoring stretch of his career. His 133 points over the last three games is the best such run in franchise history.

Afterward, Lillard sounded like he was taking it upon himself to improve the Blazers’ playoff position.

“Each season, it’s always a few teams that fall by the wayside and we’ve just got to make sure we’re not one of them,” he said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be the guy to lead that charge.”

In 2015-16, Portland was 27-27 at the All-Star break after winning eight of nine games going into it. The Blazers finished the regular season 44-38 and in fifth place in the West. They got past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Last season, Portland lost three straight games to go into the break at 23-33. Shortly thereafter, an overtime loss at Detroit put them 11 games under .500.

But in March, Portland caught fire and went 13-3, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month, averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 16 games. Terry Stotts was named Coach of the Month.

Center Jusuf Nurkic, who came to Portland in a trade a handful of days before the All-Star break, went on to average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland was 14-5 with the 7-footer in the starting lineup.

Portland made the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but fell in the opening round to the Warriors.

This season, Portland is in the thick of the race. Lillard leads the team with 26.1 points per game, sixth in the league, while also averaging 6.6 assists. Backcourt teammate CJ McCollum is averaging 21.7 points, and Nurkic is at 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Stotts was asked just before the break whether he was happy with the team’s position.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of teams out there fighting for playoff spots,” the coach said. “It’s not about where we are. It’s about where we’re headed.”

 

Karl Malone pranks Anthony Davis in new Redbull video

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Karl Malone still has a few moves left.

Not so much on the court, but the Hall of Famer and one of the greatest power forwards ever was disguised as “Sam the Maintenance Man” where he would disrupt a video shoot by New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis (who thought he was making a basketball video for redbull.com). Malone was decked out in a traditional janitor onesie, a wig of dreadlocks, glasses and extra padding around his gut, and he had fun in his role.

At the end of the clip, you see Malone asking the cameras to cut so he could talk shop with AD on the left block, where Malone was near unstoppable. Check it out.

 

Statement defending self by former Mavs employee makes things sound worse

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In the argument that owner Mark Cuban must have known about the “Animal House” style sexual predatory environment on the business side of the Dallas Mavericks, a statement from a former Mavericks’ employee defending himself is now the best evidence. And it’s pretty damning.

One of the people mentioned directly in the bombshell Sports Illustrated story is former Mavs.com writer Earl K. Sneed. He was involved in a domestic dispute where he beat his then-girlfriend his first season with the Mavericks, then a few months later was arrested — at the Mavericks facility — for assault. He pled guilty to that and went through court-mandated anger management classes. He reportedly had another dispute in 2014 hitting a female co-worker which led to more counseling (this ordered by the team), and as a result of the court issues, he legally was not able to follow the team when it went into Canada to play the Raptors.

Sneed issued this statement to the Dallas Morning News defending himself.

“While both instances described in the report are damning and language used is not accurate, the two relationships described in the report are not something I am proud to have been a part of. I underwent much counseling after both situations, under the direction of [Mavs vice president of human resources] Buddy Pittman, and I feel like I grew from that counseling. I also signed a contract stating that I would not have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees after the inaccurately described incident with my female co-worker, who was a live-in girlfriend. I abided by the details of that contract for four years, and received counseling during that period to avoid future instances. I thank Buddy Pittman for helping me to grow during that time, and I thank Mark Cuban for his willingness to help facilitate that growth.”

So let me get this right: Sneed was hauled out of the Mavericks facility in handcuffs, then signed a new contract to stay on employed by the team (for four more years) where he could not do his job if the team went to Canada, and could not “have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees” — and Cuban didn’t know about any of this? That strains belief. Sneed’s statement sparked outrage on social media, as it should.

That Sneed stayed employed by the team speaks to the issues in the Mavericks human resources department and the team culture. Both Sneed and the head of HR have been fired in the wake of these stories.

The report says there are no incidents with Cuban, nor any members of the Mavericks basketball team, behaving inappropriately toward women.

Dallas and Cuban have hired an independent investigator to look into the claims and the workplace environment with the Mavericks. When that is done, expect NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to come down hard on the franchise, both to send a message to other franchises (there are rumors the Mavs are not the only one facing issues) and because this all is a big blow to the image of a league that paints itself as progressive.