NBA Season Preview: Brooklyn Nets

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Last Season: I want you to imagine the most you’ve ever vomited. Like, literally, the greatest single bout of nauseated vomiting you’ve ever gone through. I want you to think about what you ate, what it smelled like, that cold, hard porcelain  or unfeeling trash can that embraced you after the day-old shellfish or that bottle of Bullit whiskey you thought would be awesome to drink in bulk.

That, plus some turnovers, was the Nets last year.

Brook Lopez was hurt. Gerald Wallace was getting adjusted. The organization was clearing the decks for this summer, and Deron Williams, honestly, it seemed like, was not fully invested in throwing himself into the vomit-water over and over again. They weren’t the worst team in the league. But there were games they could have made a good effort for that title. They were not good, at the basketball, as the kids say.

Key Departures: Johan Petro.

Just kidding! Gerald Green also took off. The Nets didn’t really lose anyone in free agency of note, because it was hard to note anyone beneath all the vomit.

However, the trade for Joe Johnson did send Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson out.

Key Additions: Mikhail Prokhorov kind of made it rain. Barclays finished construction and the sky over Brooklyn opened up and started to rain down cash for sub-All-Stars.

They re-signed Deron Williams, after it was expected there would be a tense decision over Dallas vs. Brooklyn, instead, Mark Cuban didn’t even attend the Mavs’ meeting with Williams, and Williams re-upped for the max. How did Brooklyn sway the All-Star point guard to buy into their team after all the vomit?

They traded for what many consider to be the worst contract in the NBA. The Nets pulled off a stunner trade, as Danny Ferry kick-started a rebuilding process in Atlanta. Sending out a package of delete-able contracts for Johnson netted them a second All-Star to pair with Williams, showed their commitment, and drastically improved their team, regardless of what the salary hawks might say.

From there… more money! Gerald Wallace was re-signed at either a drastic overpay or a semi-bargain depending on which side of the fence you’re on, at four-years, $40 million. They brought back Kris Humphries on a pretty massive deal considering what he brings to the table. They upgraded their bench considerably, adding Reggie Evans to club people, C.J. Watson for back-up point guard, brought over Mirza Teletovic, and added bargain veterans in Andray Blatch and Josh Childress.

Oh, and they gave Brook Lopez a huge four-year deal. They needed a quality starting center and were capped out, so they had to put the money in on Lopez. It’s a big investment in Lopez considering his issues and injury, but if you look at his production before his health problems, very much worth it.

Three Keys to the Nets’ Season:

1. Avery Johnson gets the defense to work: Avery Johnson’s track record with the Nets has been very poor, but so has the talent. He’s got the talent, now he’s got to make it work. Brook Lopez is an offensive-focused center, and can have issues defensively. He’s also got the injury history, but the foot condition is not supposed to  be a recurring problem and the other issue was mono, so you can’t really think he’s going to have problems. That said, he’s not a rim protector. Kris Humphries brings a lot of effort and can defend in space, but he’s also not a dominant defensive presence.

Johnson has to figure out how to put all the pieces together for a team that has no real time together, and has to do it immediately. He’s going to need a lot from Gerald Wallace, almost asking Wallace to do what Andre Iguodala did for the Sixers the last few years. It’s building a strong defense in a defensive-centric conference from non-defensive-focused players who haven’t spent any time together. But if he can make it work, the Nets have the offensive firepower to shoot their way to a high seed in the East.

2. Joe Johnson must learn to live without the ball: For years, Johnson has operated in an ISO-heavy offense in Atlanta where he was allowed to go one-on-one (or one-on-three) at any moment. Now he has to work off-ball because Deron Williams will be the maestro most of the time. He needs to set good screens for the wing pick-and-pop and take advantage of the defense not being prepared for his cuts and catch-and-shoot opportunities. This isn’t to say that Johnson won’t isolate, he will, and Johnson will provide him with those opportunities. But the Nets will be at their best when they employ the tactics that have made the other “super teams” effective, by using their talent to create constant dilemmas for the defense on who to guard, and then creating open looks for star players. Johnson could have the best season of his career if he adjusts to that.

3. Brook Lopez has got to do his thing: Lopez was among the players on the annual “(X Player) got how much money?!” list, but the truth is that he’s a top offensive center in this league (when healthy). He has terrific range, footwork, touch, court awareness and finishing ability (when healthy). Lopez has true size at the position, and if defenses are sagging off of him to guard the Nets’ perimeter weapons with help defense, Lopez is absolutely going to feast (if he’s healthy). You seeing a pattern, yet?

He’s going to get a ton of opportunities, and he’ll be the third best offensive weapon on the team. But more importantly, the Nets desperately need him to improve his rebounding. There are a lot of reasons listed why Lopez’ rebounding fell off the map. The mono and injuries are a good one. But his issues with Avery Johnson should also be noted. He’s got to show a re-commitment to the glass because the Nets are going to need it, even with Humphries on the floor. Lopez has to become an all-around center this year and there is absolutely zero time for him to develop into it any more.

What one thing should scare Nets fans? That these players are not considered elite outside of Williams, and yet the Nets spent a fortune on them. Johnson is a perennial All-Star, but he’s not considered in the top three of shooting guards, when shooting guards is the weakest position in the league at the moment. Lopez comes with a host of concerns. Humphries brings production and effort but has always thrived on losing teams, which can be a worrisome sign. (But would you rather he have struggled on a poor team?).  And Wallace is a one-time All-Star who is dependent on his athleticism and is starting to creep up the age ladder at 30. This is not a superstar team on the level of Boston, Miami, L.A., but they’re paying Brewster’s millions towards the club not just this year but for the next four years, really. If the combination of players isn’t right, it could be a disaster they can’t pull out of, and could make for an ugly situation.

Alternative option: If the past two years of Deron Williams’ play has not been an aberration but a legitimate slide in effectiveness.

How it likely works out: Just fine. Look, Deron Williams, when initiated, is one of the top five point guards in the league and on any given night can look like a top-two point guard (at least). He’s a great defender, a good team leader, a versatile offensive player, and an all-around stud. Joe Johnson is, in all honesty, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, something he almost never gets credit for. And while the dribble-dribble pull-up jumper act gets old, he can still have nights where he takes over. This is the most talent he’s played with since Phoenix (and those Hawks teams were no joke), and he’s got a real opportunity to take his name to the national stage, finally. Wallace is an all-around monster in terms of what he does end to end and Lopez is a fantastic weapon (when healthy). They still have MarShon Brooks they added versatile forwards, and Avery Johnson did coach a Finals team.

They have all the talent in the world. And talent matters in this league. The odds of this being an unmitigated disaster are minuscule. The worst case scenario for them is that they end up on the bottom of the Knicks-Nets-Sixers lump, or that someone gets injured and the thing falls apart. But there’s just too much talent to believe that will happen. This is a team with loads of talent and players that do understand how to play in a team concept, no real divas on this squad. It’s going to be a good team, a very good team, maybe even a borderline-great team.

It’s just not a title contender, and that’s OK.

Prediction: 47-35. That’s right, I’m copping out and putting them with the same record we slapped on New York and the Sixers. The margin of error here is honestly three wins, as any of those three teams could hit 50 win and any of them could wind up just two games over .500. We have to see how it works out. It wouldn’t shock me to see the Nets run up a huge regular season record, though, and land in the top three in the East should the Central division struggle. But coming in just a hair over .500 isn’t out of the question, just because it’s a lot of new faces trying to get on the same page without elite talent outside of Williams. So we land at 47 wins, and for a franchise as bad as the Nets have been (see: vomit) over the past few years, that’s a great start to a new era in Brooklyn.

LeBron James scores season-high 40, leads Lakers past Zion Williamson, Pelicans

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James had 40 points and eight rebounds in his first career meeting with Zion Williamson while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to their sixth straight victory, 118-109 over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

Anthony Davis had 21 points and 14 rebounds to remain unbeaten in his three meetings with his former team this season.

In the Lakers’ first game after an emotional memorial service for Kobe Bryant at Staples Center on Monday, James opened up a close contest with back-to-back buckets at the rim with about three minutes left. Danny Green sealed it for Los Angeles with his fifth 3-pointer with 51 seconds to play.

Williamson had 29 points and six rebounds in his first career showdown with James and Davis, his predecessor as the Pelicans’ centerpiece. In his 13th NBA game, Williamson scored at least 20 points for the ninth consecutive time, but managed only one field goal in the fourth quarter.

Brandon Ingram had 34 points against his former team, but just six in the final period as New Orleans lost for only the second time in seven games.

Williamson was still injured for the Pelicans’ first two meetings of the season with the Lakers, but the No. 1 overall pick’s delayed debut in Hollywood was as entertaining as everyone hoped. Williamson had several impressive dunks in his usual fearsome floor game, and only six missed free throws kept him from surpassing his career high of 32 points.

Davis is the leading scorer and rebounder in New Orleans franchise history, making six All-Star teams during his tenure. He went just 6 for 21 from the field in this meeting, failing to score 40 points against the Pelicans for the first time.

Lonzo Ball had 10 points, eight assists and eight rebounds, and Josh Hart scored three points in their second return to face the Lakers, who traded them to New Orleans along with Ingram last July for Davis.

The Pelicans also got three first-round draft picks in their princely haul for Davis, who had requested a trade. Davis has been just as good as the Lakers hoped in propelling them back to NBA championship contention, while the Pelicans are getting an All-Star season from Ingram alongside Williamson in an increasingly potent core.

James scored 11 points in less than two minutes early in the third quarter to stretch the Lakers’ lead to 14 points, but Ingram scored 10 in the period to keep it close.

Alex Caruso provided the Lakers with his usual injection of energy in the fourth quarter, particularly with a stunning block of Ball’s shot at the rim that left Ball flat on his back. Caruso finished with eight points and eight assists.

Best in the East by far, Giannis Antetokounmpo leads Bucks past Raptors 108-97

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TORONTO (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and 19 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 22 points and the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Toronto Raptors 108-97 on Tuesday night in a matchup between the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Eric Bledsoe scored 17 points and Brook Lopez had 15 as the NBA-leading Bucks won their fifth straight and 18th of 20. Milwaukee (50-8) was playing the second game of a back-to-back after winning in overtime at Washington Monday.

Antetokounmpo finished with eight assists, narrowly missing a triple-double.

Behind by 12 points late in the second quarter, the Bucks rallied to beat the Raptors in their first game in Toronto since losing Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last May, completing a disappointing collapse after winning the first two games of that series at home.

The Bucks beat the Raptors 115-105 when the teams met in Milwaukee on Nov. 2. They’ll face each other again in consecutive games on April 1 and 3.

Pascal Siakam scored 22 points and Fred VanVleet had 14 as the defending NBA champion Raptors lost for the second time in 19 games. Toronto was beaten at home for the first time since Jan. 12 against San Antonio, ending a nine-game run.

It was a rough night for Raptors starters Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. Ibaka made 2 of 15 shots and Lowry shot 2 for 12. Ibaka went 1 for 10 from 3-point range while Lowry was 1 for 7.

Lowry, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher all scored 10 points for the Raptors.

Toronto trailed 84-71 to begin the fourth, but Davis scored five points as the Raptors closed the gap with a 7-0 spurt over the first 90 seconds of the final quarter.

VanVleet’s four-point play with 2:23 left cut it to 101-94, and the Raptors forced a steal on Milwaukee’s next possession but VanVleet missed a 3. Antetokounmpo hit a 3 at the other end, restoring the double-digit advantage.

Six of Toronto’s 10 field goals in the first quarter were 3-pointers, including a pair from Siakam. The Raptors led 27-25 after one.

Toronto was up 51-39, its biggest lead of the game, after OG Anunoby dunked over Antetokounmpo with 2:58 to go in the second. Milwaukee closed the quarter with an 11-1 spurt, cutting the deficit to 52-50 at halftime.

After missing 10 of 11 attempts from 3-point range in the second, the Bucks hit three in a row from distance during their closing surge. All five of Antetokounmpo’s points in the quarter came during that stretch.

Middleton made just one of five shots in the first half but went 3 for 3 in the third and scored nine points as the Bucks outscored the Raptors 34-19 to take an 84-71 lead into the fourth.

OG Anunoby dunks and Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t stop it (VIDEO)

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Pascal Siakam has gotten the lion share of accolades for making a leap with his game this season in Toronto. Deservedly so.

More quietly, OG Anunoby has made a leap as well, continuing his trajectory as an athletic wing, and this season he is attacking the rim with a fury. That includes dunking hard — and not even Giannis Antetokounmpo can stop it.

I have an issue with the comment here: He did not dunk on the Greek Freak. It’s not like Antetokounmpo was camped out in the paint and Anunoby went at and over him. Watch Antetokounmpo, he is at the top of the key when he sees Anunoby going to the rim and he makes a run to try and get the block — 99 percent of players watch that play and admire the dunk. Antetokounmpo made a colossal effort and just fell short. He wasn’t worried about ending up in a poster; he tried to make a play.

This is why Antetokounmpo gets some Defensive Player of the Year love — that hustle sparks the Bucks’ defense (best in the NBA this season, by a wide margin).

And on other plays it leads to this.

Paul George on twins Marcus, Markieff Morris: “They’re different, but they’re the same”

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LOS ANGELES — Paul George has given us the quote of the day.

For some quick context, last season Paul George played with Markieff Morris in Oklahoma City. This season, George’s Clippers team traded for the other Morris twin, Marcus Morris, at the deadline. When asked about them, George admitted to mixing them up — and then had a classic description of twins.

“It was weird at first, ‘cuz I would call [Marcus] ‘Keiff.’ It actually took a good week. It’s crazy. ‘What’s up Marcus? Nice to meet you.’ Then instantly after, ‘Hey Keiff!’ It’s gonna take a second…

“They’re different, but they’re the same.”

Um… yes, they are.

Both Morris twins live in Los Angeles now (and are expected to move in together). Marcus was traded to the Clippers at the deadline, while Markieff was waived and became a free agent, choosing to sign with the Lakers.

George had high praise for both of them.

“Markieff and Marcus, they are great glue guys,” George said. “They just know how to play the game. They fit right in, they bring toughness, hecka [good] locker room guys, both of them just great people. Great dudes.”

They’re the same that way. But different.