Today kicks off ProBasketballTalk’s season previews. Over the next six weeks we will preview every team in the NBA, looking at the upcoming season. We will start in the Atlantic Division.
Last season: Brooklyn baby!! The Nets moved out of New Jersey to Brooklyn, into their sweet new crib the Barclays Center, wearing a new stylish black-and-white look. On the court they were 27 wins better than the season before — thanks to Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace joining a mostly healthy Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace. Brooklyn had a good offense but struggled on the other ends of the court much of the year. The Nets made the playoffs as the four seed but fell in seven games to a Chicago Bulls team that had an ingrained identity and was tougher.
Signature highlight from last season: Deron Williams sets NBA record with nine first-half threes (11 for the game).
Key player changes: Mikhail Prokhorov laughs at your puny salary cap. With luxury tax provisions ratcheting up this season teams everywhere are looking to shed salary and avoid the tax — but not the Nets. They head into the season with a payroll of $102.2 million (according to Shamsports.com), which will mean about $87 million more in taxes. That’s $189 million just in player payroll.
But they added real talent — a trade with Boston brings Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets (in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and three future first round draft picks). The Nets also got Andrei Kirilenko at a steal of a deal ($3.2 million next season, the tax-payers midlevel exception). All of that, especially the AK47 deal, angered a lot of people around the league who don’t like guys flaunting their strict mew new rules.
Keys to the Nets season:
1. Keep Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce healthy for the playoffs. In the playoffs last year Chicago — as banged up as the Bulls were without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng — were just tougher than the Nets. Garnett and Pierce solve that. Garnett quarterbacking the defense also should improve the Nets on that end of the court — but all of that only works if they are healthy come the playoffs. Those are not young bodies. New coach Jason Kidd should understand this, but he has to keep the minutes for those veterans under control (as Doc Rivers did in Boston) so they are their old selves come the postseason.
2. Deron Williams plays like the Utah version of himself. Last season was the best one Deron Williams has had since his trade to the Nets — he had a true shooting percentage of 57.4 (combining field goals, threes and free throws) which was his best since 2009 in Utah. He started to play like a superstar again — remember five years ago there was a “D-Will or Chris Paul “ discussion. Not anymore. The Nets offense runs through Williams, and he needs to take another step forward for the Nets to reach their goal — he has to be a superstar again. He’s got weapons around him, but how will he use them.
3. Defense. They can’t be average (last season they were 17th in the league in points allowed per possession). Garnett is supposed to help on that end of the court, but it’s going to take more than just him. Brook Lopez has treated defense as an afterthought, he can’t anymore. Kirilenko has to come off the bench and block shots. Jason Kidd has to put a system in place that focuses on that end. The Nets will score, but they need to get more regular stops.
4. Can Jason Kidd coach? Last season we had no idea what kind of team the Nets ultimately wanted to be — they slowed the game down (third slowest pace in the league) but they didn’t play good defense (which if you are going to reduce possessions you need to do). Nobody questions Kidd as a leader or Kidd as a guy with great basketball IQ, but that is different than being able to coach/teach those things. Can Kidd (with Lawrence Frank at his side) give this team an identity? Can he make good Xs and Os adjustments? Can he draw up good plays at the end of games? Can he make sure Pierce and KG get rest and hit the playoffs healthy? Can he do all that in his first year? Maybe, but it’s a tall order.
Why you should watch the Nets: Watch Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce make one more run at a ring. This is probably it — these Nets have at best a two-year window with this roster and the reality is this year is their best shot. These are two future Hall of Fame players, we should savor getting to see them make one more run at a ring. We’ll miss them when they are gone.
Prediction: 54-28, somewhere between the 3-5 seed in and they get to at least the second round of the playoffs. These Nets will be better on the court than last year’s Nets, they will likely be a top four seed in the East (they could fall to five, no lower barring injuries). The Nets see themselves as contenders but a lot of things have to go just right for them — everything mentioned in the keys has to break just their way.
On paper this is a potential contender, but I’m not convinced they can meld all of this together perfectly in one year. I think this becomes the most expensive second round playoff team in NBA history.