ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Brooklyn Nets

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Last season: The Nets started slowly in Jason Kidd’s first year as head coach, and then things got worse when Brook Lopez was lost to a foot fracture in late December. The team turned things around after the first of the year, however, and finished with a 44-38 record. Brooklyn beat Toronto in the first round of the playoffs on the road in a Game 7, before losing to the Heat in the second round in five games.

Signature highlight from last season: There were plenty of buzzer-beating heroics from Joe Johnson over the course of the season, but no play was more important to Brooklyn than Paul Pierce rejecting Kyle Lowry at the Game 7 buzzer to seal victory in the playoff series.

Key player changes: There have been more subtractions than additions in the offseason. Paul Pierce is gone, after signing with the Wizards in free agency. Shaun Livingston, a key rotation player last season, similarly left to sign with the Warriors. Kevin Garnett is expected back, but hasn’t confirmed that he’ll return just yet. Brook Lopez being completely healthy is likely to be the team’s strongest positive personnel addition, though Jarrett Jack (who was acquired in trade this summer with the Cavaliers) will be important as the backup to Deron Williams.

Keys to the Nets season:

The return of Brook Lopez: Lopez was playing at an All-Star level for the Nets before he went down with the season-ending injury, averaging 20.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots in 31.4 minutes per contest. But with him as the team’s primary scoring option, there wasn’t much winning going on — the Nets had a record of just 9-17 at the time. Things changed when the offense shifted to Joe Johnson handling the heavy lifting most nights, but with Pierce gone, the team will need to use Lopez as much as possible as either a primary or secondary scoring option, which could be matchup-dependent most nights.

The direction under new head coach Lionel Hollins: Jason Kidd had his flaws in his first season as head coach, but after a rough start, he got control of the locker room and had his players buying in. Hollins is a different voice, an experienced leader who should be able to command respect more immediately while coming in with a plan and a vision of how things need to get done. That should expedite the transition, but the new coaching staff along with the loss of some key talent may make for a bit of a bumpy start.

It all starts with defense: Brooklyn turned it on in the second half of the season and had a memorable first round playoff series win, but the team was far from special. Statistically, the Nets were middle of the pack in terms of both offensive and defensive efficiency, and played at one of the slowest paces in the league. Hollins was in charge of the Grizzlies when the “Grit and Grind” identity was established, and Memphis was a tough opponent for teams consistently. He’ll demand intensity on the defensive end of the floor where Kidd perhaps did not put as much emphasis, and whether or not that message gets through and how the Nets perform there throughout the season will largely determine their fate.

Why you should watch: If Brook Lopez and Deron Williams are indeed fully healthy, then those two along with Joe Johnson form an All-Star “Big Three” that should entertain on a nightly basis.

Prediction: The Nets don’t appear to have enough firepower on the roster to hang with the most elite teams in the Eastern Conference, but they could find themselves on that second tier if it all comes together. A finish as high as fourth and as low as seventh or eighth in the East seems reasonable.