'We aren't yet champions, my frieeeend,' sings Avery Johnson. (Getty Images)
As we near season preview and prediction time, one of the things that makes sizing up the Eastern Conference so difficult is figuring out what to make of the new-look Brooklyn Nets. In accordance with a total organizational overhaul that saw shifts in ZIP code, color scheme and uniform, Brooklyn spent boatloads of cash to remake the Nets' moribund roster in the offseason. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov broke out his checkbook, authorizing general manager Billy King to trade for the $89.2 million remaining on the contract of former Atlanta Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson, then drop $98.8 million to keep franchise point guard Deron Williams in the fold, $60.8 million to bring back starting center Brook Lopez, $40 million for sparkplug small forward Gerald Wallace and $24 million to keep double-double forward Kris Humphries.
All told, the $340 million spending spree — keyed by Williams' decision to re-up rather than head home to the Dallas Mavericks — gives the Nets an infusion of talent that creates a deeper, better, more flexible roster than the team's featured at any point in the past decade. It's made them a team to be reckoned with, and one to be taken seriously. But has it made them a title contender? During a recent speaking engagement at a high school in Fort Worth, Texas, Nets coach Avery Johnson suggested such talk slow down.
"Deron was a big key to the whole puzzle," Avery Johnson said. "To be able to acquire some other talent through free agency or trades or re-signing some of our own guys, it's pretty exciting for us. We're not there yet. We're not a championship team. We got a lot of work to do. But at the same time, we have a much better talent pool than we've had the last two years.
"We're much more versatile than we've ever been. Right now, we look good on paper. Now we got to take it from looking good on paper and apply the work to go [forward]."
Johnson's frank roster assessment drew mixed reactions. Some, like many fans and commenters at the excellent Nets blog NetsDaily, registered displeasure with comments they perceived as either a wet blanket unnecessarily dampening offseason optimism or a preemptive excuse in the event that the move to Brooklyn doesn't pay immediate dividends in the win-loss column. Others, like Sekou Smith of NBA.com's Hang Time blog, viewed Johnson's brake-pumping as "sobering in this day and age of overnight contenders and super teams," an "uncommon-but-wise" dose of perspective reminding us all that championships aren't won simply by writing some attractive names on a depth chart.
There's merit to both arguments, I think.
Johnson's comments remind me of Steve Nash saying just before the start of the 2010-11 campaign that he "would probably pick" his Phoenix Suns to finish outside the playoffs heading into the regular season. At the time, while the Suns were fresh off a Western Conference finals appearance, they'd just changed general managers and basketball operations executives, allowed Amar'e Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa and Louis Amundson to exit, and brought in the underwhelming (to put it mildly) likes of Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick.
Phoenix had undergone a lot of changes in a very short period of time and no one knew quite how the new-look Suns would translate on the court; meanwhile, between the return of established powers like the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, and the rise of young squads like the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Western Conference playoff bracket figured (as always) to be extremely tough to crack. Given all that, Nash said that, if he was an outsider, he would probably peg the Suns as a playoff also-ran. It was a totally fair assessment, one that in no way indicated an unwillingness to compete or a lack of confidence in his team's ability to perform.
It was also, from a fan's perspective, pretty much the exact wrong thing to say just before the start of the season, because regardless of the nuance or validity of the remarks, it quickly punctures mounting excitement at the time of the year when everything is the most exciting. Most fans just want to hear that their team's going to win the title, irrespective of whether there's any basis for it, but even those who prefer to get it straight would probably like to at least taste their salads before you tell them you burned dinner.
There are, of course, differences between the two situations. For one thing, as noted, Nash spoke just a couple of days before the Suns kicked off the season, while Johnson's talk of the work ahead comes weeks before Brooklyn opens training camp; for another, while the changes in Phoenix all appeared on paper to be for the worse (a fact quickly confirmed on the hardwood), the Nets' shakeup looks to have transformed from a team that's gone 58-172 over the past three years into a stronger, more competitive squad. But on balance, the idea is the same — a brief break from offseason hype cycles, a bit of reason, and a deep, bracing breath.
How much noise the Nets make will depend largely on how their new backcourt comes together. (Getty Images)
Yes, Johnson and Wallace should offer a better wing combination than any the Nets have featured since, say, 2005-06, when Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter were both healthy, into it and getting fed on the daily by Jason Kidd. Yes, moving sophomore guard MarShon Brooks into a "come off the bench firing" role seems to make a lot of sense, and yes, Bosnian free-agent acquisition Mirza Teletovic has been tearing it up in Europe this summer. There is, as Avery said, much more talent on hand than there has been. But there's still a lot to be decided.
Williams, who attempted nearly 300 more field goals than the next most shot-happy Net last season, will have to find a rhythm with the newly imported Johnson, who just spent the last six years as the Hawks' primary offensive option. Playing with a ball-dominating point guard who just got paid to be exactly that, Johnson will have to get used to working off the ball more frequently, which is something he can do brilliantly, but something he didn't have to do much in Atlanta.
After signing a max deal on the back end of missing 61 games with foot injuries last year, Lopez will have to stay healthy and produce in the low post; after getting his monster two-year payday, Humphries will have to continue rebounding like a guy starving for his supper. Wallace, now on the wrong end of 30, will have to show that his breakneck game can keep him on the court (which it often hasn't). The Brooks-and-C.J.-Watson-led bench will have to gel; even after adding Teletovic, fellow European import Tornike Shengelia and free-agent rebounder/pest Reggie Evans, the Nets look a bit thin up front.
Like the coach said: There's "a lot of work to do." And that's before you remember that the Miami Heat just added Ray Allen (and, to a lesser extent, Rashard Lewis) to their championship squad, and that the Indiana Pacers appear to have added depth to roster that won the fourth-most games in the NBA last season, and that a Boston Celtics team that was a game away from the NBA finals last year upgraded at the two with Courtney Lee and Jason Terry despite losing Allen, and that the Western Conference — where the Thunder and the Lakers and the Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers and the rest of 'em live — still exists.
Suggesting that this group of Nets — before they've all shared the floor together for a single second, even in practice — aren't yet at a championship level of competition isn't unfair denigration; it's just a pretty honest assessment. There's no shame in not being a title contender — somewhere between 22 and 25 teams fall into that category every single season. That the Nets can, after losing nearly 75 percent of their games over the past three years, reasonably be expected to not only compete for their first postseason berth in six seasons, but to slot in somewhere around the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack is a massive step forward, but the journey to a title always takes more than one step. (Just ask the Heat.)
The Nets are deeper and more talented than they were; the Nets are an ascendant organization; the Nets have a long way to go before they're an elite basketball team. These things can be true simultaneously, and I bet even most Nets fans would hold them to be self-evident, even if they'd have preferred to get through the remainder of their summer before having to face that last one.
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