Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's late-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the New Jersey Nets.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
Well, we can be flip and point out that a coaching staff featuring Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Mario Elie and Popeye Jones will be amongst the most hilarious coaching staffs in NBA history, but that wouldn't be doing you, the fan, a service.
What we have to figure out is who Nets fans are, at this point. This is a strange, strange situation with a team in a holding place as it waits out the 2011-12 season. The group hadn't played in Newark until recently, it will leave Newark for Brooklyn as soon as the season ends, and you don't really hear much from over the river about how much they can't wait for the Nets to skulk into town.
Avery Johnson, in one of his calmer moments (Getty Images)Beyond that, while we're more than assured Deron Williams will remain a Net even after opting out of his contract next summer, this is still an audition of sorts for all involved. Outside of retaining Kris Humphries and making well-intentioned attempts at landing Andrei Kirilenko, the Nets didn't do much to amp up what was a lacking roster in 2010-11 even after securing DW in a trade. The main reason for this laissez-faire approach is the potential that Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith will finally give up on his misguided hope of retaining Dwight Howard and dump the MVP candidate on the Nets.
Though Smith, as of this writing, hasn't been swayed; this is still a sound non-move and one that allows for another 66 games of weirdness from the Nets. This isn't a great roster. With massive holes on the wing and rebounding issues up front, it might not even be a good roster. To fans of 29 other NBA teams, this is a great thing -- because we're allowed to revel in the weirdness of an orphan team working in front of a changing fanbase to compete with a limited roster. Knowing all the while that the Nets might be one phone call away from acquiring Howard and beating our favorite team by 20 points every time out.
This oddity isn't the NBA's all-time best. We got to watch the league's best point guard work in Oklahoma City for a year during 2005-06, knowing full well that David Stern wouldn't waste a second upon the Hornets' return to New Orleans to try and attempt to field a franchise in the capital of that red state. We've seen all manner of lame duck teams, or groups with lame duck owners, players, and coaching staffs.
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This isn't different, but it will be interesting. It's not exactly cheerful, but it is intriguing. Our man Dan Devine was born in and recently moved back to Brooklyn, and I haven't heard a peep from him as being giddy for a Net team in his backyard. I'm not exactly in lockstep with the fixed gear group in Brooklyn, but they don't seem too overtly chuffed. Knicks fans couldn't be bothered. So who lines up? Once the novelty of Jay-Z's nightly appearance wears off, things might change.
Until then, they have to play in Newark.
And before any of this, the Nets might land Dwight Howard, and then extend his contract. The reason to be cheerful doesn't exist yet, but it might not be far off.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: New Jersey Nets
If the Nets are actually able to pry Dwight Howard away from the Orlando Magic, Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King will have taken a giant leap toward giving New Jersey (and, soon, Brooklyn) fans an inside-outside combo worth the price of admission, plus a 92-ounce souvenir soda, a Johan Petro Pez dispenser (your thumb rests right at the edge of his hairline) and a "Too Real for All Y'all: The Best of Derrick Coleman" commemorative DVD. Unless and until that deal's done -- and not vetoed, obviously -- there's not a ton that excites me about the prospect of watching the Nets play. Given a chance, rookie shooting guard MarShon Brooks could change that.
Brooks is a scorer, plain and simple -- a 6-foot-5 off-guard who proved at Providence that he could fill it up. He's not crazy fast, but he's smooth and athletic enough to create his own shot, he's got long arms and enough leaping ability to be able to shoot over the top, and he can make tough shots. The Nets stunk at scoring last year, averaging just over 94 points per game and finishing 28th of 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency, and as presently constituted, they sure look like they're still going to need more offense.
Here's the funny thing: After leading the Big East in scoring during his senior season, Brooks comes into the league with the reputation of being a gunner -- a shoot-first-second-and-third player who can get buckets but doesn't look to bring too much else to the table -- and yet, while similar players (Nick Young springs to mind) have been vilified for being too one-dimensional, no one really seems to mind all that much with MarShon. It's kind of just like, "Yeah, he's really confident and tries to score all the time, and sometimes he takes terrible shots, and he profiled as the second-worst passer among guards likely to be drafted, and Avery wants to see him be more aggressive on defense. Isn't it cute? Oh, look! He just took another contested 20-footer. Awww." (Must be the intra-name capital. Gets 'em every time.)
The problem is, as a one-man gang for the Friars, Brooks had the ball in his hands a lot, and Williams dominating the ball on the first team means rare opportunities to create for yourself. To crack into the lineup, Brooks will have to find openings by moving off the ball and improve his catch-and-shoot game, neither of which were his strong suits coming out of college, according to DraftExpress. With Anthony Morrow still the perfect type of long-range assassin to spread the floor for Deron, Brooks likely won't get too many chances with the starters.
With the second unit, though? If we're lucky, Jordan Farmar and Sundiata Gaines will get out of the way and try to let Brooks do something interesting whenever he's on the court. Why not? Scoring is fun, and on the Nets, both are in too short supply.
Several sports websites currently list Stephen Graham as the starting small forward for the New Jersey Nets. Stephen Graham, of the basketball Grahams. Of the 4.4 Player Efficiency Rating, dead last in the NBA among all players who logged 6.1 minutes or more per game in 2010-11, per John Hollinger's numbers. Of the "league-worst 3.7 wins below replacement" player evaluation, as Kevin Pelton wrote in the hot-off-the-digital-presses Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12.
These websites are likely wrong, as are most websites (except, of course, this website). Graham probably won't open games for Avery Johnson this year; according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, Damion James will enter the season as the Nets' starting small forward. The second-year man out of Texas held that spot with a relative lack of distinction for nine games last year before a season-long battle with a right foot injury ended his season 14 games early.
Ultimately, which player gets announced with the starters and which provides little relief off the bench doesn't really matter, because it doesn't change the larger fact that New Jersey is going to have major, major problems on the wing, both offensively and defensively, just about all season. The situation will be bad enough that, despite watching Graham make 28 starts and play nearly 1,000 minutes of arguably-the-worst-player-in-the-league-caliber ball last year, the Nets will continue to pay him $1.1 million to be a part of their rotation, not because they don't want to eat the money, but because he's a body. The situation will be bad enough that redistributing wing minutes away from Travis Outlaw might not make things any better, which is a sobering thought after Outlaw's jeer-inducing struggles last year.
Even after being a pleasant surprise off the New York Knicks bench last year, this has to be the first time in Shawne Williams' career that a fan base has been like, "Oh, man! Shawne Williams! We are SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU! Here, check it out, we have all these minutes for you -- do you want anything? You want a Fresca? Powerbar? Iced tea? Stephen, you heard the man -- grab an iced tea and some yogurt, and hop to!"
I've tried not to pay too much attention to basically everything related to Kris Humphries' life off the court since he started to date Kim Kardashian, mostly because I try not to pay attention to stuff related to Kim or the other Kardashians. It's not really a "reality TV is dumb and I am smarter than that, oh, will you please excuse me, I have to go read all of the Proust now" thing; it's just that I didn't really catch the crest of their popularity and I don't much feel like playing catch-up. I know the Kardashians are A Thing in Our Culture and I know that Kris Humphries was briefly involved with That Thing. I know that their marriage ended really quickly, and that everyone thought that was the funniest, which seems kind of mean, but I just made fun of Stephen Graham being the worst so I guess I can't really judge.
Now I know that Kris Humphries is going to make $8 million to ensure that Shelden Williams doesn't have to start games for the Nets this year, which is probably too much money for him, but then again also probably isn't. Humphries was one of the best rebounders in basketball last year, snagging 22.1 percent of available rebounds, including nearly one-third of defensive caroms; there's value to that, especially for teams looking to stockpile movable assets -- like, for example, one-year contracts promising immediate cap relief that can be packaged in trades.
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If Humphries can maintain that rate of rebounding productivity, continue to be a strong finisher at the rim (where he converted 67 percent of his attempts last season) and remain an efficient contributor without the ball rather than looking for more shots in the offense -- I don't think it's a coincidence that by far his most productive season as a pro in the year also featured a career-low usage rate -- then he could again turn in a performance meriting Digital Underground-themed praise. If, however, the major gains in his rebounding rate wind up being an anomaly, he'll be back where he was before last season -- on the margins of the NBA world and out of the conversation.
The basketball conversation, I mean. He'll probably still crop up in the larger, societal one from time to time. Until the divorce is final, at least.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
NEW JERSEY NETS: The Flaming Lips, "Waiting for a Superman"
When Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets in September 2009, the expectation was that his immense wealth, along with the team's future move to Brooklyn, would help turn the Nets into one of the league's marquee teams and a legitimate challenger to the Knicks' dominion of New York. Things haven't quite worked out that way, though, and not just because the move to Brooklyn won't happen until next season. Prokhorov's tenure has been marked by one major success -- the trade for Deron Williams -- and a number of horrible deals for free agents that no other teams seemed to consider nearly as valuable. Dwight Howard remains a trade possibility, but that might end up as wishful thinking. Prokhorov has been largely absent as an owner, and his campaign against Vladimir Putin in Russia figures to eat up even more of his time. For now, the Nets are a promising team with just as many problems as anyone else. Their savior proved to be like most other owners.
"Waitin' for a Superman," written by Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne (or the lyrics, at least -- Steve Drozd wrote the melody) before the death of his father, is at its root a song about not expecting miracles in a time of great struggle. It's not necessarily pessimistic, though — just honest, and filled with the sort of feeling that allows people to empathize with each other even as they acknowledge that there might not be a substantive way to lessen their emotional burden.
As it pertains to the Nets, the song suggests that the very act of expecting someone to ride in and fix everything is foolish. The emotions that create that hope are real and understandable, but the drive to see that miracle happen won't lead anywhere. Sometimes things are too difficult for one man to fix them. It's better to settle in, confront the problem head-on, and ride it out until better times prevail.
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