For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the really, really cool Brooklyn Nets.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
The addition of a pro basketball team to the borough of Brooklyn interests me. The addition of a second pro basketball team into the city of New York — even the ABA's old New York Nets played all the way out in Long Island — is a groovy thing, even if the team's former owners and local politicians did terrible and duplicitous things on their way toward razing a community's worth of homes to put a big brown stadium on the corner. The color scheme and Jay-Z's presence and Deron Williams' weird ascension as some sort of talk-the-talk superstar? Less interested, but thanks for the summertime fodder.
Now, the basketball. Now, a Nets team that is full of big-ish names with giant contracts and, presumably, happy and healthy feet. Ready to give coach Avery Johnson a cast worth his time, a team he can mold in his plucky image, and a chance to make it back to the Finals he visited as a player in 1999 and coach in 2006.
The actual business of stopping the other team might get in the way of all that. In the way of 50 wins, even. There is potential, sure, and Avery's scheming to perhaps rely on at some point, but these Nets are going to look like a Secaucus-styled horror show at times on that end, and it could hamstring whatever hopes that $81 million payroll might have.
Williams could help, here, turning things around for the first time in his career on that defensive end and working as the sort of two-way player that typically earns $100 million contracts. Williams has never tried to be an all-out stopper defensively, and considering his shape and length I'm not entirely convinced he'd have as much success were he to follow-through. Brook Lopez is absolutely helpless as a weak side helper, rebounder, and (most importantly) screen and roll defender; and while Kris Humphries can help clean up Lopez's issues on the glass, he shares his step-slow attitude defensively.
Ardent Nets fans will no doubt bring up Gerald Wallace (traded for because GM Billy King forever wants to look a pretty Gretel to Larry Brown's Hansel) and Joe Johnson as the saviors, here, and it's true that they defend (and defend well) the two positions where the champion Miami Heat make their hay. Wallace looked a little older than his age last year, though, and the sheer minutes Johnson has piled up thus far in his career (nearly 35,000, already) has lessened his overall impact.
The team will score, we should remind, featuring a lineup full of contributors that on paper would seem to fit in perfectly with each other.
This will be a fantastic screening team, full of good footwork and planted posteriors. Wallace, Williams, Johnson, Humphries and Lopez's face up games may all come and go; but they won't all go at once. And with Deron filling in angles and hitting the obvious targets the Nets will routinely play as the team you can't close out on — even if they miss two-thirds of their three-pointers on the night.
Helming it all won't be Williams, the talkative star, but Avery Johnson. Johnson's uneasy departure in Dallas a few years back created a strange ending to what appeared to be an obvious pairing that would last for years. And though the Nets' swoon was by design, Dallas' run to the 2011 championship in a season that saw the Nets top out at just 24 wins couldn't have been any fun to work through. Johnson and Williams had to endure yet another season of waiting in 2011-12, biding their time until the team's cap space could bring help seemingly ages after the franchise seemed relevant.
Johnson, presumably, was on board with all the new moves; and he's had months to configure the various parts into something special. And because of the ages, skill sets, and payroll whomp that this team packs, this is more or less Avery's crew for a while now.
He's been in the background, as the Nets trot out new unis and Jay-Z and D-Will and J-John and B-Lopz, but his sideline work and schemes could be the difference this season. At nearly five years removed from having a team worth shouting about in Dallas, we're going to get a chance to see just how significant a sideline presence Avery Johnson can be.
Projected record: 46-36
[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Enough balance to turn a bottom-10 offense into a top-10 unit. The Nets averaged the eighth-fewest points per 100 possessions in the NBA during the 2011-12 season, and when you take a look at the roster that took the floor in the team's last go-round in New Jersey, it's not hard to understand why. More than 4,100 total minutes went to Shelden Williams (now out of the league, but still a No. 1 husband), Johan Petro (still in the league simply because it's good to be tall), Shawne Williams (who followed a comeback 2010-11 season as a 3-point bomber with the New York Knicks by missing more than three-quarters of his triples in Newark), DeShawn Stevenson (who celebrated his 2010-11 title win by posting the second-worst Player Efficiency Rating in the league) and the ghost of Mehmet Okur (reduced to a spectre by Achilles and back injuries). Add to that multiple hole-plugging cameos by replacement-level types (Dennis Horner, Andre Emmett, Jerry Smith, Larry Owens, Armon Johnson) employed solely to keep game clocks moving until the Center stage could shift from Prudential to Barclays, and basically the gifts of all-world point guard Deron Williams and another strong season from power forward Kris Humphries were the only things keeping the Nets from being what my old boss Trey Kerby might call an all-time yikes festival.
This year's Nets team, as you might have heard, is built a little bit differently, the result of a massive roster overhaul during the offseason. Sixteen of the 22 players who wore Nets uniforms last year are gone, with a dozen new names (at least nine of which are likely to stick) dotting the current Brooklyn roster, headlined by six-time All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson. On paper, the overall upgrade looks monstrous -- as Kevin Pelton writes in the just-released Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 (an absolute must-read for hardcore hoops fans and just about the best way you can spend $10.02), the Wins Above Replacement Player metric estimates all that locker-room change to be worth about 14 wins, a massive shift that would have bumped the Nets from the fourth-worst record in the East last season all the way up into a tie with the Knicks for the seventh seed in the conference playoff bracket. The Nets have their sights set a bit higher this year, of course, due in large part to a gigantic expected improvement on the offensive end.
The duo of Johnson and Williams -- two big-for-their-position guards skilled at both posting smaller defenders and facilitating in the pick-and-roll, at both stroking the jumper (while Deron's overall field-goal percentage was down last year, his mid-range splits were excellent) and beating close-contesting defenders off the dribble -- will give Avery a boatload of options in the half-court (especially if Joe's truly cool with moving away from all those isolations he used in Atlanta). When healthy, Brook Lopez (18.4 points per 36 minutes on 50.4 percent shooting and 79.6 percent from the foul line for his career) ranks among the game's most talented offensive centers, and after missing all but five games due to foot injuries last year, he's reportedly 100 percent and ready to resume his role as the Nets' primary post threat.
With those three taking the lion's share of the shots, it's difficult to imagine two better role players to fill out the starting lineup than Humphries and Gerald Wallace, both of whom are eminently capable of contributing double-figure scoring based solely off offensive rebounds, transition opportunities and timely cuts made while defenses key on their higher-billed teammates. Plus, Johnson's insertion into the starting lineup should strengthen the bench, as sophomore spark plug MarShon Brooks will now bring his gunner's instincts to the second unit. He'll team with Bosnian stretch four Mirza Teletovic (one of the Euroleague's top scorers and 3-point shooters a season ago, who hit four bombs during Tuesday's preseason matchup with the Boston Celtics) and possibly reclamation project Andray Blatche, who, for all his defensive/conditioning/decision-making/leadership issues, still has plenty of offensive talent. They'll be counted upon to provide scoring punch off the bench alongside guards C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans and rookie Tyshawn Taylor, all of whom can shoot the long ball.
Add it all up, and the result should be a season-long offensive surge in Brooklyn that comes at opponents in waves and has them wishing for the days of Johan Petro. (They will be the only ones.)
What Should Make You Scared: A defense still porous enough to give back many of those offensive gains. While coach Johnson left Dallas with a reputation as a defense-first coach, his New Jersey teams (due, at least in part, to an overall dearth of talent) have struggled mightily in that end, ranking 21st among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per 100 possessions in his first season at the helm and dropping all the way down to 29th last year. They allowed the third-highest opponent field-goal percentage and gave up the league's second-highest 3-point mark, allowing offenses to shoot 61.8 percent within five feet of the basket and a league-worst 43.6 percent from between five and nine feet away. They posted bottom-five finishes in points allowed off turnovers, on the fast break and in the paint, and finished in the bottom third of the league in second-chance points conceded. It was pretty rough, and while the offseason influx of talent should help some, I'm not sure it's going to get much better.
Joe Johnson should represent an improvement over Brooks in the starting lineup, but while he and Williams have both shown the ability to D up in the past and their big backcourt combo should allow them to effectively switch assignments on the fly without conceding too many mismatches, neither one is a true lockdown perimeter defender. A full season of Wallace at small forward should help, too, but fans expecting the lights-out defensive maniac who terrorized opposing wings in Charlotte will be disappointed by the step(s)-slower version of "Crash" they find three years later on the wrong side of 30 -- he's not quite the same guy, and faster swingmen can beat him off the bounce.
Once opponents get past the perimeter and into the paint, they're unlikely to find much opposition from Lopez or Humphries, neither of whom are strong shot-blockers or especially stout post defenders. I'm a bit less worried than some about Lopez's much-discussed struggles as a defensive rebounder, given that both of his frontcourt mates are plus defensive rebounders and both Williams and Johnson have been league-average or slightly above in defensive rebound rate at their positions over the last three years, but he's still not going to change many shots or strike fear into the heart of opposing drivers. The second unit will be bolstered somewhat by Watson's quickness at the point and Reggie Evans' gifts on the defensive glass, but as anchored by all-O/no-D contributors Brooks, Blatche and Teletovic, it will still likely surrender nearly as many points as it gives up.
Given health and the Little General's motivational talents finally being brought to bear on a more athletically gifted roster, a defensive improvement is likely. But moving out of the bottom third of the league seems like it'll be an awful tall task for this particular collection of defenders, which will make it awful difficult for these Nets to stick around very long come playoff time.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The Nets are now in Brooklyn, city of the hip and rich, and therefore they're a much different entity than the group that left New Jersey just a few months ago. With help from Jay-Z, the franchise now boasts mainstream appeal. With the addition of Joe Johnson and the return of Brook Lopez from injury to join Deron Williams, they also figure to be pretty good. Unfortunately, because they have so much salary committed to three players (plus Gerald Wallace, not exactly making a pittance), they figure not to improve much over the next few seasons. What you see now is what you'll get for a while.
That puts them in roughly the same boat as their friends across the bridge, the Knicks. What makes the Nets different, though, is that they're looking to establish themselves in a new location rather than focusing on recapturing past relevance. For the Nets, it's enough to compete for a mid-level playoff spot, possibly win a series, and head into the next season with a postseason berth nearly assured. By accomplishing those goals, they'll set up about proving they're for real, win some fans for life, and help turn Brooklyn into the major-market destination that it can very well become.
That might not be exactly what Nets fans want in the short term, and it certainly doesn't jibe with Mikhail Prokhorov's promises that the franchise will bring home a title within the first five years of his ownership. Long-term, though these are important gains for the Nets. Their move to Brooklyn is not just a cosmetic change — it has the potential to reform the organization and turn it into one of the few teams that superstars actively want to play for. And while the Nets struck out in their first attempt to get one of those players, the interest that Dwight Howard showed suggests he won't be the only player with Brooklyn on his mind.
The Nets are likely a long way off from regular title contention, but it's rare for any team to dream of that outcome without relying on the luck of the draft. Making the playoffs this season is the first step for them. Even if they don't match the Knicks record or finish, they might end up with a much more successful season.