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Say this much for the Brooklyn Nets: At least they tried.
Owner Mikhail Prokhorov empowered general manager Billy King to make bold moves in aggressive pursuit of a championship: trade for Deron Williams, trade for Joe Johnson, hire Jason Kidd, trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, sign Andrei Kirilenko, add draft picks to deals like Splenda to your coffee. No expense was spared; nobody went unpaid. Now it's time to pay the piper, and somehow, he makes even more than Joe Johnson.
(In case you forgot: $24.9 million. Joe Johnson's the NBA's second-highest paid player. It's 2015.)
Alas, the Nets never even sniffed the O'Brien, topping out with a second-round knockout two seasons ago before Kidd absconded to Wisconsin, Pierce decamped for D.C. and Lionel Hollins took the reins of a team seemingly stuck between paring down payroll and pushing for the playoffs.
Brooklyn did return to the postseason, riding a late-season run keyed by resurgent center Brook Lopez (19.7 points on 52.5 percent shooting, 9.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game after the All-Star break), trade-deadline acquisition Thaddeus Young (13.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.4 steals in 29.6 minutes per game after joining the Nets) and a stumbled-upon starting five that became one of the league's best. Their reward: a meeting with the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
That matchup wasn't as one-sided as many anticipated, as Brooklyn stayed close in Games 1 and 2 and pulled even back home. But it ended with convincing Atlanta wins that forced the Nets to begin the difficult task of revamping an expensive, underperforming roster with precious few assets. (Getting beat by the Hawks, who then swapped their No. 29 pick in the 2015 NBA draft for Brooklyn's No. 15 choice as part of the Johnson deal, added insult to injury.)
Not that Brooklyn was Thrillsville last year, but what's left after a restructuring that bid farewell to Mirza Teletovic, Alan Anderson, Mason Plumlee and, most notably, Williams is frankly pretty boring. The 2015-16 Nets look like a nondescript squad that figures to require a Herculean effort from Lopez to paper over the deficiencies of a team that wasn't as good as last season's record, just to avoid handing Danny Ainge a lottery pick as part of the trade that brought Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to Brooklyn ages ago.
"We didn't win the championship with the team we had," King said at Media Day. "That was the goal. We didn't do that."
And now, the Nets live through a painful lesson: sometimes, there is harm in trying.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
tfw you just miss an open jumper that could have tied the game + maybe helped your team steal home-court advantage pic.twitter.com/D8lGrQaVOs
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 23, 2015
[The BDL 25: The key storylines to watch this NBA season]
Did the summer help at all?
Well, it marked a departure from the bonkers-budget decision-making favored since Prokhorov bought the club, which is something.
"The goal in the offseason was to get under the [luxury] tax line [of $84.7 million] and we did that," King said last month.
Bully for the balance sheet, then, but bollocks to what Brooklyn's putting on the court.
Though an argument could be made that his All-Star cachet was precisely what the Nets needed when they locked up him, for whatever reason — repeated ankle injuries, declining overall skills, an inability/unwillingness to handle the pressure of being the lead dog in a major market, all of the above — Williams never lived up to his five-year, $98 million contract. He's gone now, his chronic ailments now Mark Cuban's problem, leaving Jarrett Jack to run the offense and Brooklyn looking elsewhere for identity.
Toward that end, King re-upped Lopez and Young to multi-year contracts — three years, $60 million for Lopez; four years, $50 million for Young — aimed at extending a beneficial partnership that saw Brooklyn average a stellar 108.5 points per 100 possessions, a top-three-caliber offensive efficiency mark, when they shared the floor last season. He also cleared the way to big minutes for that tandem by flipping Plumlee — in whose minutes Brooklyn operated like a bottom-10 offense and a bottom-five defense, getting outscored by 5.6 points-per-100 — to the Portland Trail Blazers along with a 2015 second-rounder.
The deal returned Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 2015's 23rd pick, who has a lot of popcorn, a good head on his shoulders and a brand of defensive skills sorely needed by a Nets club that finished 24th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession last season. Brooklyn also added 29th pick Chris McCullough, not expected back on the court until "sometime in January" after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Beyond that, King took low-cost flyers on players whose careers haven't gone the way they'd hoped — two years and $3 million to see if Shane Larkin's tiny hands can better grasp running pick-and-roll at Barclays Center than they could the triangle at MSG; two years and $2 million to learn if Thomas Robinson can rebound, both literally and figuratively, on his sixth team in four seasons; one partially guaranteed year to find out if D-League stalwart Willie Reed can provide energetic rim protection.
He also filled out the roster with inexpensive veterans like professional shooter Wayne Ellington, professional defender Dahntay Jones, professional ball-handler Donald Sloan and professional punchline Andrea Bargnani to ... well, sop up minutes, mostly.
If you're left underwhelmed by those moves, you're not alone. This is the result of several years of buy-now-pay-later roster-building, the cold morning on the day the debt comes due. Brooklyn's guessed-at gilded age generated one playoff series victory and left the Nets with precious little young talent. With their 2016 first-round pick heading to the Celtics, who also have the right to swap 2017 first-rounders with Brooklyn and will get the Nets' top 2018 pick outright, it'll be tough to restock the cupboard.
“I think you look at [what those Boston-bound draft picks could become], but I don’t dwell on it because you can’t,” King recently told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. “I mean, I’ve got to focus on what we have to do right now. I’m looking at it like, OK, how do we get Chris McCullough ready for next season? If we don’t have a first[-round pick], how do we get a second? How do we get another first? And we have $39 million in cap space. What are we going to do with it this summer? So there are other things we have to think about."
If focusing on the future keeps Nets fans from paying too much attention to the frustrating present, so much the better.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Hollis-Jefferson, whom King snagged from Portland in hopes that Hollins can take the raw tools that made him one of the NCAA's best defenders and develop him into a productive two-way NBA player.
The 20-year-old earned First-Team All-Pac-12 and Pac-12 All-Defensive Team honors during his sophomore season with the Wildcats. His 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame comes equipped with an 7-foot-2-inch wingspan and a motor that never seems to stop revving, making him an ideal candidate to check opponents' top scorers. He's also big and athletic enough to help on the glass, grabbing just over 20 percent of opponents' misses last season, which could benefit a Nets club that finished 20th in defensive rebounding rate in '14-'15.
Hollis-Jefferson's offensive game, however, has a long way to go. The further away from the rim he gets, the dicier a proposition he becomes; he shot only 39 3-pointers in two college seasons, making only eight, and hit just 36.3 percent of his jumpers as a sophomore, according to DraftExpress. He also notched nearly as many turnovers (103) as assists (114) as an undergrad, so it might be a bit before he can contribute as a playmaker.
He's been hampered by an ankle injury and some complications related to asthma this preseason, and hasn't made a major impact when he's made it on the court. But if he can get in working order and crank up the defensive intensity, he could quickly find a home in Hollins' rotation and in the hearts of Nets fans. At the risk of making a perhaps too-facile comparison, given his coach and playing style, striving to become the Nets' version of Tony Allen — whose First-Team All-Defense work he recently wrote about watching on film — seems a worthwhile goal.
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If you consider Joe Jesus a small forward — by a couple of positional estimates, that's what he was last year — then Brooklyn's backcourt looks pretty rough. Hoped-for post-D-Will addition-by-subtraction aside, it doesn't seem likely Hollins will get even average point-guard play from the group of Jack, Larkin and Sloan.
There's more potential at the two. Bojan Bogdanovic, Sergey Karasev and Markel Brown give Hollins three young options who can offer different looks, and the soon-to-be 28-year-old Ellington is a plus shooter (38.2 percent from long range for his career) who knows how to keep the ball moving. How much Hollins can rely on any of them, though, remains unclear — Brown's been sidelined since the first week of training camp, Bogdanovic has seemed sluggish after EuroBasket duty, Karasev's seven months removed from a devastating knee injury, and Ellington, professional as he is, seems more a B-level replacement for Anderson than a starting solution.
Another major concern: the defense. As effective as Lopez and Young were at generating buckets, lineups featuring that duo allowed 105.4 points-per-100, a bottom-five defensive rating, thanks to a lack of rim protection.
Opponents shot nearly 50 percent at the basket with Lopez defending last season, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data — a decent-enough number, 32nd among bigs who averaged at least 20 minutes per game and defended at least five attempts a night — and an unseemly 57.3 percent when Young was defending, one of the worst marks in the league. Right behind Young on that list: Bargnani, against whom opponents shot 57.2 percent at the tin.
The 25-year-old Reed has swatted 4.4 percent of opponents' shots in three D-League seasons, but just underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. The absence of mistake-erasers makes it even more important that the Nets' perimeter players hold up; that could prove too much to ask from limping youngsters and relative greybeards.
“From a quickness perspective, we are what we are,” Hollins said, according to Tim Bontemps of the New York Post. “We just have to deal with it.”
Translation: This could get ugly fast.
Contributor with something to prove:
Jack, who enters a season as a starter for the first time since 2011, and who must show he can hang onto the job this time.
The 11-year vet, who turns 32 on opening night, is confident and likable, quick with a smile and without qualms about taking the big shot with the game on the line. In this respect, he feels like a 180-degree turnaround from the often-sullen Williams, who, by the end of his tenure, typically appeared gun-shy (when he appeared at all). But the Nets were awful with Jack running the show last year.
When Jack sat, Brooklyn outscored opponents by three points per 100 possessions, fielding a middle-of-the-pack defense and a good offense on par with Anthony Davis' Pelicans. When he played, the Nets got outscored by a whopping 7.8 points-per-100, with a bottom-five-caliber offense and a defense that might as well have screamed an Arthurial "NOT IN THE FACE!"
Brooklyn got outscored by 315 points in Jack's 2,241 minutes last season. That's far and away the worst plus-minus of anyone who spent all year with a playoff team — next up: Boston Celtics forward Brandon Bass (-180 in 1,929 minutes) — and it was pretty clear while watching Brooklyn last year that, even given his fall from All-Star status, Williams was a superior option.
And yet, King and Hollins have handed Jack the keys, trusting that, given more responsibility, he'll provide more production.
"Why can't he [handle the starting job]?" Hollins recently asked, according to ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo. "He's done it last year, he's done it in Portland, he's done it in Golden State — wherever he's been, he's had moments where he's had to start. And I think if a player is not starting [all the time], he gets a bad rap that he can't be a starter. Well, that's not the case. He's been on teams with a lot of good starting point guards, and he's done a great job of adding that depth that they have at point guard."
Now, though, Jack isn't on a team with star- or even starter-caliber point guards. He's got to play the most unselfish and efficient brand of ball of his career for Brooklyn to have a shot at the postseason.
Potential breakout stud:
I don't think Brooklyn has one, honestly.
Maybe Hollis-Jefferson shows more than expected offensively and raises the early view of his ceiling from "role player" to "future star." Maybe Bogdanovic shakes his EuroBasket fatigue and builds on the post-All-Star production that saw him shoot 42.9 percent from 3-point land. Maybe Robinson finally sticks in a rotation long enough to prove he was worth 2012's No. 5 pick.
I wouldn't bank on any non-Lopez/Young/Johnson Net turning into anything more than a fringe contributor this season, though.
Lopez carries his monster second half into this season and keeps making beautiful music with Young. Johnson's bounces back from a down '14-'15, somebody seizes the two-guard spot and Jack minds the store, again giving Brooklyn one of the better starting fives nobody talks about. Hollins gets game-changing energy from Hollis-Jefferson, Robinson, Reed and Brown, nudging the Nets near the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency. Brooklyn produces just enough for another bottom-of-the-East playoff spot.
If everything falls apart:
Lopez misses significant time with injuries. King can't find a taker for Johnson's expiring contract, and the Nets come away from his deal with nothing this summer. Jack proves as negative an on-court force as he did last year, no youngster shows signs of stardom, and Boston gets 2016's No. 1 pick.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
23-59, 13th in the East.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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