For whatever reason, the “contenders” that are “fightin’” for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference’s pathetic playoff bracket want us to notice them. Be it by trade discussions, terribly unfortunate injuries, or coaching intrigue, the below-.500 Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons have wormed their way into our browser windows.
Those jerks. Why can’t they just go away so that we can go back to swooning over the Hawks and Warriors?
The Hornets currently own the prize of the eighth and final playoff spot out in the Conference, a game and a half in back of a Miami Heat team that figures to improve as health (hopefully) settles in. The team earned its position by winning eight of nine in impressive fashion earlier in January, but the last two contests included a 39-point defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers that somehow felt worse than the score would indicate, and a close 76-71 win over the New York Knicks that I hoped none of you stayed home to watch on Saturday night.
As you likely know, star guard and fringe All-Star candidate Kemba Walker is out for an as-yet-undetermined amount of time as he undergoes surgery to repair a meniscus tear. Walker’s play was the only thing keeping Charlotte out of the bottom ranking in offensive efficiency this season, and though replacement Brian Roberts is an adequate enough player to sop up minutes, as we learned last season (when Roberts replaced the injured Jrue Holiday in New Orleans) he’s just not the sort of guy you circle the wagons with.
Worse, Al Jefferson’s groin injury has made him an inconsistent player of late, nobody knows when Marvin Williams will return from a recent concussion, and even the much-improved Bismack Biyombo is out for an undisclosed amount of time with a bum knee. Lance Stephenson is finally healthy, but he’s still working with a Player Efficiency Rating that is just under 10 (that is to say, “not good.”). That’s incredibly hard to do for a guard with a high usage rate that likes to rebound.
The trade options at reserve point guard are underwhelming, if capable, which leaves the Hornets in a rather perilous position. This capped-out team was created to make the playoffs, and by and large every significant player on this team has either underperformed, been injured, or combined some unholy mixture of the two.
This is probably why team owner Michael Jordan might be trying to trade for both of those elements, in the form of Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson.
A deal involving Stephenson, Williams and Gerald Henderson would work, cap wise, and the ridiculous amount of money the Nets are slated to pay Johnson next year ($24.9 million in the final year of his deal) is just about what the Hornets would be just a bit more than the $22 million the Hornets are already slated to pay the triptych they’d trade away (assuming Henderson picks up his player option at $6 million).
Still, Joe Johnson at age 33 with over 40,000 career regular season and postseason minutes under his belt? Seems like a Michael Jordan-type move, and those are rarely good.
The voice on the other end of that particular transaction line would be that of Brooklyn general manager Billy King, who has made a career out of a series of Michael Jordan-type moves (usually worse) and yet still somehow manages to have a career.
King’s Nets are a half-game out of the Eastern bracket, looking dispirited and sluggish along the way, with everyone in the arena sated with the knowledge that King is attempting to deal any number of his highly-paid players in an attempt to save face.
King’s tenure is legendarily-bad at this point. He dealt for Deron Williams just in time to watch Williams’ career decline, giving up two lottery picks and a damn good big man in Derrick Favors away in return. He used another pick, which turned into Damian Lillard, for the right to overpay Gerald Wallace. Because Wallace made so much damn money, he was able to be parlayed into a deal for a pair of future Basketball Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnet (whose career has fallen off a cliff, due to his age) and Paul Pierce (who played well for half a season before leaving as a free agent). In that move, the Nets gave up several first-round draft picks (in 2014, 2016, 2018) along with handing Boston the right to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017.
This year? In exchange for the final three years and $66 million on Joe Johnson’s deal, King gave the Atlanta Hawks the chance to swap out picks. Brooklyn could miss the playoffs with a payroll that vaults into the $100 million mark after luxury taxes, and only end up with the 29th pick in the draft while the Hawks sneak into the lottery. Or the 30th pick, as the streaking Hawks have lost just twice since Thanksgiving and are currently a half-game removed from the Golden State Warriors for the NBA’s best record. And the Hawks still have to play the Nets three more times this year!
King’s solution? Focus on the coach!
The Brooklyn Nets, increasingly worried about a recent lack of competitiveness, have launched an in-season evaluation of various facets of the team, including new coach Lionel Hollins, according to league sources.
Nets ownership, sources said, is monitoring the situation closely, with Brooklyn having just fallen out of the East's top eight after a 2-10 slide that coincides with the franchise being up for sale.
Hollins is in the first year of a four-year, $20 million deal with a team option for the last season. If he is fired midseason, his replacement will be the fifth coach to work for King since the franchise moved to Brooklyn just two and a half years ago.
The current Nets and former Memphis Grizzlies coach, understandably, is chirpy. Read what he said on Tuesday when asked about his image as someone who is averse to modern statistical analysis:
“I’m going to take a breath,” Hollins said after a long pause, “and say it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard because every coach uses stats.
“Now, do I understand some of the stats that are out there that are new? No. But I can learn them.”
“As I used to say in Memphis, you can tell me that this lineup is better without Zach [Randolph], but Zach is going to be in the game the last two minutes of the game,” Hollins said. “I don’t care what the stats say. He’s the guy that I trust is going to give me the best chance to win.”
(Yeah, Lionel? Absolutely no statistical measure coming from anyone inside or outside the Grizzlies organization rated Zach Randolph as someone you would want off the floor, or that any go-to lineup would want Randolph on the bench. This is why people get frustrated with Lionel Hollins. He’s a good coach, but he also creates straw man arguments and false narratives that have no footing in reality.)
The Nets basically wiped away any chance they would have at a comeback season when the team more or less announced that their “top” players were available. The intention to sell for the right price doesn’t help, nor does the roster makeup – there are simply too many slow and substandard players, often dotted with injuries, roaming around.
The Pistons, some two games in back of Charlotte, recently had none of these worries. Not only was it assumed that Detroit (who won 12 of 15 entering last weekend) would work its way back into the playoff bracket, but the team actually looked like it had a foundation to build on. Unlike Charlotte and Brooklyn, Andre Drummond remains a potential franchise guy, Greg Monroe has been brilliant this season, and guard Brandon Jennings enjoyed a white hot month of January.
Jennings, sadly, went down with what could be a career-altering Achilles tear on Saturday. Achilles tears often occur when a player is in his 30s or on his figurative last legs, so for the 25-year old point man to go down in a heap on Saturday evening is incredibly unfortunate in ways that leave us fearful for the next five years Jennings has until he hits age 30.
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Replacement D.J. Augustin is a solid enough replacement, but though the Pistons were rumored to be after guard Pablo Prigioni in a potential deal with New York, coach and personnel boss Stan Van Gundy swears that he’s not going to deal away his future just to try to obtain a Jennings approximate that may not exist in reality.
Despite trade speculation, Van Gundy dismissed the idea of dealing anything of value just to add a third point guard.
"We want to give ourselves every chance, so we want to get some help, but we won't mortgage anything in terms of the future," Van Gundy said. "We're not going to go out and give away assets, picks or anything like that. No, we're not gonna do that."
As well they shouldn’t.
The Pistons weren’t ever going to be happy in not making the playoffs, but an immediate return to the postseason for Detroit wasn’t exactly expected either. The previous administration had salted the soil so badly in Detroit that the team was more or less forced to waive Josh Smith, just 17 months after he was a coveted free agent, for no compensation. For Van Gundy, the guy that didn’t even press to keep Greg Monroe around last summer, this was always going to be a long rebuild.
The Pistons could pull this off, though.
The team lost in Milwaukee on the night of Jennings’ injury and in Toronto the night after, but Augustin dropped a career-high 35 points in the second loss. Individual success shouldn’t act as some warming sign, but a Pistons’ win against a very good Toronto team in Toronto was always going to be a hard sell even with Brandon Jennings shooting the lights out.
At current rates, 35 wins will grab the eighth seed. The Hornets and Nets, working through injury and storm and stress, don’t figure to keep performing at current rates, however. A sub-.500 record, going 18-19 from here on out, will be enough to leave the Pistons with the eighth seed. This is a team that started the season 5-23, mind you, before losing two starters due to release and then injury, and they could still save their season by winning less than half of their games from here until the end of 2014-15.
That’s how awful the East is.
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