Healthy Nets tone down expectations, want to fly under radar in 2014-15
Where's Brooklyn at?
That was the question everyone in NBA circles was asking as Brooklyn stumbled out of the gate last season before righting the ship and advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals — where it eventually lost to the Miami Heat.
The Nets were supposed to be a legitimate title contender last season, going all in by trading for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry — just one year after acquiring former Atlanta star Joe Johnson. Brooklyn was supposed to steal the thunder from its cross-town rivals after snatching the retiring Jason Kidd to come and coach the franchise that he was responsible for making a force more than a decade prior.
Kidd faltered early, star after star became injured, and Brooklyn's massive dreams suddenly became a fruitless reality.
This offseason looked to be shaping up to be somewhat similar to the tumultuous regular season that preceded it. Kidd bolted for Milwaukee, Pierce left for Washington, and the East got stronger.
But as the attention shifted toward Cleveland and eyes focused on the ugliness and drama the NBA has been forced to endure in Atlanta, the Nets have quietly been getting healthy and ready for their first season under new head coach Lionel Hollins.
Deron Williams underwent ankle surgery, Brook Lopez has been rehabbing the foot that has caused him to miss so much time in his young career, and Mason Plumlee has accelerated his learning process by spending the summer surrounded by stars en route to winning FIBA gold.
Healthy and focused, these Nets know this season will be different, mainly because their marquee player will participate in training camp and the preseason.
"It’s definitely different this year,” Williams said at his Celebrity Dodge Barrage event in Basketball City in New York. “I was in great shape last year, but I had to take a month off in the middle of September. There’s a big difference between being in shape and being in basketball shape.
“I practiced one time, played nine minutes in a preseason game and was thrown into the fire at 60 or 70 percent.”
Williams, entering his 10th season in the league, knows the pressure that is on him as the franchise player. The Nets gave Williams a max deal just before they moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn, but the All-Star has failed to meet expectations, which will be even higher as he is presumed to be healthy.
“We’ve got to step up, myself included, leadership-wise,” Williams said. “I think having myself healthy and Brook [Lopez] healthy, that makes up for a lot right there. Just talk about missing Brook, that’s losing 20 points a night and a big man who can score on anybody in this league. [Putting him back in the lineup] changes things.”
Williams and Lopez aren't the only stars Hollins is going to look to for leadership and meaningful contributions on the court. Hollins said he will turn to Garnett to play the kind of basketball that will surely have him ending up in the Hall of Fame when he eventually retires.
Hollins expects the 38-year-old forward to start for Brooklyn, if he is healthy enough to.
"There is nobody in the gym that I would put in his place," Hollins said. "He has earned the right to have that opportunity to be the starter from Day One. Somebody has to knock him out, it's got to be like a heavyweight fight. I don't really see that happening.”
While it's hard to believe that a roster that has five former All-Stars and plays in the world’s largest media market can fly under the radar, Brooklyn hopes to – and the plan is use it to their advantage.
“I think [not having the attention] is very good,” Nets forward Andrei Kirilenko said. “I think last year we had too much pressure from the outside. I think this year we have the chance to step back before the season and then make that jump.”
Of course the Nets will have to once again go through a LeBron James-led team if it hopes to make that figurative jump – only this time it’s the Cavaliers and Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving standing alongside the four-time MVP.
“Anytime you put those three guys on a team, I don’t care who they have with them, they’re going to be a good team,” Williams said. “They have a great supporting cast as well. They’re definitely going to be a force this year in the East.”
Despite the toned down expectations from outside the organization and the shuffling of rosters around the conference, theoretically, the Nets figure to still be in contention for a top-four spot in the East.
In addition to having Hollins, a coach who helped lead the Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals in 2013, the Nets have a deeper roster and can lean on newly acquired Jarrett Jack to spell both Williams and Johnson, as well as Plumlee as an emerging star to help keep Lopez and Garnett’s minutes down in the frontcourt.
“Health is the number one issue for this team going in,” Hollins said. “If [our players] are healthy and we can create continuity and create a foundation of a group playing together, then I think things will fall into place.”