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By Steve Lichtenstein
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In the often-tormented history of the Nets franchise, there have been only a few seasons as anticipated as this one, their first in Brooklyn. Certainly I can’t think of any since the Jason Kidd-era in New Jersey.
When he arrived in 2001, Kidd SHOCKED the media with a prediction of 40 wins. How could one player change such a losing culture so quickly? Kidd made believers of all the critics by carrying a young squad to 52 wins in the first of back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals.
Now I keep hearing how nothing, not Superstorm Sandy, not Deron Williams’ ankle, not the lack of chemistry from the importation of 10 new players, especially not the Knicks, can slow the Nets towards their stated target of 50 wins. No one seems to be as amused.
In most other years, the practical decision to postpone Thursday’s gala home opener in a nationally-televised game versus the Knicks due to the storm’s citywide effects would have been deemed a foreboding precursor to another wretched season. In Brooklyn, it’s “Fuhgeddaboudit–bring on those Raptors Saturday night.”
There’s no question the Nets will improve their production from the one-win-out-of-three tank job last season. They have a happy Williams, a healthy Brook Lopez and a newly-acquired hot-shot guard in Joe Johnson. Plus, general manager Billy King bought a bench over the summer to give coach Avery Johnson better options than the D-Leaguers from last year.
The biggest bump could come from a better home-court advantage. The Nets haven’t had a winning record at home since 2007-08 (when they eked out a 21-20 mark), a feat I find incomprehensible in commissioner David Stern’s reign. The Nets, especially Williams, complained about everything in their final years in New Jersey, from the indifferent fan support to the background lighting. The Barclays Center was constructed to eliminate those issues.
But 50 wins? I find that highly improbable. I’m just hoping they can reach the playoffs.
I expect the Nets to struggle out of the gate. There are too many pieces that Johnson hasn’t figured out how to fit properly.
After failing in their attempt to move Lopez as the main attraction in a proposed trade for Dwight Howard, the Nets committed to Lopez as their big man. Lopez, who is coming off a five-game 2011-12 season due to foot injuries, showed in the preseason that he is still smooth on the offensive end, with a nice mid-range touch and solid low-post skills.
But the Nets can’t hide Lopez on defense. In its NBA preview issue, Sports Illustrated ran a piece on the increasing number of pick-and-roll plays and how teams need athletic centers like Boston’s Kevin Garnett and Chicago’s Joakim Noah (they could have added the Knicks’ Tyson Chandler) to have any chance at stopping the plethora of guards who are adept at that play. After watching Lopez get abused in the preseason, I can say with certitude that Lopez is still not in that category, no matter what Shaquille O’Neal thinks.
Lopez is also not a strong rebounder. For the last few seasons, forward Kris Humphries has picked up the slack. However, we found out the past couple of years how much the rest of the League values Humphries—he’d be great as a hustling reserve, but as a starter? Not with his limited offensive game, agility and hands.
In addition to an expanded role for versatile but enigmatic free agent big man Andray Blatche, I expect the Nets to go small for huge chunks with Gerald Wallace playing as an undersized power forward. Wallace looked lost hanging out at the three-point line as a small forward in preseason. He excels on the fast break and working around the rim off slashing drives. That should also help Williams, who would rather feed a cutting Wallace than Humphries coming around his screens.
And make no mistake, this is Williams’ team. I’m not just talking from a promotional point of view—yes, the Nets would likely have had the buzz of the Islanders in Brooklyn if Williams didn’t re-sign. This is about being more than the face of the franchise. He can talk all he wants about sharing the load with Johnson, a premier scorer, but the Nets need Williams to once again play like the second-team All-NBA Star he was in Utah to close out games in order to get close to 50 wins.
At age 28, Williams should be in his prime. I’m worried that the bone spurs in his left ankle, for which he took a cortisone shot in hopes of delaying surgery, could be a nagging concern. Williams, when healthy, has the rare ability to score from all over the court plus the size and quickness to adequately guard his position.
C.J. Watson, who signed as a free agent following two seasons backing up Derrick Rose in Chicago, kept the Bulls together in the regular season when Rose went down but was brutal in the playoff loss to Philadelphia. I believe the Nets won’t crumble with Williams on the bench for short rest breaks (unlike last season when I had to turn away from my screen when the likes of Sundiata Gaines or Jordan Farmar were forced to run the point), not if they follow through with their intention of keeping Johnson on the floor during these periods. However, as much as the Nets upgraded their reserve corps, they can’t afford to have these guys, even Watson, playing major minutes.
Instead, coach Johnson will need to sort out the rotation based on the roles required for each game. In addition to Blatche and Watson, he can insert Reggie Evans to shore up any rebounding deficiencies, Mirza Teletovic for three-point shooting, Keith Bogans or Josh Childress for defense, or sophomore MarShon Brooks for energy.
Unfortunately, there’s no set template for getting this new group to click. It can take a month, a half season, or maybe it never happens. And forget what you may have seen in the past from Eastern Conference games—there are a good number of quality teams and, aside from Miami and maybe Boston, there is only a small talent gap between the playoff contenders. The 76ers, Bulls, Pacers, Hawks and Knicks will also have a lot to say about the Nets’ 2011-12 goal.
So though there’s almost no chance of 50 wins, I’m going with a 43-39 regular-season prediction for these Nets, good enough for a 7th seed. It may not be the NBA Finals, but a playoff berth in Brooklyn is not too shabby.
What do you expect from the Nets in 2012-13? Be heard in the comments below!