By Steve Lichtenstein
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The word of the day for Nets fans is “premature.”
As in, it would be premature to suggest that the Nets are toast in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal against Chicago after Thursday night’s ugly 79-76 loss set them back 2-1 in the series. The Bulls should have run away in this game in which the Nets shot 22.5 percent from the floor in the first half, but they have their own offensive issues. The Nets are certainly capable of stealing Game 4 in Chicago on Saturday if they play like they did at the start and end of this one.
Just as it was premature for us to believe that the Nets’ beatdown of the Bulls in Game 1 was a portent of how this series would progress. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is a defensive genius— there was no way he would let the Bulls allow triple digits again.
And how it was premature, in my view, for the Nets to agree to extend general manager Billy King’s contract, as per media reports from Thursday.
I’ve read several huzzah’s regarding that last item, for there are many who opine that King deserves the reward for his efforts in re-shaping the roster that just finished this inaugural season in Brooklyn with 49 wins to earn the fourth seed in the East.
They point to the Nets’ hideous records in their final seasons in New Jersey and say, “Hey, he did a terrific job!”
Well, let’s be a little more honest about what actually happened.
Once it became clear that the Nets were crossing state lines, management cleared the table for salary cap room (inherently accepting all those defeats in Newark as a cost of doing business). With owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s vast resources, they went shopping for new china to adorn the pristine Barclays Center. Give me $330 million to spend on contracts and I can piece together a pretty good team, too.
It makes the comparisons to the past few years in New Jersey nonsensical. Yes, Nets fans are happy they don’t have to wear bags over their heads at games any more. This season has been significantly more fun, with the team providing several magical moments. And it’s not over.
A more appropriate comparison should be to Rod Thorn’s moves in the summer of 2001, when the Nets traded for Jason Kidd to lead them to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances.
That’s why I don’t understand the rush to get this contract done now, before the results can be properly evaluated. Why knight King before the Bulls are slain? Though Prokhorov has taken the microphone at every turn to declare his desire to bring a championship team to Brooklyn, this move signals that he is satisfied with the team’s performance no matter what happens in this first-round series.
As currently constructed, the Nets appear fated to a Hawks-like future—postseason appearances, yes, but mostly one-and-dones. Hardly Prokhorov’s Master Plan for World, er, NBA Domination.
I am not enamored by the allure of Phil Jackson, who is likely meditating on some beach enjoying the glow from all his championship rings. I continue to believe that Prokhorov has a better chance of winning a rematch against Vladimir Putin for Russia’s presidency than he has in luring Jackson to Brooklyn to compete against his first-love Knicks and possibly tarnish his legacy.
But maybe it’s not a bad idea for Prokhorov to sniff around before he extends the contract of a man who wrecked the 76ers from his GM-office perch in his previous engagement.
Look, I endorsed most of King’s moves from last summer, including the trade for salary cap-busting shooting guard Joe Johnson. Against the odds, King lured star point guard Deron Williams back into the fold when Williams could have easily escaped to more successful pastures through free agency. Even the one King couldn’t pull off, the Brook Lopez-for-Dwight Howard swap, didn’t turn out so bad as Lopez played at an All-Star level.
What I also noted, however, was that the job was incomplete.
While the Nets’ Big Three of Williams, Johnson and Lopez formed a formidable core, it was King’s responsibility to surround them with role players who would make opponents pay for concentrating their defense on that trio.
Well guess what’s going on in Chicago. Thibodeau has basically dared the other Nets to beat them, and it’s worked wonderfully for him in the past two games.
Forwards Gerald Wallace (who King overpaid for by not fully lottery-protecting the Nets’ first-round pick when acquiring Wallace from Portland at last season’s trade deadline and then double-downed by re-signing Wallace to an unnecessarily lengthy 4-year $40 million contract when he became a free agent in the summer) and Reggie Evans have registered a combined total of 11 points in the last two games. Meanwhile, they have been getting abused regularly on the other end by the Bulls’ duo of Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer.
There was plenty of buzz around Nets’ headquarters at the February trade deadline related to fixing that forward scoring problem, yet King wasn’t able to conjure a deal that he felt comfortable enough to pull the trigger.
Brooklyn interim coach P.J. Carlesimo should have been begging for someone to be brought in who could hit a requisite percentage of three-point shots from the short corners. Without it, the Nets have been playing into the Bulls’ hands.
Last night was a horror show until a late surge brought the Nets to within an open C.J. Watson look at the buzzer from the right corner of sending the game into overtime.
The Nets were inept on offense most of the night trying to attack the Bulls strong-side overloads playing 3-on-5. In the final 18 minutes of the first half, the Nets went an incomprehensible 4-for-32 from the floor.
The conundrum is that Carlesimo is loath to give major minutes to reserves like center Andray Blatche or guard MarShon Brooks due to their defensive deficiencies. But Carlesimo has nowhere else to turn to find offense. (Maybe P.J. should consider Mirza Teletovic going forward. The Bosnian forward may have flunked his mid-season audition for playing time, but if he can get hot from long distance, he would at least occupy Boozer away from the basket. Carlesimo has to start thinking outside the box a little. And anything is better than Kris Humphries.)
Even Prokhorov admitted this week that the Nets are a little short in the talent department if they intend to take the next step into elite status. Yet King has created a salary structure that would preclude the Nets from obtaining more, unless some low-level team is so desperate for Humphries’ $12 million expiring contract next year that they would part with a player of decent value.
With the Nets over the luxury tax threshold, they will be far more limited in what they can do this coming summer (no sign-and-trades, only a $3 million mini mid-level exception, which they might have to use to re-sign Blatche, their fourth-leading scorer).
Ah, all this talk about the offseason is premature. The Nets still have a playoff series to win.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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