By Steve Lichtenstein
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With last week’s signing of free-agent reserve swingman Alan Anderson, the Nets have officially concluded Part II of their version of Extreme Makeover.
That ragtag team in New Jersey two years ago is now a distant bad dream. The Nets’ 15-man roster is as deep as any in their franchise’s (albeit mostly dismal) history. Brooklyn fans can’t wait for the start of the new campaign, which is rumored to be in Cleveland three months from now.
New head coach Jason Kidd will be the beneficiary of owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s recent spending binge, which will result in an estimated 2013-14 payroll of $102 million, plus about $87 million in luxury-tax payments.
General manger Billy King has had an impressive summer, going for broke to fix the Nets’ glaring weakness up front by trading for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, while at the same time replenishing Brooklyn’s bench at significant discounts.
Garnett and Pierce’s former coach in Boston, Doc Rivers, told the Boston Globe over the weekend that it could be enough for the Nets to knock the Heat off their Eastern Conference pedestal.
Of course, the operative word in his quote is “could.”
While many of the faces have changed from the group that lost a Game 7 home game to Chicago to end last season, many of the same challenges remain.
To reach such a lofty goal, a lot has to go right in Brooklyn. And I’m not just talking about the obvious injury factor, like if point guard Deron Williams were to go down for a lengthy period.
Below, I list the Nets’ three biggest question marks going into the 2013-14 season.
It was clear that the Bulls outfought the Nets for the vast majority of last season’s playoff series, and the Boston trade was made with that in mind.
I think it’s too soon to call whether it will work.
Yes, I get that Garnett “changed the culture” in Boston. However, though I don’t believe his tank is empty, he clearly is in a different stage of his career in Brooklyn.
Toughness is more than exhibiting a mean scowl on the court or in the locker room. It’s about having the hunger to go after loose balls, bodies (yours as well as your opponents’) be damned.
The only Nets who consistently exhibited that kind of tenacity last season were Gerald Wallace, who departed to Boston in the trade, and Reggie Evans, who is demoted to the bench now that Garnett is here.
Many of the holdovers, most notably guard Joe Johnson and center Brook Lopez, have often lacked that fire to “get after it,” thereby incurring the fans’ wrath.
How much influence will the three ring-holders from Boston have on the Nets’ former “Big Three” when the stakes are raised and it comes down to which team wants it more?
Then there’s also mental toughness, which was a glaring weakness last season whether it was Avery Johnson or P.J. Carlesimo on the sidelines.
The Nets’ second-half woes were a running joke all season. They often wilted as opponents came back into games in which they should have been declared down and out.
My guess is that the added veteran presences will help most in this regard, but a lot will depend on the answer to question No. 2 below.
2. THREE-POINT SHOOTING
Much has been written on how Anderson will play a critical role in upgrading this area, with Kidd reportedly telling a group of season-ticket holders on Monday that Anderson will be “the dark horse that puts the Nets over the edge next season.”
Except, the 6-foot-6 journeyman is only a career 35 percent shooter from beyond the arc, including a poor 33 percent on 4.4 three-point attempts per game last year. To put that in perspective, Anderson’s 2012-13 numbers were worse than both Keith Bogans’ and Jerry Stackhouse’s three-point efficiencies.
The modern NBA has evolved to become more three-point-centric, with the top teams eschewing much of the mid-range game, in which many Nets have made a large living. The Nets’ leap this season will fall short unless they improve their three-point shooting numbers.
Opponents tended to pack the paint last season to combat the Nets’ strengths, graciously allowing the Nets to jack up the seventh-most three-point attempts in the league.
Unfortunately, the Nets only converted a middle-of-the-pack 35.7 percent of those shots. That stat dropped to an ugly 31.6 percent mark in the playoffs.
No matter how much is left in Pierce’s legs, he’s got to be better than Wallace, who bricked more than 70 percent of his mostly wide-open three-point attempts last year. And Williams picked up his shooting percentage following ankle treatments at last season’s All-Star break — his numbers should get a boost with a full season of good health.
But that’s pretty much it for improvements.
Jason Terry has had a tremendous career shooting from long range, but it would be a stretch to expect him to match C.J. Watson’s 41-percent efficiency from last year. The other key reserves, particularly Shaun Livingston and Andrei Kirilenko, do not shoot well from three-point distance.
Mirza Teletovic is still around, but if he thought that the Nets had a logjam up front with Evans and Kris Humphries, how is he going to get time with Garnett, Evans, Kirilenko and Andray Blatche all ahead of him on the depth chart?
That brings me to…
I’ve used up my quota on why I thought the Kidd hiring was too big of a risk for King. Still, no one can know for sure whether or not this experiment will produce the desired results.
I would expect that this veteran group will enter training camp with the requisite respect for Kidd and his staff. But that could be where it ends.
When the Nets face the Eastern Conference elite, Kidd will be facing such prominent coaches as Erik Spoelstra, Tom Thibodeau and Frank Vogel. More experienced coaches (that would include you, Mike Woodson) have failed to keep up with these guys’ myriad of adjustments. The whole “mental toughness” deficiency from last year can return if the players lose faith in the program.
Kidd will have to create an offense that isn’t just taking turns: this one’s for you in the post, Lopez; now here’s an Iso-Joe; OK, now it’s D-Will’s turn to create off the dribble.
Defensively, Kidd has to get more out of Lopez, who improved on his rim protection last year but remains woefully inadequate on pick-and-rolls, and get help for whoever is guarding all the standout small forwards in the conference without giving up the three-point line.
Look, this team will be the Nets’ best in at least a decade, if not ever. It’s better than the otherwise average group that Kidd led to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. They’re the clear favorites to win the Atlantic Division — yes, they should beat out the Knicks.
But the Nets will first have to answer the above questions correctly in order to be considered a rightful challenger to Miami’s throne.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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