By Steve Lichtenstein
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Most sports fans focus on baseball and football during October. For the new-look Brooklyn Nets, however, this just might be their most important month until April.
With expectations sky-high following a summer of roster upgrades — from the blockbuster trade with the Celtics that brought Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn, to the crafty below-market free-agent signings of key reserves such as Andrei Kirilenko, Andray Blatche, Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson — the Nets gathered at Duke University on Monday to begin their quest for that elusive NBA title.
As if trying to beat out the Heat, Bulls and Pacers with all these new parts wasn’t tough enough, the Nets increased their degree of difficulty by plucking Jason Kidd directly from the NBA player pool to make him their head coach, an act with little precedence.
Kidd now has the unenviable task of not only implementing the new systems he wants run on both ends of the floor, but figuring out which players best fit those systems. In one month.
A rocky start would only increase the pressure on Kidd, both in the city — where the media is eager to call the Nets out as frauds — and from Russia, where owner Mikhail Prokhorov has shown little patience when it comes to his toy basketball team.
Coaches will always tell you that there’s never enough time to practice, while Kidd, maybe only five months ago when he was running out of gas on the Knicks, would likely have retorted that there’s too many workouts over the course of a season. Some Nets players have to be monitored due to their age or injury history — the Nets won’t be holding too many practices during those five-games-in-seven-nights stretches that are common on the league’s schedule. Kidd has to maximize the time he gets with his players now.
That’s why it is crucial for the Nets to take this training camp seriously — the sooner they can sort everything out here, the better the chances will be that they’ll have prime positioning come playoff time.
Specifically, these are the areas that deserve the most attention:
As expected, defense was the priority on Day 1 of camp on Tuesday. The Nets were in the second tier of the league defensively last season, thanks to a mixed bag of one-dimensional players in their rotation. Gerald Wallace, since departed to Boston, was the only one who could come close to filling the “stopper” role.
To rectify this, Kidd seems to be relying on assistant coach Lawrence Frank for tactical direction and Garnett for on-the-court commandment. The biggest challenge for both is to get the best out of center Brook Lopez, an All-Star for his skills on the offensive side, but who is unpredictable when it comes to protecting the Nets’ basket.
To be fair, Lopez did improve his shot-blocking numbers, swatting over two per game for the first time in his career last season. But the pick-and-roll continues to mystify him — at one point it got so bad that at the end of a game at the Clippers, the Nets tried to have Reggie Evans guard whichever big man executed the screen because Lopez too often ended up in no-man’s land. That didn’t work out so well either, as it only added to the confusion.
Garnett’s voice will likely become ingrained in his teammates’ heads, as his defensive communication skills are considered the best in the league. We’ll have to see if anything sinks into Lopez’s.
As for Frank, I’m hoping he doesn’t revert back to his strategies from when he was the Nets’ head coach, which featured constant double-teaming of the ball that created open looks from three-point range. He has to trust that Deron Williams’ ankles are healthy enough to keep him in front of all the elite point guards in the league and position the help-defenders so that they can run out on three-point shooters.
Having Garnett and Kirilenko up front should be enough to offset the less defensively-diligent players like Lopez and Joe Johnson on the floor.
That is, if the Nets as a unit can master the core defensive principles being implemented now.
2) The Rotation
The Nets starting five of Williams, Johnson, Lopez, Garnett and Pierce has played in a combined 35 All-Star games. If healthy, they can match up with any team in the NBA.
To keep them healthy, general manager Billy King went shopping for a bench after returning many of the disappointments from his spree a year ago.
Evans, who was miscast as a starter last season — he wouldn’t even come out for pregame introductions, as he was so used to coming off the bench for much of his 11 seasons — has made some interesting comments regarding his reserve comrades, calling out the starters that they better bring it every day in practice.
That’s because Kidd only has so many minutes to play with to keep everyone happy. Any Net who dogs it here will only make Kidd’s job easier.
The Nets have the maximum 15 guaranteed contracts among their training-camp invitees, most of whom have been part of NBA rotations. Toko Shengelia will be limited to garbage time while second-year point guard Tyshawn Taylor and rookie center Mason Plumlee will likely only be called upon in emergencies.
When they held the Nets’ throne, both Avery Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo went with 11-man rotations for much of last season — to the team’s detriment. If Kidd thinks he can regularly ride 11 or 12 this season, he is kidding (no pun intended) himself. October is Kidd’s month to play with different combinations.
The prime backups appear to be Kirilenko, Blatche, Terry, Livingston and Evans. That leaves Mirza Teletovic and Anderson on the bubble, which can be difficult for long-range shooting specialists.
Teletovic claimed that he was out of sync and out of shape last season from disjointed minutes. Kidd called Anderson the Nets’ “dark horse” after he was signed as a free agent over the summer.
They have October to impress Kidd into giving them the minutes they desire, unless the Nets have issues with…
Injury consequences are full of cliches. The Nets, even with their improved depth, are not immune to them.
All of Garnett’s assets become moot if he can’t stay on the floor for most of his 19th NBA season. The Celtics preserved Garnett through monitored minutes and selected games off. That will have to be continued, though Garnett already put the kibosh on Kidd’s proposed back-to-back plan.
Garnett is not the type to take it easy in training camp either, so Kidd will have to weigh the benefits of having Garnett run with the team every day to assist with chemistry over the long-term view of keeping him fresh for a long season.
More concerning, because point guard is the one position where the Nets do not have quality depth, is the condition of Williams’ right ankle, which he sprained at the end of his summer workouts. Williams had many issues with both ankles last season until undergoing treatments over the All-Star break. It severely limited Williams’ lift, explosiveness and shooting efficiency.
Williams is now out of the walking boot but is “limited” in what he can do in the first week of camp. He will likely miss the Nets’ first exhibition game at Washington on Tuesday.
Another long-term issue with Williams might be the only one that the Nets can’t afford. Even if Lopez’s foot acts up — not that it will, but Lopez did have “corrective” surgery in June) — the Nets could manage with a combination of Blatche, Garnett and Plumlee. Having Livingston start and play major minutes for Williams would create quite a different scenario.
For now, Nets fans are riding the wave from an offseason unmatched in their franchise’s history. In October, everything is still conjecture. Kidd, the rookie coach, has the respect of the players, but that will dissipate if they see weaknesses.
He has this month to put the jigsaw puzzle together and pray it sticks.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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