By Steve Lichtenstein
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The journey begins tomorrow.
When the Nets tip off in Cleveland tomorrow night, they’ll start their marathon that will culminate in either an appearance on the ultimate reality show of the NBA Finals, or the disgrace of being labeled as the League’s most expensive fantasy team.
Those are the only two options for the Nets after another dizzying summer of roster upgrades engineered by general manager Billy King, with the generous support of owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s bank account.
Those $300 million-plus in long-term contracts doled out by Prokhorov in the summer of 2012? Tip money.
Prokhorov will spend about $189 million—on this season alone.
He has made it abundantly clear to everyone that he expects the Nets to win an NBA championship within a short window. I wouldn’t want to be around Prokhorov if the Nets fall short this season.
At least the Nets enter the season with the most talented and diverse roster in the franchise’s history. I never thought I would enjoy a group like those couple of years when Dr. J played with Larry Kenon back in the ABA, but this team has the potential to be off the charts, with far superior depth to support a starting five that has accumulated 35 All Star appearances.
The draft day trade that sent future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn from Boston generated the most buzz, but the Nets also quietly built a bench that can go three deep at several spots.
Which happens to be one of rookie coach Jason Kidd’s most pressing puzzles.
I mean, can you imagine if the Nets had a player like swingman Alan Anderson last year instead of, say, Keith Bogans? A guy who can knock down open jump shots with legitimate three-point range and can also handle the ball? That could have been the difference between the Nets being able to avoid the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs instead of their ignominious exit in a Game 7 at home to those wounded Bulls.
Except on this team, I don’t see how Kidd gets Anderson gets into the rotation unless someone in front of him gets hurt.
Anderson could see some extra minutes early, even though the Nets are now loaded on the wings after King targeted those spots in the offseason. The Pierce trade also brought over reserve guard Jason Terry and then King signed box-score-filling forward Andrei Kirilenko to a below-market free-agent contract.
Terry, who looked like he can still fill it up from deep during the preseason, is recovering from off-season knee surgery. Kirilenko, who will be counted on to aid Pierce in disrupting the plethora of elite small forwards in the conference, has been plagued by back spasms recently and will likely be inactive tomorrow (as will Kidd, who is suspended by the League for the Nets first two games for his DWI arrest in the summer of 2012).
The Nets did receive good news on the injury front when point guard Deron Williams played 10 minutes in the final preseason game in Miami on Friday. Williams, who needed over a month-and-a-half to get over an ankle sprain and bone bruise, hit three straight three-pointers in about a minute and moved fairly well.
Williams remains the Nets’ sole indispensible player. The Nets didn’t hit their stride last season until Williams received treatments in both ankles at the All Star break. And though Shaun Livingston had a solid preseason using his size and vision to run the offense while Williams rehabbed his latest injury, he doesn’t shoot from long range, break down defenders, or stay in front of opposing point guards the way Williams can.
The other two of the returning Big Three from 2012-13, All Star center Brook Lopez and shooting guard Joe Johnson, look ready to buy into Kidd’s vision of spreading the wealth. Lopez, a scoring machine inside, bulked up over the summer to be even more forceful in the post after Chicago’s Joakim Noah outplayed him on one leg in Game 7.
Andray Blatche returned for far less money than he could have commanded in free agency to again back up Lopez. The multi-skilled Blatche also probably played more minutes paired with Lopez on the floor in the preseason than he did all last season, a waste in my opinion of the Nets’ fourth-leading scorer.
Johnson meanwhile, is only coming off a season in which he was the most clutch player in the League, highlighted by a youtube-clipful of game-winners.
When you consider the addition of Pierce, the Nets now start four players who warranted double teams last season. And though Garnett doesn’t command the same respect on this end, you can’t leave him open as he was one of the most efficient mid-range shooters in the League.
The Nets offense, often a quagmire of one isolation after another last season, often showed in the preseason why many deem basketball the most beautiful game. With so much weaponry, Kidd is emphasizing ball movement over the one-on-one tendencies that play into the good defenses’ hands.
When it works, the Nets can light up the scoreboard in a hurry. Of course, the Nets turnover numbers might be a tad high initially until the new players and system are fully integrated. It’s up to Kidd to set roles early so that the team can develop continuity.
Kidd also has his work cut out for him with the Nets defense. It is here where Kidd is counting on Garnett’s forceful presence. Garnett brings a knowledge and toughness that was missing from a team that often shrank at the first sign of adversity last season.
There weren’t many Nets last season who were known to “get after it” to win those 50/50 balls that create extra possessions. Gerald Wallace was one, but he was sent to Boston. The only holdover is forward Reggie Evans, whose lack of offensive skills offset his historically great rebounding numbers. Thanks to the trade, Evans can now be relegated to a more optimum bench role, where he can spell Garnett for the necessary minutes without the Nets losing defensive energy.
The Nets still look vulnerable when opponents target Lopez on pick-and-rolls and lack quickness to run out to contest three-point shooters. The adjustments made by Kidd, with the help of assistant coach Lawrence Frank, bear watching.
Because if the Nets can string together enough stops every game to become an above-average defensive team, this could be a special year in Brooklyn.
Unfortunately, the Nets missed a unique opportunity last season when so many stars fell injured. With Derrick Rose back in Chicago and an improved bench in Indiana, predictions as to who is best suited to challenge Miami for the Eastern Conference throne this season are tougher to make.
I’m seeing a 54-win season for the Nets, which will be good enough to beat out the Knicks for the Atlantic Division title and the third seed in the East. As for the playoffs, I think we all need to wait and see who is still standing when the dust settles on April 16 before we proceed further.
But it should be an enjoyable ride, one that I hope helps Brooklyn develop a true home court advantage come playoff time. Considering there are still seats available for Friday’s home opener versus the two-time defending champion Heat, there’s still plenty of room if you want to hop on the bandwagon.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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