By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s safe to say that the Nets, after Wednesday night’s 105-89 home victory over Charlotte improved their record to 14-5 since January 1, have turned a corner.
The way they played on Wednesday night, which has been pretty consistent so long as center Kevin Garnett shows up for work, makes their 10-21 start seem like a bad dream.
The defense and the ball movement are getting close to what general manager Billy King and coach Jason Kidd envisioned when this approximately $190 million (including luxury taxes) roster was configured over the summer.
“Everybody was touching it,” said Kidd of Wednesday night’s effort. “It all started on the defensive end. Getting stops and then being able to take advantage on offense by guys passing up shots and making plays for their teammates. That’s what got us the lead.”
Brooklyn has moved to within a percentage point of the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, the lowest necessary to avoid Miami or Indiana in the first round of the playoffs. They’re only three games behind Toronto for the Atlantic Division lead and third seed.
But now it gets interesting.
Starting on Thursday in Chicago, the Nets embark on a seven-game road trip.
And right smack in the middle of it, on February 20, comes the trade deadline.
Under King, the Nets’ philosophy has seemed to be, “the more things change, the more things change.” King fired two coaches last season and blew up the roster in each of the last two summers.
The most likely reason that King stood pat at last year’s deadline was that no team who had players of value wanted any part of Kris Humphries, despite the large expiring contract.
Even after triple-mortgaging the house to get Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry from Boston, King still has a few chips he could parlay next week if he thinks the Nets are really close to owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s mandate of an NBA title.
So far this season King has preached patience. He stuck with Kidd when many (including me) believed he was in over his head.
But I wonder whether King’s trigger finger is getting itchy. While the Nets have weathered the health and chemistry issues that plagued them in 2013, this is still not a team that would be favored to get out of the conference (barring catastrophes in Indiana and Miami), let alone win a championship.
The Nets could use another big man, someone to rebound and guard traditional power forwards like Indiana’s David West and the Bulls’ Carlos Boozer/Taj Gibson tandem. Those types tend to abuse the Nets, who have been playing Pierce as an undersized power forward and back him up with Mirza Teletovic, a three-point threat who can be erratic on the other end.
It would have to be someone who isn’t an offensive afterthought, like Reggie Evans. Evans, a starter for much of last season, has taken some time off for personal reasons until after the All-Star break after not playing in 10 of the last 16 games.
The Nets are fine when facing “stretch fours” like Charlotte’s Josh McRoberts last night. Pierce had a monster game, scoring 25 points on 9-of-11 shooting (including 5-for-5 from three-point land) in three quarters.
“I don’t have the same step I had 10-12 years ago,” said Pierce on how he has adjusted to his new role. “A lot of times I’m trying to use my basketball IQ out there — different cuts, playing off screens.”
On Thursday night, Pierce will have his hands full again against the Bulls’ more physical front line. These are the games where the extra big body would prove quite valuable.
However, tempting as it might be for King to go for broke, his best play is to let it be.
As much as I believe center Brook Lopez is a bad fit for this team even when/if he fully recovers from yet another season-ending surgery on his broken right foot, the fact is he is damaged goods right now.
I might wince at Lopez’s defense, but the Nets can’t just give away the best scoring center in the NBA. Earlier in the season, it was rumored that the Lakers and Nets had discussions regarding a Lopez-for-Pau Gasol swap, but both players are on the shelf now, which isn’t helpful to either team.
If the Nets decided to trade away Pierce — whose expiring $15.3 million contract could be attractive to certain teams — they would alienate Garnett. The 37-year-old Garnett might choose to retire on the spot, as it was Pierce who convinced him to waive his no-trade clause and go to Brooklyn with him.
Though the Nets have no first-round picks to offer until 2020, they do have the rights to rising Euro star Bojan Bogdanovich. Unfortunately, he can only be used as an add-on, as the Nets can’t take on salary in a straight-up trade.
No, like Kidd’s re-shaping of the Nets’ rotation in the New Year, the answers lie within. Kidd needs to plug 6-foot-9 forward Andrei Kirilenko into the starting lineup for dual point guard Shaun Livingston on those nights when going small up front will get the Nets pounded inside big time.
Kirilenko is a strong rebounder and can defend multiple positions — he would be ideal on Boozer (if he is active after missing three games with a calf injury) or Gibson with his long arms and pesky hands. The Nets wouldn’t have to alter their defensive scheme, as Kirilenko could switch on screens the same as Livingston.
On offense, Kirilenko is equally adept at passing, plus he will create extra possessions with his nose for winning loose balls. Like Livingston, Kirilenko isn’t an efficient perimeter shooter, but he finds his way to score with drives and broken plays.
There are two issues that could stymie this plan — one real and one imagined.
Kirilenko has already missed 29 games this season with back and calf injuries. The 26 minutes he logged last week against San Antonio were his season high. But the Nets are 15-6 in games Kirilenko has played and 9-20 when he’s in street clothes. I like the odds if he’s healthy enough to play more.
But Kidd will have to get over removing Kirilenko from what has been an extraordinary bench. In several recent games, the reserves have outplayed the starters. Kirilenko’s defensive awareness helps to compensate for the relative lack thereof by Teletovic and Andray Blatche.
I have my doubts that the superstitious Kidd will break up his units, at least not before the Nets encounter another rough patch.
Which is why I’ll be curious to see how the Nets handle Thursday’s game — on the road and playing a team that has surely studied tape on how big teams have manhandled the Nets inside.
The question would then become: What, if anything, would King choose to do about it knowing the trade deadline is only a week away?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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