By Steve Lichtenstein
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The NBA All-Star break is as good a time as any to take a step back and see where the Nets stand. This is a difficult team to evaluate, with so many players in and out of the lineup due to injuries and roles seemingly redefined every other week.

One night’s hero is often a non-factor the next game, which has some praising the Nets for their remarkable depth. Others prefer to blast them for their inconsistency.

We know we can’t grade this team based on preseason expectations. With the Nets’ record at 24-27 and set to play six road games in 11 days, my prediction of 54 wins belongs in the same place I store my old NCAA brackets.

They’ve lost to many of the worst teams in the league, yet are 2-0 versus Miami and split with the Thunder, Spurs, and the Clippers.

Rookie coach Jason Kidd got off to a horrendous 10-21 start, but then figured out a way to change Brooklyn’s identity at the dawn of the New Year and ended up winning the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month in January. However, the Nets are still badly disadvantaged when facing elite coaches, as we witnessed in their last game before the break, a 92-76 loss at Chicago.

Yes, despite all the change in these parts, the Nets still can’t beat the Bulls, who humiliated them by winning a Game 7 in Brooklyn in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Nets drew their nemesis again this coming April. The Nets are currently in seventh place in the East, but are only a game behind Atlanta for fifth, with Chicago in good position to finish either third or fourth.

We have to remember that, for all the heartache the Nets have caused their fans in this season’s first half-plus, that’s when they’ll ultimately be assessed.

Nets general manager Billy King assembled this roster with the postseason in mind. He wanted a team diverse and tough enough to get out of the conference. The trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce was supposed to map out for the Nets’ core the path to a championship.

Of course, they have to get into the tournament first.

However, crazy as it sounds for a team just two-and-a half games from Lottery Land, Brooklyn can certainly evolve into that dangerous team no one wants to play in a series.

But only if the following conundrums are solved:

1. The Garnett Conundrum

Ever since center Brook Lopez had his season ended by a broken bone in his right foot in December, it’s no secret that Kidd’s decision to move Garnett into the middle has transformed the way the Nets play defense. Garnett is a master at positioning, whether it’s on pick-and-rolls, rim protection, or controlling the backboards.

The problem is what happens to the Nets during the other 28 minutes that Garnett doesn’t play, never mind the games Garnett takes nights off for to rest his worn 37-year old frame. The Nets surrender 6.6 more points per 100 possessions when Garnett isn’t around to be the defensive fulcrum.

Backups Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee have been inconsistent at best. Blatche has been more disappointing considering his wide range of skills for a 6-foot-11 man. He had a solid stretch in mid January after taking four games off for personal reasons, even attending to the requisite defense and rebounding chores.

But he’s regressed since a hip injury forced him to miss a pair of games in early February. His averages for this month are down to 9 points and 3.4 rebounds after posting 13 points and 5.8 boards in January. He’s back to his habit of opting for the high-risk plays that often backfire, which is why his shooting percentage has gone from 51.2 percent in January to 46.5 percent this month.

Plumlee, the rookie, can dunk. Many of them are highlight-worthy. But that’s pretty much it. He converted his first shot outside the paint this season during the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday. His rebounding percentage numbers are Lopez-ian, which is what happens when all you do is stand in no-man’s land hoping to block shots.

That doesn’t mean that the Nets should throw Plumlee out to the side—his energy and work ethic are encouraging. He had a semi-breakout game against New Orleans a week ago and he’s even improved his once-awful free throw shooting.

But neither Blatche nor Plumlee can replicate Garnett. They don’t have his basketball IQ, his pedigree, or his defensive intensity.

The numbers don’t lie. The Nets can only become the team of King’s vision if Garnett increases his workload. I know how much he despises playing center, but his team isn’t going anywhere if he’s limited to less than half the game.

2. The “Small Ball” Conundrum

The Nets took off in January when, in addition to moving Garnett to center, they asked Paul Pierce, normally a small forward, to guard power forwards. Joe Johnson, the former shooting guard, then switched to small forward. Shaun Livingston settled into the starting lineup as a second point guard to pair with Deron Williams.

All of a sudden, the Nets defense took on a whole new look. They weren’t stretched by pick-and-rolls, they defended the three-point line, they forced more turnovers, and–at least when Garnett was on the floor–they weren’t getting annihilated on the boards.

But that started to change with a blowout loss to the Thunder on January 31, when the Nets established a record-low with 17 rebounds. The Nets have lost 5 of their past 9 games, mostly due to these matchup issues.

Though a bunch of the defeats occurred before the switch, the Nets are 0-4 this season versus Indiana, 0-3 versus Detroit, and 0-2 versus both Chicago and Washington—all teams with big front lines that can score inside.

In Thursday’s loss in Chicago, the Nets were unable to contain the Carlos Boozer/Taj Gibson power forward tandem and center Joakim Noah. The Nets tried Mirza Teletovic at one point and the Bulls responded by attacking him on three consecutive possessions, scoring each time.

The Nets would have likely had more success had they started forward Andrei Kirilenko. I addressed this in my last post but it bears repeating—Kidd has to do a better job in preparing for his opponent. Now that Kirilenko appears to have overcome his back and calf issues that cost him 29 games, he needs to be in the starting lineup instead of Livingston when the Nets face these teams.

Kidd’s addiction to “small-ball” can’t be a superstition like his New Year’s resolution swearing off neckwear. Save it for the Heat and the Knicks, not the Bulls.

3. The D-Will Conundrum

I probably should add Johnson in here as well, as even Nets fans didn’t understand how Eastern Conference coaches chose a player who failed to score double figures in 15 of his 49 games to the All Star team.

But this has been Williams’ team since two summers ago when he signed his $98 million contract. D-Will remains the face of the franchise, even after the Lopez ascension, Joe Cool in the clutch, and the Garnett/Pierce trade.

Williams is a dynamic point guard who fairly recently was in the conversation as being one of the best in the league. He can score from all points on the floor as well as distribute.

Ah, but those darn ankles—always forcing Williams to take a step back. They’ve been an issue since the 2012 Olympics and it took platelet-rich plasma injections to salvage the post-All Star portion of last season.

Williams took five games off to try those treatments again last month, but the results haven’t been the same. He’s not getting consistent lift on his three-point shot and he’s struggling at finishing at the rim. Much of the time lately, D-Will jukes in one spot before hoisting a contested shot, if he doesn’t turn it over first.

D-Will’s defense has also taken a dip. He can’t contain penetration from opposing point guards while preferring to go under screens instead of contesting three-point shooters.

The Nets have little choice but to ride this out. For all of the deserved platitudes thrown at Livingston for his doggedness in rehabilitating his game to become a difference-maker in certain games this season, he’s just not in D-Will’s class in every facet.

A healthy Williams, that is.

Maybe the five-day break will be good for Williams like last year. If not, or if any of the above matters are not solved, I will join the choir in deeming the Nets’ moves, money spent, and championship talk from the last two summers as all a big waste.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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