By Steve Lichtenstein
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Somewhere in Milwaukee this morning, Bucks coach Jason Kidd is smiling as he reads reports his scouts have filed on the Brooklyn Nets in preparation for his impending return to the borough on Wednesday.
Or maybe he really doesn’t care one way or another, as he so often has stated since his controversial exit out of Brooklyn over the summer.
But for argument’s sake, let’s say he gets the irony that has arisen out of the Nets’ four-game losing streak following Monday night’s 95-83 stinkfest against depleted Miami at the Barclays Center.
These 4-6 Nets are a team in flux that needs time to gel, with a new coach, a new system, and a few new key players.
Same as last season, when Kidd’s Nets, fresh off a summer of acquisitions that included future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, won just 10 of their first 31 games and threatened to become the most expensive disaster since the Titanic.
The 2014-15 Nets are a team that lacks backbone. They get pounded on the glass with regularity and lose out on a vast majority of 50-50 balls. The Heat, last in the league in total rebounds per game, somehow won the Battle of The Boards on Monday night, 41-35.
In probably the most crucial sequence, the Nets couldn’t corral the ball after two Miami missed field goal attempts. That allowed the Heat to maintain possession for more than a minute before a Chris Bosh jump shot put Miami ahead, 84-78, with 3:15 remaining.
Again, that was the Nets’ Achilles Heel at the start of last season. Even after their resurgence following the New Year, they finished at or near the bottom of most of the league’s rebounding categories. Old, slow and hurting, the Nets were often beaten by teams with far less talent because they were outworked.
Like the Nets’ two most recent opponents. First it was Portland who shut down the Nets on Saturday despite missing two of their top three players in LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum.
Now add in Monday night’s disaster against a Miami squad that played without Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts and the Nets are officially a team in turmoil.
“I tell you guys (the media) all the time,” said Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins, who was hired to replace Kidd after Kidd’s failed power play forced the Nets to “trade” him to Milwaukee. “NBA players get paid to play. There’s a lot of guys sitting on benches waiting for opportunities to play. It’s not like you can go out there and just walk through people. You got to go play.”
Which brings us to the final comparison between the beginnings of Kidd’s regime versus that of Hollins—the Nets’ utter lack of an identity.
What is this team? They’re not a team that grinds and pounds you like Chicago. They’re certainly not a breakneck-speed crew that looks to make every game a track meet like Phoenix. They don’t beat you with exquisite ball and player movement like San Antonio. And as good as Joe Johnson was last postseason, he is not the transformational player like Kevin Durant or LeBron James that you can ride for 82 games.
The Nets are still in the process of establishing an identity.
Well, not exactly, per Hollins.
“I can tell you that they have an identity,” said Hollins. “And it’s not very good.”
Now, I am not going to suggest that the Kidd-for-Hollins swap was anything but positive for Brooklyn–I was totally against the Kidd hiring from the get-go and he didn’t disappoint. The Nets flat out underachieved, eventually getting knocked out for good by the Heat in the second round of the playoffs.
Kidd was ill-prepared at the start and lacked critical in-game experience to manage, for instance, how to use his timeouts.
Hollins has a proven record of success in Memphis, where his teams and players got better every year no matter who was in or out of their lineup.
However, I had to give Kidd credit for one thing in his brief pit stop in Brooklyn—he tinkered until his team found its identity.
You can argue that Kidd’s “small-ball” identity fell into his lap, as the Nets were forced to play the remainder of their season without 2013 All Star center Brook Lopez following Lopez’s right foot fracture in a December 20 game in Philadelphia.
Whether it was an epiphany or dumb luck, Kidd inserted six-foot seven point guard Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup to replace the seven-foot Lopez and, voila, suddenly the Nets became a much more difficult team to play against.
Sure the rebounding difficulties continued, but the Nets’ newfound ability to switch on defense forced turnovers by the bushel and the inverted offense had better flow without Lopez clogging up the middle.
The Nets turned their season around and salvaged what they could, even if it didn’t meet the preseason championship hype.
Now it’s Hollins’ turn to figure this thing out. For those who are quick-triggered, it’s not Hollins’ schemes that are failing. The Nets players often discard the “flex” system that is their base on their own, to disappointing results.
The ball moved beautifully for a half in Phoenix to open the Nets’ recent three-game road trip, but we haven’t seen much of it since. There’s been a lot of standing around, waiting for the guy with the ball to make a play. The only player who seems willing to make cuts to the basket is Bojan Bogdanovich.
The Euro-stash rookie, who led the Nets with 22 points on Monday, is also starting to knock down his three-point attempts. Not counting the Portland game (where the Nets as a team bricked 18 of 19 threes), Bogdanovich has made 11 of his last 20 treys (55 percent) over the other five games. His adjustment to the NBA has been one of the few bright spots during the Nets’ skid.
The rest of the Nets, however, seem to lose their focus quite often, especially when the going gets tough.
“It’s about handling adversity in a different manner,” said Hollins. “We’ve played well and have moved the ball but we don’t do it consistently for 48 minutes. We do it in spurts and then when the other team puts a little bit of pressure on us, we tend to start going to what we know.”
Which means isolation one-on-one basketball. Johnson (who curiously called his teammates out before the road trip, labeling their play “selfish”–the Nets haven’t won since), Deron Williams, Lopez, Jarrett Jack, Mirza Teletovic, Alan Anderson, Mason Plumlee–they’ve all been guilty of playing hero-ball at various points this season.
That won’t cut it whether the Nets are playing the Western Conference elite or shorthanded teams like Miami.
The problem is that Hollins has yet to find groups who play well as a unit. You get the feeling that the pieces are there, but Hollins keeps trying to jam the wrong ones together.
It seems like having Lopez on the floor with the starters for lengthy runs makes everyone else agitated. Lopez needs the ball down low, which means no one else can drive and either finish at the rim or find an open teammate on the perimeter. The area around the paint is too congested.
It hasn’t helped that Lopez has struggled with his shooting efficiency this season. Lopez should have been able to abuse Miami’s Shawne Williams from the opening tip, but he failed to convert on any of his three field goal attempts in the first quarter.
Lopez, Johnson and D-Will combined to shoot 8-for-30 from the floor for just 25 points. The Nets aren’t going to win many games with production that low from their Big Three.
Hollins again benched Lopez for the vast majority of the fourth quarter, but didn’t want to go into his decision.
“I don’t want to talk about Brook right now,” said Hollins. “I don’t want to talk about any individuals—I’ll talk about the game. I hear what you’re asking but it’s not a good time—for me.”
At some point in the near future, a discussion will become necessary.
Hollins is known to be stubborn, but he has to understand that teams sometimes need to alter who they are to find the identity that runs at peak efficiency.
Hopefully he doesn’t wait 31 games like Kidd did a year ago.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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