By Steve Lichtenstein
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A year ago, basically every analyst had the Nets destined for a horrific season.
And they ended up being right.
Brooklyn finished a league-worst 20-62, enabling the Boston Celtics to win May’s draft lottery since the pick was consideration from the Nets’ 2013 blockbuster deal for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
The Nets still owe one more first-rounder, but it will be the Cavaliers who will select on Brooklyn’s behalf in 2018 following their trade of superstar Kyrie Irving to Boston. That means this Nets’ season, which begins on Wednesday night in Indiana, will also have consequences far beyond Brooklyn.
But how bad will the Nets, who have no reason to tank, be? After adding legitimate pieces in D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll in offseason trades, they should be better, right?
How much better will remain a mystery until the season plays out. Ignore Brooklyn’s 3-1 preseason mark. It’s not an indicator that this team will compete for the eighth playoff seed, even in the watered-down Eastern Conference, as some have suggested.
I am far more pessimistic. Before I get to my bottom line, here are a few other predictions for this Nets season:
Crabbe will shoot below 40 percent from 3-point range
Originally signed by Nets general manager Sean Marks to an extraordinarily lavish offer sheet in July 2016, only to have it matched by Portland, Crabbe was acquired, ironically, in a Blazers’ salary dump this offseason.
Crabbe is an outstanding shooter, finishing second among NBA qualifiers last season with a 44 percent 3-point rate. But when one breaks that down, we learn that Crabbe converted on 46 percent (128 of 277) of catch-and-shoot 3-point opportunities, but just 23 percent (5 of 22) on other attempts.
Crabbe was slowed by an ankle sprain at the beginning of training camp, and his two preseason performances made me question whether he can take his game to another level. He will have a green light to fire away from behind the arc and he will be tasked more often in coach Kenny Atkinson’s motion offense to create off the dribble.
For the 25-year-old Crabbe, that is a good thing for his development. For his short-term stats, probably not so much.
Russell will nail at least one game-winning buzzer beater
Brook Lopez and Randy Foye had Brooklyn’s only walk-offs last season and they’re both gone. Who takes the last shot this season?
It won’t exactly be a Dyckman Park re-creation at Barclays Center, but Russell will have ample opportunities to play the late-game hero.
Mr. “Ice In His Veins” won over the borough when he showed up at a Summer League game shortly after the trade to Brooklyn and, with a throng rushing the court in the final seconds, calmly splashed the game-winning 3-pointer.
This is a big season for Russell, who most forget is only 21. The Nets are betting that he can be the closer they never replaced after letting Joe Johnson go.
Nets will remain among the worst teams in all NBA turnover metrics
NBA.com’s John Schuhmann recently posted a series of interesting stats from last season. The most pertinent related to Brooklyn’s penchant for committing turnovers. According to Schuhmann, the Nets were outscored by 4.1 points per game off turnovers, the worst differential in the NBA over the last five years. Their 9.5 live-ball turnovers per game were also a league high.
Despite all the new talent, the Nets’ low ranking in both turnovers per game and per 100 possessions will not change this season. I delved into the proximate cause in my post last week. When Atkinson pairs non-shooting bigs like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Timofey Mozgov on the floor together, the paint gets too congested. Dual point guards Russell and Jeremy Lin are excellent passers, but they both will struggle with the turnover bug.
Transition and second-chance points will make Brooklyn a bottom-10 defense
The other downside of going with Hollis-Jefferson as a “slash four” is that it leaves the Nets severely undersized up front. Only the Knicks surrendered more second-chance points per game last season than Brooklyn’s 14.3. Add in a league-worst 19.1 points per game allowed following turnovers and that’s a lot of easy buckets for Brooklyn’s opponents.
Other than Carroll (if he hasn’t lost any steps following an injury-plagued two seasons in Toronto), the Nets really didn’t bring in any reliable stoppers. Mozgov is probably marginally better than Lopez defending pick-and-rolls and rebounding, but he’s nowhere near as strong a rim protector.
Atkinson stressed defense in the early part of training camp, but the Nets’ lack of size and turnover woes will make it hard to improve their efficiency on that end.
No Net will average more than 32 minutes per game
Lopez, a borderline All Star (in the East), led all Nets last season in playing time, with just 29.6 minutes per game. The Lakers were the only other team whose leader averaged less than 30 minutes per game.
I expect Russell and/or Lin, provided they get through the season relatively healthy, to break through the 30-per-game barrier.
But not past 32, not with Atkinson determined to get 11, 12 or even 13 players into every game.
Development will again be the mission, not playing the best guys to win each game.
The Nets have a relatively easy schedule out of the gate, which would be great if they had their ducks in a row. Unfortunately, they don’t. The roster is too unbalanced and it will take time to develop chemistry. By then, it will be too late to make this season interesting to anyone but Cavs’ fans. Oh, the Nets will continue to play hard for Atkinson and be somewhat more fun to watch, along the way achieving the “small victories” Marks talks about. They just won’t get enough real ones.
My prediction: 26-56 (no playoffs)
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1