By Steve Lichtenstein
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For the Nets, it’s back to the drawing board.
It’s not the first time during this rollercoaster campaign that they’ve had to take a harder look at their inner workings in a search for consistent basketball.
This inaugural season in Brooklyn, which had been pitched as the feel-good story of the NBA — with longtime losers upgrading their cast to turn the tables on the league’s behemoths, has been marred by poorly-scripted soap opera-style drama.
The plot twists started last summer with the will-they-or-won’t-they dalliance with star center Dwight Howard. It turned out that the heartbroken Nets didn’t have such a bad fallback option in incumbent Brook Lopez.
Lopez came back from the broken foot that limited his 2011-12 season to five games and put up All Star-caliber numbers. Though he was snubbed in the initial balloting, Lopez garnered a trip to Houston as an injury replacement.
But Lopez did not return from the break with the same urgency. On the contrary, he seemed so uninspired that interim coach P.J. Carlesimo benched Lopez during three of the next four fourth quarters.
Lopez has since returned to norm (at least on the offensive end), but his has not been the Nets’ sole tale of tribulation this season.
There’s star point guard Deron Williams, who general manager Billy King had to woo — using owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s deep resources — back into the fold last summer after trading away the equivalent of three first-round draft picks (if you include the Nets’ 2010 lottery pick Derrick Favors) plus Devin Harris at the 2011 trade deadline.
Nearly $100 million guaranteed placed Williams on the marquee as the centerpiece of the Nets’ revival in their new city.
It also made Williams the center for all controversies, especially when the Nets stumbled following an 11-4 start.
This was coming from someone who hadn’t always played all that well, certainly not like the franchise player the Prokhorov/King regime signed on for. At his best, Williams is a master floor leader who is equally capable of taking over games when needed.
Instead, we’ve too often seen a player who struggles to get lift on his shot or keep quick opposing point guards out of the paint, compounded by an annoying habit of careless turnovers at inopportune moments.
Williams has needed three sets of cortisone injections plus plasma therapy this season to reduce the pain in both ankles on top of playing through a variety of other ailments to his wrist and shoulder. Every day Williams meets with the press and is greeted with a “How ya doin,” with the reply parched for clues as to whether Williams is close to regaining his past form.
Coincidence or not, Williams’ suggestion in mid-December that Avery Johnson’s system was also a factor in his early-season woes was followed by Carlesimo’s ascension to the head post about a week later with the Nets having careened down to an even 14-14 mark.
Carlesimo enjoyed a month-long honeymoon, winning 12 of his first 14 games. Williams had a little more bounce in his step. Shooting guard Joe Johnson, who, though vastly overpaid and a salary-cap killer, only cost King Houston’s first-round draft pick and spare parts in an offseason trade, and he continued to assert himself as the Nets’ crunch-time scorer with four game-winners in the final 30 seconds.
After sweeping the Bucks in a home-and-home to go a season-high 11 games over .500 the day before the trade deadline, many were clamoring for the Nets to pledge their vows to Carlesimo by removing the interim tag.
And, with the Nets riding high, every suspense (Ben Gordon, Josh Smith, Paul Millsap, Ersan Ilyasova … heck, any forward who could shoot a little bit was rumored to be packing his bags for Brooklyn) during the days leading up to the trade deadline turned out to be a red herring. Few called out King, who possessed insufficient assets and creativity, for failing to make any improvements to his flawed roster.
But Johnson started to feel pain in his heel during that Milwaukee series and it’s been mostly a horror show since. The Nets have lost four of their last five games to fall into fifth place in the Eastern Conference, 3 1/2 games behind the Knicks in the Atlantic Division, but only three games up on the Bucks for the privilege of getting slaughtered by Miami in the first playoff round.
Now it’s on Carlesimo to recast roles in an attempt to shake up his moribund club. We’ll see what he has in store for Wednesday night’s contest in Charlotte.
The big men have been the latest source of intrigue, with Carlesimo starting to receive some flak for failing to settle on a rotation.
There’s been a groundswell of outside support for Bosnian import Mirza Teletovic, a long-range threat who is still learning the way around the NBA, particularly on defense. Carlesimo has curiously called on Teletovic more often to rescue the Nets’ offense late in games after having him waste away on the bench until those points.
I don’t know how long Carlesimo can continue to start Reggie Evans at power forward considering Evans’ dearth of offensive skills. Evans, the NBA’s leading rebounder per 48 minutes, is better suited as an energy guy off the bench.
Then again, the Nets’ first quarters have often been their best. The inconsistencies have been more likely to occur in subsequent stanzas. The last two games were lost in the third (outscored 29-14 at home by Dallas) and the second (blitzed 26-12 in Chicago) quarters.
I believe this can be traced to the underutilization of backup center Andray Blatche. How is the team’s fourth-leading scorer (10.0 ppg) playing less than half the game (18.9 mpg)?
It’s time to codify Blatche as the de facto sixth man, entering the game at power forward earlier in the first quarter to form a Twin Towers duo with Lopez.
I can just see the positive results if Carlesimo could get Blatche’s minutes at least into the upper 20s per game. Remember all those Evans’ layups under the basket that were stuffed back into his face, or those open 12-footers bricked by Kris Humphries? Well, I’ve got to believe that Blatche, with his diversified skill set, would convert a better percentage of those.
I also think it’s the other forward position that has become equally or more problematic.
King paid a ransom for starter Gerald Wallace, first by acquiring him last season in exchange for a lottery pick (it was only top-three protected, so Portland owes King a huge thank you for gifting it Damian Lillard) and then by re-signing the free agent over the summer to a budget-blowing four-year, $40 million deal.
Wallace looks worn down from all those crashes to the floor. His shot has been erratic, whether it’s from three-point land, the free-throw line or at the rim. It’s caused his points-per-game numbers to fall below double digits for the first time since 2004.
That has again opened the door for more screen time for Keith Bogans, who is of little use on the offensive end. A decent February shooting streak brought Bogans’ three-point efficiency up to a middling 37 percent, but he’s still last on the team in plus/minus numbers. When Bogans plays more than 20 minutes, the Nets’ record is 9-12.
It makes no sense for Bogans to be averaging over 18 minutes per game. When Wallace needs a breather, the Nets would be better off moving Johnson to small forward (giving more minutes to guard C.J. Watson, who, at 39 percent, is also a better shooter from three-point distance than Bogans and/or MarShon Brooks).
It’s time for Carlesimo to pare the cast. No more Humphries. No more Bogans.
Let’s see Teletovic start, with Blatche the sixth man. Put Evans back on the bench, where he can pair with Blatche when Lopez needs a rest to reunite a once-effective second-unit front line for the few minutes to bridge the first and second quarters. And more Watson and Brooks with Johnson or Williams instead of Bogans, please.
With no help on the horizon, it’s up to Carlesimo to give the Nets a much-needed jolt. What’s another shakeup in this season-long serial of “As The Nets Turn” anyway?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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