By Steve Lichtenstein
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It hasn’t been the easiest of offseasons for fans of the Brooklyn Nets.
Unlike the prior two summers, there was no big bang — no marquee free-agent signing, no blockbuster trade. Heck, they didn’t even own a first-round draft choice in what most experts deemed an abnormally deep talent pool. (The Nets did buy out teams for three late second-round picks, and maybe one or two will round out the end of their bench this season.)
No, the biggest news arose from who left Brooklyn.
Two starters — Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce — bid adieu. The Nets were handicapped by the NBA’s luxury-tax rules in order to retain Livingston’s services, so it was no surprise that he found a new home in Golden State. Pierce, the team’s heart last season, inexplicably wasn’t even offered a new contract and took his talents to Washington.
Oh, and then there was the small matter of head coach Jason Kidd, who engineered his exit so he could take over the Milwaukee Bucks. That forced general manager Billy King into make his third coaching hire in about 18 months.
And that’s when the offseason took a nice little turn.
Starting with King’s signing of former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, things have been looking up in Brooklyn.
OK, so it’s not like the team was transformed the way it was in Cleveland, but consider these baby steps:
The Nets finally brought over swingman Bojan Bogdanovich from Europe. I saw a little of Bogdanovich’s play in the recent FIBA World Cup (where he was the third-leading scorer in the tournament) and he looked like a more slender version of the Nets’ Mirza Teletovic. He probably won’t be a 30-minute guy right away, but — as Hollins said at his introductory press conference — you can never have too many good shooters.
Speaking of the World Cup, don’t discount the benefits gained from center Mason Plumlee’s participation for Team USA. While I still think his roster inclusion was pure patronage, Plumlee will hit Nets training camp in tip-top shape after a month of workouts against some of the best big men in the league. The crash course he received from coaches like Tom Thibodeau will supplement what he has already gleaned from playing with Kevin Garnett as a rookie last year.
To replace Livingston, King traded for Jarrett Jack. The deal cost Brooklyn Marcus Thornton’s expiring contract and Jack is a relatively expensive option (two guaranteed seasons at $6 million per), but the Nets could surely use Jack’s scoring and ball handling as they wean off Kidd’s preferred small-ball lineup.
That’s because Hollins is likely to take a look at his roster when training camp starts on September 27 and install a system similar to the one that worked so well in Memphis.
He has Brook Lopez back at center. The 2013 All-Star confirmed last week that the multiple surgeries on his feet following season-ending injuries suffered last December will not restrict him in any way in camp. Lopez may not be the most defensively devout player in the league, but the Nets sure did miss his inside scoring in the playoffs.
Fortunately, all indications point to Garnett returning for his 20th season. Who knows KG’s motivation, as he is the Nets’ Oz. Was it simply the $12 million he would leave behind had he retired following his most painful season in the NBA? Hollins, who said he only spoke with Garnett once it was clear he would show up for camp, wouldn’t elaborate.
Still, having Garnett on the court (and for more than 15 minutes per game, according to Hollins) allows Hollins to recreate the dynamic that made the Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph tandem so successful in Memphis.
In this case, Garnett is the Gasol — an underrated passer at the high post with an efficient mid-range jump shot as well as the defensive fulcrum. Lopez can be Randolph, who wasn’t known as anything more than a volume scorer before he blossomed into an All-Star under Hollins. (To be fair, Randolph was always a far superior rebounder than Lopez.)
Many of the Nets came together on Monday for Deron Williams’ Celebrity Dodge Barrage at Basketball City on Chelsea Piers to raise funds to fight autism.
At last year’s event, the Nets’ $100 million point guard showed up in a walking boot. Williams missed almost all of training camp and the preseason due to his chronic ankle woes. The injuries plagued D-Will all season, even after the platelet-rich plasma injections at the All-Star break.
On Monday, however, Williams looked fit and unencumbered. He told reporters that the procedures to clean out both ankles in May will finally allow Brooklyn to witness the real D-Will.
“Anytime you can’t walk, you can’t run, you can’t jump, it’s hard to play basketball, especially in this league,” said Williams. “The only thing I wish is that I would’ve gotten surgery earlier. But what can you do? … I’m ready to go now, and I’m excited about the season.
“I was probably about 60 to 70 percent. It is definitely different this year. I think it’s great that I will be able to participate in training camp and I am practicing with the guys right now.”
And that might be the most important offseason development of all. For this team was built around the Brooklyn Backcourt of Williams and Joe Johnson. They are two of the 10 highest-paid players in the league.
Johnson’s price tag may be exorbitant, but his clutch play since coming over to Brooklyn two summers ago — especially in the 2014 postseason — has made him a fan favorite.
Williams, on the other hand, has a more testy relationship. Performances like his 0-for-9 effort in Game 2 at Miami had fans begging King to ship him out of town this summer.
That, of course, was not going to happen, given Williams’ onerous contract and questionable medical chart.
But if Williams and Lopez are at full strength, if KG’s worn body is up to the task to be a true difference-maker and if Hollins can fit pieces like Andrei Kirilenko, Teletovic, Bogdanovich, Jack and Plumlee into the proper pegs, then maybe the situation in Brooklyn is not so dire.
That’s a lot of ifs, but it’s far from preposterous.
This time the Nets will enter training camp not as the NBA’s most intriguing club, but one that will be well under the national-media radar. They’ll be led not by a coach who is learning on the job, but someone who brings with him a template for success.
This might not have been a summer from hell after all.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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