By Steve Lichtenstein
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In building their international brand under Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets have always been willing to travel around the globe in search of new marketing opportunities.
They do get some basketball in as well. On Wednesday, the Nets completed a two-game preseason sweep of Sacramento with a 129-117 overtime victory in Beijing, China.
Of course, we shouldn’t misconstrue the end results of these games as they were decided by many players who will not be on the floor when the games start to count in two weeks.
Still, there are some things Nets fans can take away from the Nets’ 3-0 start to the preseason. Here are the top five:
1. Same Old Brook
Brook Lopez looked no different to me than the center he was before his fourth surgery on his broken right foot cost him all but 17 games of his 2013-14 season.
That is, he is still an All Star-caliber offensive force—maybe even more so now because new coach Lionel Hollins is focusing on keeping Lopez closer to the basket, relying less on his mid-range jump—er, set shots. If you’re an opposing coach, the Lopez/Deron Williams pick-and-rolls looked downright scary, as D-Will threaded passes through traffic and Lopez finished plays in a variety of ways.
Lopez scored 34 points in 52 combined minutes in the two games, though in fairness, the Kings rested DeMarcus Cousins on Wednesday, so Lopez’s 14-point first quarter gets an asterisk.
Of course, defending pick-and-rolls is still somewhat of a mystery to Lopez. I can’t say I am confounded any more when an opposing point guard beats the seven-foot Lopez inside the way Sacramento’s Ramon Sessions often did in Sunday’s game—taking the ball right into Lopez’s body and either finishing at the rim or drawing a foul. Lopez will never be known for having quick feet on defense. The Nets will have to expect that the high pick-and-roll with Lopez’s man as the screener will be every team’s go-to play on any key possession this season.
However, if you take Lopez’s effort in totality, the status quo is a huge positive for the Nets, who are counting on Lopez to balance the offense. It will be up to Hollins to continue to stay on Lopez’s case in the hope he can coax some baby-step improvements to Lopez’s defense and rebounding.
2. Where’s The Perimeter Defense?
Wait till the Nets play a team with some real speed.
Or even a team like the Knicks, with their abundance of catch-and-shoot three-point weapons. Hollins has the Nets packing the paint but it has come at a price. The Nets just aren’t very quick getting out to shooters.
The Kings were the third-worst three-point shooting team in the league last season, yet they went a cumulative 18-for-43 (42 percent) from long range in the two games. Sessions and Darren Collison, two point guards no one would confuse with Kyrie Irving or Stephon Curry, lit up the Nets from deep.
Remember that this was a real issue for the Nets during their wretched 10-21 start under coach Jason Kidd a year ago. Kidd delegated the defensive strategy to assistant Lawrence Frank–who similarly devalued defending the three-point line–to disastrous results. It was only when Kidd used the Lopez injury to go smaller up front (and demoted Frank to report-writing duties) that the Nets became a team capable of defending modern NBA attacks.
Hollins doesn’t have a Shaun Livingston-type on this roster, so he will have to use the rest of the preseason to figure out how he can get the Nets to properly rotate when monoliths Lopez and Kevin Garnett are sharing the floor.
3. What Is D-Will These Days?
Well, at least Williams isn’t returning to the U.S. in a walking boot. He survived the trip, which is all the Nets want from him out of this preseason.
Is he at 100 percent? 90 percent? 80?
Only D-Will knows. After Williams’ two underachieving seasons in Brooklyn thanks to chronic ankle woes, the fans aren’t expecting him to regain the form that made him 1B to Chris Paul’s 1A among NBA point guards—the form that led the Nets to sign him to a nearly $100 million contract over five years in the summer of 2013.
It would be nice, however, if the Nets can count on Williams to run this offense that seems to be tailor-made for him. Be a leader. And, most importantly, show up in the fourth quarter of tight games.
We weren’t going to find out much in China, where he seemed to move well. What matters is that he did get out of the country in one piece.
4. The Race For Fifth
With my choice Alan Anderson sitting out on Sunday and limited to seven minutes on Wednesday due to an abdominal strain, it would appear that Bojan Bogdanovich has the inside track on starting alongside Lopez, Garnett, Williams and Joe Johnson when the regular season opens in Boston.
Hollins gave Bogdanovich significant playing time in China, ostensibly to get him used to the different ball and game speed than what he grew up with while playing in Europe.
This is Hollins’ most crucial decision this preseason. In his “flex” offense, there will be boatloads of uncontested corner threes available for whoever fills this spot. Ideally, Hollins wants this player to be a “guard”, meaning he should be able to defend an athletic wing while spacing the floor on the other end with efficient three-point shooting.
That player may not be on this roster. Unfortunately, with the Nets in a salary cap vise, there’s little hope that help will come from outside the organization.
So while I don’t want to put much emphasis on two preseason games, it was interesting to watch how Bogdanovich fared against NBA competition.
I would have liked to have seen Bogdanovich shoot better than 1-for-6 from three-point range, but he wasn’t totally lost off the dribble or when matched up with shorter players in the post. He played earnest defense and wasn’t abused by Ben McLemore, but that doesn’t mean he is capable of staying with the DeMar DeRozans in the league.
5. Musical Chairs Frontrunners
The Nets have 13 players signed to guaranteed contracts. They brought 17 players to China. An NBA roster contains at most 15 players.
By my math that means four players (Jorge Gutierrez, Cory Jefferson, Jerome Jordan and Willie Reed) are fighting for two chairs at the end of the bench, with assignments to the Nets’ shared D-League affiliate in Fort Wayne as a perk.
Gutierrez was a Kidd favorite based on his Cal roots and defensive energy on point guards, but his skills with the ball are so deficient that Hollins has the out-of-control Marquis Teague higher up on his depth chart. Unless health issues questioning Williams’ or Jarrett Jack’s availability emerge, I don’t see how Gutierrez makes the cut.
On the other hand, Jordan was semi-impressive in his stints against the Kings’ backups and the Nets do need size, especially since Andray Blatche wasn’t asked to return. When configuring their roster, the Nets have to factor in Lopez’s medical chart and Garnett’s age considerations, which means they don’t want to be left with just Mason Plumlee holding down the center position for significant periods. That opens the door for Jordan to take a spot if he continues to show he can play at this level.
As for the other slot, we’ll just have to wait and see. Three more preseason games to go before Hollins has his Nets play for real.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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