By Steve Lichtenstein
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Brooklyn forward Joe Johnson summed up the underlying mood at Nets Media Day on Monday when he questioned why exiled star point guard Deron Williams agreed to a buyout of the remaining two years of his contract over the summer.
“It’s not that bad here,” said Johnson.
It’s not that bad here.
Remember those uber-hyped days in the last few years when it was “NBA championship or bust” for the Nets?
In cleaned-up Brooklyn parlance, “Forget about it.”
Nets general manager Billy King conceded in his press conference last week that the Nets’ expectations for 2015-16 would be dramatically lower.
“I think with the core of guys, of proven guys that can win, we have a chance to make the playoffs,” said King.
Even that’s debatable.
King’s latest iteration contains some players who can score, some who can defend, some who can rebound, some who can handle the ball and others who can shoot from long distance.
The problem is that there’s not a single one who is proficient in a majority of those characteristics.
Look at the core King alluded to above.
The projected starting lineup (or, as coach Lionel Hollins put it, “those core guys are going to have the first dibs at training camp” that commences on Tuesday at Duke University) consists of Jarrett Jack at point guard, Bojan Bogdanovich and Johnson on the wings, and Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez up front.
The Nets have been spinning “youth and athleticism” all offseason, but I don’t see much of it in that group. The average age is a little over 30 years old. Only Young, the team’s sole Brooklyn resident until their new practice facility is opened sometime in February, possesses at least average speed and athleticism compared to other players in the league at his position.
The Nets better be a hot first-quarter shooting team. Otherwise most opponents will run them into the ground.
Not much different from last season, according to Hollins.
“When I looked at us statistically — I forgot, I don’t believe in stats,” said Hollins in a playful jab at those in the media who have accused the old-school coach of resisting the movement toward basketball analytics utilization. “I tried to find trends of why we lose and why we win. The only thing that jumped out was that when we shot the ball extremely well from the three-point line, we were pretty successful.
“We’ve added people that have made them (three-point shots) in the past. We had some people that made them in the past last year but they didn’t make them during the season, so it remains to be seen. But I’d like to think that we are a better three-point shooting team.”
Free-agent signees Andrea Bargnani and shooting guard Wayne Ellington are both capable of providing perimeter scoring, but there are reasons why they’ve had itinerant careers. Bargnani, the 7-footer who was Phil Jackson’s whipping boy when he played for the Knicks last season (for which Bargnani refused to counter on Monday), is injury-prone and defense-allergic. The Nets will be Ellington’s sixth team in seven years.
King has pretty much stocked the Nets’ bench with guys who haven’t proved a thing in the league. Thomas Robinson, Shane Larkin, Willie Reed, Quincy Miller and Donald Sloan were brought in to compete with returnees Markel Brown and Sergey Karasev and 2015 first-rounder Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for rotation minutes.
Thanks to his prior splurging on the overpaid and aged that left the franchise bereft of salary-cap space and future draft picks, King has to resort to bargain-basement shopping every year to fill out the roster. He’s had some successes, such as his savvy signings of past contributors Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson and –to some degree –Andray Blatche.
But such turnover comes at a cost. It seems that every year the Nets limp out of the gate until they find their way. With a tough slate to open the 2015-16 campaign, this has the potential to be the year the Nets can’t dig out to reach the postseason.
In order to avoid handing the Celtics a 2016 lottery pick (courtesy of the 2013 blockbuster trade that brought Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn to win one playoff series), the Nets need to figure out the following pressing concerns over the course of this training camp:
NO. 1: WHO IS THE POINT GUARD? WHAT IS A POINT GUARD?
Many in the media never got Hollins’ figurative love affair with Jack last season. There was a solid few weeks when Jack started over D-Will, though Hollins asserted that it was ostensibly to create more scoring balance between his starters and reserves. Regardless, Jack played with a shoot-first mentality and owned one of the worst net ratings (minus-7.8) in the league for guards who averaged over 25 minutes per game, per NBA.com.
Though Larkin would inject some speed into the starting unit, I don’t see a scenario where Hollins chooses that over what he believes are Jack’s strong leadership qualities and mental toughness.
Can Jack adjust his game in order to feed the beasts who share the floor with him? According to Hollins, he doesn’t have to.
“All of the point guards that are successful can score the ball,” said Hollins. “If you can’t score, you’re not a successful point guard because nobody plays you. Primarily the NBA is a pick-and-roll league. So I’m not going to have a conversation with him (Jack) about shooting too much. If he starts missing I might say something.
“I’ve told Jarrett before I know he can do a lot of things. It’s just a matter of setting a priority, and if he’s the starter, obviously his priorities have to be to the team. If you go back to look at when (he) did start, he did play the way that I would like for him to play. But coming off the bench he had a different role. I think everybody looks at his role off the bench and think(s) that’s the only way that he can play.”
Jack knows he can’t be Williams, who for all his drama was terrific at finding ways to get the ball to his teammates in scoring positions (especially his patented pocket passes to Lopez off pick and rolls).
“I’m just going to be myself,” said Jack. “I don’t know how to try to be a clone of another person, personality or game-wise. I don’t mean to speak in the third person, but being Jarrett Jack has worked pretty good for me.”
Jack acknowledged that he needs to get his three-point shooting up (from 26.7 percent) and his turnover ratio down (from 12.9 percent per 100 possessions) from last season.
Larkin also had depressing stats while playing for the wretched Knicks last season. He averaged 6.2 points and 3.0 assists in about 24 minutes per game while shooting an anemic 30.2 percent from three-point territory. His net rating was even worse than Jack’s, producing a minus-11.1.
King and Hollins have been enamored with Larkin since he came out of college three years ago. They envision someone who fits the Nets’ pick-and-roll system better than Larkin did in Jackson’s Triangle.
At least Larkin proved to his former boss that he can palm a basketball, posing for a photo with Andy Vasquez of the Bergen Record on Monday.
“I never met a man so concerned with another man’s hands,” said Larkin of Jackson.
NO. 2: WING DE-FENSE! WING DE-FENSE!
I go back to a game the Nets played on January 12 against Houston. Rockets star guard James Harden controlled the ball at the top and took a peek at who the Nets assigned to guard him. The sight of Bogdanovich in front of him was enough to make Harden snicker in public, as if he were saying, “Are you kidding me?” Harden went on to score 30 points in 30 minutes in the Rockets’ rout.
The league is loaded with athletic wings who can score. Neither Johnson nor Bogdanovich can stick with them without giving up space to launch uncontested three-pointers. Bogdanovich was brutalized by Atlanta’s Kyle Korver in the Hawks’ six-game first-round series victory last postseason.
I get that D-Will is the first player mentioned when folks discuss the Nets’ key personnel losses from last year, but let’s not forget how valuable Anderson was in his two seasons in Brooklyn.
Anderson often took up the role of defensive stopper off the bench. Not that he was great at it, but he always gave the effort and never backed down from these challenges.
Who will fill that role this year? Hollins’ first option might surprise you.
“We’ve added a Dahntay Jones whose been known for his defense,” said Hollins, who went on to mention Brown and Hollis-Jefferson as two others who could be the player Hollins eventually relies on to be “someone who can control somebody for a few minutes.”
Jones, a 34-year-old New Jersey native who was signed to a non-guaranteed free-agent contract less than a month ago, was initially deemed a long shot to even make the team. But there have been whispers that Jones is a Hollins favorite going back to their days together in Memphis a decade ago.
It’s no secret that Hollis-Jefferson has already made friends with many of the business executives in the Nets’ organization. The voluble, high-energy rookie will be marketed as the antidote to the old, dull Nets teams of recent vintage.
The hard part is evaluating whether he can play at this level.
“Once I become the ‘shooter’ people think I’m not, I’m good,” said Hollis-Jefferson. “I can create for teammates. I can get to the basket. People say I can’t shoot, but yet I still score the ball. It’s very weird to me.
“It’s gotten a lot better. I call myself the ‘Mid-Range Assassin.’ It’s only going to grow. It’s only going to go further back and further back. One day it will be exactly where it should be.”
The guess here is that Hollis-Jefferson will go down a similar path as to what Brown went through last season, when Hollins accelerated Brown’s development by giving him 29 starts down the stretch. If Brown can get his three-point shooting percentage up another 10 percent, he could be in line for a permanent promotion. Otherwise, Nets fans better hope Bogdanovich creates more buckets than he gives away.
NO. 3: THE CONTINUING EDUCATION OF BROOK LOPEZ
Make no mistake: Lopez is the face of this franchise.
The 27-year-old 7-foot center opted out of his contract over the summer and was rewarded with a sparkling new three-year deal valued at around $63 million. For the first time since 2011, Lopez was able to go through an offseason program without injury rehabilitation. His offensive skills earned him a berth in the 2013 All-Star Game and many insiders believe he will be even better this season.
But that’s not enough for Hollins.
“I still want more out of Brook,” said Hollins. “I think the misnomer is that we were clashing (last season). I was coaching. And Brook was accepting of coaching.
“Brook has made huge strides in setting an example with his play, and thinking about his teammates as he plays versus going out there and just being a scorer. The reality is if Brook expands his game we’re going to be a better team.”
Lopez’s inconsistent efforts on defense and on the boards have plagued the Nets for years. Whenever opponents needed a basket, they would routinely run a pick and roll using Lopez’s man as the screener. Lopez often over-helps looking for opportunities to pad his blocked shot totals, leaving his teammates scrambling to rotate to open shooters and giving his assigned man a free path for offensive rebound chances.
Even on the offensive end, Lopez is known as a black hole, rarely choosing to find open teammates even in the face of double-teams.
“I want to become more of a leader on the court and more of a playmaker in general,” said Lopez. “A lot of times in my career, I’ve been the termination point of a lot of plays. I’d like to be in a position where I can have plays run through me and share the ball as well.”
No one expects Hollins to get Lopez to become Marc Gasol 2.0, but Lopez has to take a pretty big step for the Nets to merely contend for an eighth seed in the lowly Eastern Conference this season. The Nets have little depth up front, as Mason Plumlee was dealt to Portland in the draft-day trade for Hollis-Jefferson. If Lopez is still a one-act play — or heaven forbid he suffers another serious injury — the Nets will be doomed.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.