By Steve Lichtenstein
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There’s always a risk to making snap judgments based on NBA preseason games.
A year ago I was sure the Nets would elevate journeyman center Jerome Jordan over Mason Plumlee on their depth chart. Wasn’t it obvious that Jordan was significantly better, especially after his 17-point performance in an exhibition loss to Boston?
No, he wasn’t.
Still, it’s not always easy to train your mind to ignore certain signs — both good and bad — that you observe in these meaningless competitions.
Particularly when they’re your first impressions. Since the Nets did not televise their first three preseason contests, Wednesday night’s encounter with the Celtics at Barclays Center was my first glimpse at the 2015-16 version.
You know, the one that was hyped to be more athletic, as opposed to a team that the organization believed was capable of winning a championship.
Preseason or no preseason, let’s stop with the kidding around. Any team that gives high-volume minutes to the likes of Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Bojan Bogdanovich and Jarrett Jack can expect to be run into the ground by teams like the Celtics.
Boston is a real athletic team, flush with players who can defend, run out for easy baskets on defensive rebounds and live-ball turnovers, and shoot 3s at a high percentage. The Celtics toyed with the Nets all night, winning 109-105 in a game that was really nowhere near that close.
Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington, whom Nets coach Lionel Hollins started in the backcourt over the slower Jack and Bogdanovich, were no better in defending the perimeter. The help rotations were glacial, allowing the Celtics to shoot 13-for-26 on mostly uncontested 3-pointers.
Seven minutes after coming off the bench and clanking two of his three jumpers while committing two egregious turnovers, Jack got tossed for his flagrant body check on Boston’s Jonas Jerebko.
Let’s see, I stuck it out to watch the game devolve into a Celtics rout (until the Nets’ cutting room extras — and Bogdanaovich — made it look respectable in garbage time) while Jack was excused, so who was the one punished?
The Nets did have brief periods where they looked like any other NBA team, like during the third quarter when their starting front line of Lopez, Johnson and Thaddeus Young combined to score 24 points. Backup big Thomas Robinson continued to impress with his rebounding, grabbing 12 boards in 18 minutes after missing the prior two games with a wrist injury. And I witnessed Lopez actually pass the ball like he’s been promising — his three assists on Wednesday was like a week’s worth of work last season.
But overall there’s a ton of areas that need to be cleaned up on offense. The Nets’ screens, cuts and passes were often lazy. The 3-point shooting — before soon-to-be ex-Nets Chris Daniels and Justin Harper knocked down a few late in the game — was a horrific 3-for-13 through three quarters.
Maybe it was in the game plan for the Nets to use Lopez and Johnson as decoys. How else would you explain why their two best players each attempted just two field goals in their 15-minute first-half runs?
Or was it because neither Larkin nor Jack are expert distributors? Their attempts to replicate former Net Deron Williams’ pocket passes off pick-and-rolls were often deflected away by active Celtic hands. Brooklyn’s leader in assists on Wednesday with six in 12 minutes was undrafted rookie Ryan Boatright, and he’s another one likely destined for the waiver wire prior to the Nets’ opener on Oct. 28 versus Chicago.
The best part of the preseason is when you locate sleepers like Boatright (or Jordan last season) and you dream about their potential impact once the games start to count.
But the Nets have little room for that, either. They have 13 players on fully guaranteed contracts, with backup center Willie Reed counting $500,000 in dead money against the salary cap should he not make the final 15. Unless general manager Billy King makes a move to dump some deadwood, there’s only room for one player with small or no guarantees like Boatright, Daniels, Harper, Quincy Miller, Donald Sloan and Dahntay Jones.
Remember, the NBA set this season’s luxury tax level at $84.74 million. King has made getting his payroll below that amount mission number one this season. The 20 Nets on the training camp roster plus D-Will’s stretch provision payment of his summer buyout (at least the Nets are done paying Travis Outlaw) aggregate to about $87 million, per basketball-reference.com.
Should the Nets keep their top 14 guarantees plus Jones — rumored to be a Hollins favorite — they will enter the season with a payroll of about $84.2 million. If they cut Reed in favor of, say, Sloan, the payroll would be about $84.77 million, slightly breaching the tax threshold. Boatright would cost about $500,000 less, but it still would leave King little wiggle room.
As mentioned ad nauseum in these columns, King has few assets to barter for better players, having parted with every Brooklyn first-round draft pick until 2019 in unsuccessful attempts to build a winner. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov may still boast that he has the ability to continue to dig deeper into his pockets in his quest for sporting glory, but I can tell you that it won’t be this season.
With these Nets, what you’re seeing now in these normally meaningless preseason affairs is very likely what you’ll get for 82 games.
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