By Steve Lichtenstein
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Former Nets coach Jason Kidd famously discarded his necktie at the onset of the 2014 New Year. Brooklyn rebounded from a gruesome 10-21 start to win 34 of its final 47 games and gain entry into the postseason.
Lionel Hollins, who is now in his second season leading the Nets, saw his team stumble out of the gate to an 0-7 start so he shaved his beard prior to Wednesday’s game in Houston. The Nets responded by pulling off the upset, 106-98, to end all worries that this group would knock the 2009-10 version — which lost its first 18 contests — out of the record books.
Of course, neither of the two appearance adjustments had anything to do with subsequent events on the court. And there’s certainly no comparison between the talent levels on those two rosters. These Nets have no shot at playing beyond Game 82.
That’s why you haven’t heard me call for Hollins’ head, even though I ranted in this space seemingly every other week from the day Kidd was hired until he bolted for Milwaukee the following June that he was the wrong man at the wrong time for the job.
A week ago, Bovada listed Hollins as the second-most likely coach to be fired this season — at 3-to-1 odds, which prompted Brooklyn general manager Billy King to respond on Monday that Hollins is not on the hot seat despite the team’s early struggles.
It’s very easy for fans to pin the blame on the coach when their team is lousy. In New York City, the complaints can get loud. Social media has only increased the decibel levels.
In this situation, it’s not warranted.
I certainly don’t agree with some of Hollins’ major and minor choices in games. It was reported that he had to be prodded by management last week to insert Rondae Hollis-Jefferson into the starting lineup despite the obvious nature of the energetic rookie’s much-needed skillset. Watching Andrea Bargnani play defense makes me want to poor salt into my eyes, yet he is often paired with immobile center Brook Lopez. And why has the useless Wayne Ellington been getting crunch-time minutes while Thaddeus Young rots on the bench?
Still, it’s hard to argue that the Nets’ record would have been substantially better with someone else in charge. Other than last Friday’s loss to the Lakers, the Nets have been the underdog in every affair.
It took the Rockets missing a LOT of wide-open looks for the Nets to pull out Wednesday’s game. Brooklyn, which entered the game as the league’s worst 3-point shooting team, actually made as many treys (eight) as the Morey-ballers despite 17 fewer attempts.
Hustle plays by reserves Shane Larkin and Thomas Robinson and efficient passing from Joe Johnson (10 assists, no turnovers) offset a rare off-shooting night by Lopez (6-for-17, including 0-for-5 in the second half) and allowed Brooklyn to break the century mark for the first time since opening night.
While there’s a fair chance that the Nets can extend the winning streak to two on Friday against the combusting Sacramento Kings, the rest of November’s schedule is pretty daunting.
It could get ugly — like possibly 3-14 ugly.
That doesn’t mean it will be Hollins’ fault.
There’s only so much he can do with this mix. I mean, how can you concoct a defensive scheme when your point guards can’t stay in front of penetrators or fight through screens, you get inconsistent help at the rim from your bigs, and your wings (other than Hollis-Jefferson) are too slow to close out on 3-point shots?
Bojan Bogdanovich had a sensational game against Houston from a statistical point of view (22 points, 9 rebounds), but he couldn’t guard anyone. Former Net chucker Marcus Thornton blew by him at will and the few times Bogdanovich was face to face with Rockets star James Harden, well, that just wasn’t fair.
That Harden finished with only 23 points was a miracle in itself. Even Johnson admitted that Harden misfired on a good number of shots he normally makes, including an uncontested corner 3-pointer with just under a minute remaining that could have cut it to a one-possession game.
Give Johnson some credit for playing a savvy game by keeping Harden off the foul line, where ‘The Beard” normally earns a substantial living. Harden had been averaging 12.7 free-throw attempts per game; the Nets limited him to five.
It’s kind of ironic that Johnson, who is known around the league as “Iso-Joe” for his one-on-one offensive prowess, is now more leaned on for his defensive and distribution attributes. But that’s probably how Hollins has to have the Nets play to be competitive, especially until Johnson gets his shooting percentage up from its current 32.6 percent atrocity.
Johnson may move at a snail’s pace, but he still sees the floor off the dribble infinitely better than either of the Nets’ point guards (Jarrett Jack and Larkin).
Only Johnson could have made the pass to Bogdanovich at the weak-side corner for an open 3-pointer that gave Brooklyn a 102-96 lead with 1:37 remaining. Larkin wouldn’t have seen it, while Jack would have floated up a prayer from the middle of the paint.
With so many one-dimensional players — scorers who can’t defend and defenders who can’t shoot — as well as players in the rotation like Bargnani and Ellington who are bad at everything, Hollins’ options are limited. In addition to not having a true point guard, there’s no “3 & D” wing who can both lock up the opposition’s top offensive threat and then convert open 3-pointers at the other end at a rate better than the league average.
Up front, much was made of the Lopez/Young re-signings in the summer, but they have a net rating of minus-12.1 in the 202 minutes they’ve played together this season, according to NBA.com. That’s not as awful as the minus-17.1 rating produced by Lopez and Bargnani, but it could explain why Hollins has only paired Lopez with Young for 29 fourth-quarter minutes over seven games.
I don’t believe Young and Lopez complement one another, contrary to those who didn’t notice that the Nets’ 13-6 dash to the 2014-15 season finish line was predominantly accumulated against tired and/or injury-depleted opponents.
Young works best close to the basket. So does Lopez. Young is not an elite rebounder. Neither is Lopez.
Of course, that didn’t matter much to King, who has no concept as to what makes a player valuable in today’s game, nor has he any clue as to how to fit pieces into a puzzle.
I believe King when he told the media in the preseason that he thought this group could contend for a playoff berth. It’s just further proof of his incompetence.
Not only is the Nets’ present depressing, King destroyed the franchise’s near future by failing to protect all the first-round draft picks he dealt/swapped in the various blockbuster deals over the years that didn’t pan out. The Nets do not own their own first-round selection until 2019, taking tanking this season out of the equation.
Let’s not also forget that it was King who swore by Kidd after one interview two years ago, even though he was less than two weeks into retirement as a player. King expected Kidd to immediately gain the respect of a veteran, win-now group despite having no experience at any aspect of coaching basketball at any level.
When Kidd left, King sought the man he should have hired in the first place. Hollins, unfortunately, took over a team in regression.
If anyone is to take the fall for this mess in Brooklyn, it should be the one who created it, not the one trying to work through it.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1