By Steve Lichtenstein
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The season’s first snow has yet to fall in Brooklyn, but if you’re a Nets fan, now might be a good time to go into hibernation for a bit.
Just when you thought the Nets’ world couldn’t get any gloomier, the team announced on Monday that energetic rookie wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will undergo surgery on his right ankle and will be out indefinitely.
Hollis-Jefferson had been one of the few rays of hope in the Nets’ 5-15 start. His defensive activity, his rebounding effort and his willingness to pass will be sorely missed on a team whose roster is bereft of players with those traits.
When Hollis-Jefferson has been on the floor, the Nets have yielded just 98.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Without RHJ, the defense has been allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s the difference between sporting a top-seven defense in the league versus a last-place defense.
There’s no one else here — Nets coach Lionel Hollins said he will reinsert defensively-deficient Bojan Bogdanovich into the starting lineup to replace Hollis-Jefferson — who possesses that impact. So despite a slew of home games over the next month, expect the Nets to continue down this current road into the abyss.
Owner Mikhail Prokhorov is in town this week to watch it happen, which means social media is also buzzing about Hollins’ job status.
Russian news agency TASS got in on the act on Monday, citing s source within the Nets’ organization who said Hollins will be axed as soon as a replacement is found.
Not that TASS is the most trusted outlet — and the Nets vehemently denied the report — but the story is the type of sneaky propaganda that keeps giving the franchise an equally foul stench off the court.
I get that Hollins has been far from perfect in his year-and-a-quarter tenure in Brooklyn, but I defy you to name anyone currently available who could get more out of this band of misfits, and that includes Tom Thibodeau.
More importantly, even if you insist that Hollins isn’t the right man for the job, how in the world does general manager Billy King get to choose another coach? For those keeping track of the head count, that would be five different coaches in less than four seasons on King’s watch.
So much for the preseason goal of continuity and chemistry.
Whether or not you believe King was merely following the marching orders from Russia over the last five years, he has to bear responsibility for the mess he made.
If Hollins goes, King has to follow him out the door.
King has been wrong so often in his personnel decisions that he should have tried the George Costanza route and gone with the opposite of his instincts.
I’ll bet that King honestly thought this team could be competitive this season.
This is a team built around an immobile one-dimensional center in Brook Lopez, in an era when ball movement and the ability to make and defend against three-point shots win games.
What’s worse is that there is no plan. Free agents next summer? The marquee ones who bolt their current situations won’t want to be a part of this circus. First-round draft picks? The Nets have none after this season or in 2018 while the Celtics have the right to swap slots in 2017, all courtesy of the 2013 blockbuster for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry that yielded one playoff series win.
To be fair, that trade — like several of King’s other big moves — was hailed at the time by the majority of Nets fans. We all had Deron Williams near the top of the NBA’s elite point-guard list when he was dealt to New Jersey and then re-signed by King to a max contract upon the move to Brooklyn in 2012.
The problem there was that D-Will was not capable of handling the responsibility that came with being the face of the franchise (and injuries didn’t help). Both sides needed a separation when the Nets bought out D-Will’s contract prior to this season.
However, below is a rehashing of King’s most boneheaded maneuvers. The consequences are still being felt today, and should have been foreseeable to a more competent executive:
1) The Trade For Gerald Wallace
The first indication of King’s failure to grasp the league’s evolution toward the three-point shot was the 2012 deadline deal with Portland for the slashing forward with an opt-out in his contract. Not only did King give away a first-round pick that he knew at the time was going to fall in the lottery, but he only deemed three players worthy of protection (allegedly Anthony Davis, Michael-Kidd Gilchrist, and –ironically — current Nets reserve Thomas Robinson). In case you forgot, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard –whom the Blazers ultimately selected with the Nets’ sixth overall pick — Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond were also among those chosen in the top 10 that year.
Wallace, a career 31 percent three-point shooter, of course opted out after playing 16 games in New Jersey, which meant King had to double down and pay whatever Wallace wanted or risk losing him in free agency. The ensuing four-year, $40 million contract soon became an albatross, as Wallace’s hard-hat approach to the game in his previous 11 seasons took its toll. In 2012-13, Wallace averaged only 7.7 points per game on 39.7 percent from the floor and 28.2 percent from three.
The Nets needed to offload Wallace’s contract to Boston to make the KG/Pierce trade work under the salary cap, but who wants a wing who can’t shoot? So King had to surrender ANOTHER first-round pick to entice the Celtics to take Wallace off their books.
2) The Hiring of Jason Kidd
So you need a new coach after interim P.J. Carlesimo gagged away the 2013 first-round playoff series to the injury-depleted Bulls. You know you will soon mortgage the franchise’s future in order to win now. With such a small window, you would think someone with experience who could quickly install a system would be the optimal candidate.
King hired Kidd, who was less than two weeks removed from his retirement as a player. Just baffling.
Remember all those platitudes about how Kidd’s character would more than offset the steep learning curve? How’d that work out?
Shortly after one roller-coaster season, Kidd engineered an ugly exit out of his Brooklyn contract so he could toil in mediocrity in Milwaukee.
Meanwhile, if the Hollins rumors are indeed true, King will soon be looking for Kidd’s replacement’s replacement.
3) The Failure To Re-Sign Paul Pierce
There are competing versions to this story, but the bottom line is that King fumbled the ball when he allowed Pierce to sign with the Wizards as a free agent in the summer of 2014 after just one season in Brooklyn. King came across as a borderline schizophrenic when he defended the decision as necessary for the Nets to get “younger and more athletic.”
The player he tapped to fill that spot in the lineup was Bogdanovich, who was signed with the Nets’ mini mid-level exception after five seasons in the Euroleague. Had King seen him play? You can fault Hollins all you want for Bogdanovich’s lack of confidence in his shot since coming over, but he is not a typical athletic wing. Besides his statuesque defense, he can’t even handle the ball without getting stripped.
Pierce was the heart and soul of the 2013-14 team. He sacrificed his body to guard bigger forwards when Kidd was forced into a smaller lineup after Lopez was lost for the season. Pierce’s block of Kyle Lowry’s buzzer-beating floater saved the Nets from another embarrassing choke job in Game 7 in Toronto.
As for the money, the Nets were going to be above the luxury-tax threshold with or without Pierce. The hole in Prokhorov’s wallet from a Pierce re-signing wouldn’t have been felt by the billionaire. The hole in the product on the court, however, was quite noticeable.
As noted numerous times in these columns, the Nets are the second team King has wrecked. As GM of the 76ers, King engineered that franchise’s downward spiral with similar miscalculations regarding player values.
The Sixers announced on Monday that they were bringing in Jerry Colangelo as “chairman of basketball operations.” Even they recognized that a competent presence was needed in their front office.
Wake me up when Prokhorov comes to the same realization.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.