By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
The Nets will attempt to finish off their four-game preseason slate undefeated when they face the 76ers on Wednesday at the renovated Nassau Coliseum.
Since Brooklyn finished with an NBA-worst 20-62 record last season, any form of success can tend to lead toward irrational exuberance. My advice? Don’t get sucked in. Results from these exhibitions not only do not count, they cannot be extrapolated into the games that will. Two victories over the stunningly awful Knicks and one over a Miami squad that couldn’t shoot straight shouldn’t alter anyone’s expectations for this season.
The Nets’ main mission this preseason should be to answer a boatload of questions surrounding their revamped roster. Coach Kenny Atkinson will probably have at least three new starters on opening night. The rest of the rotation is anybody’s guess. Atkinson has mentioned that he could go with 11 players earning minutes in every game, a daunting task if you’re trying to win.
Here’s how I would break it down:
Atkinson has put forth the same starters in all three exhibitions — D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin in the backcourt, Timofey Mozgov at center, DeMarre Carroll as the “3-and-D” wing, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at a cutting-edge “slash-four” position.
These starters have started, well, not all that well. It was really been the Nets’ deep and competitive bench that allowed them to pull away from teams that weren’t too concerned with these games’ outcomes.
The reason is obvious. With two poor perimeter shooters in Mozgov and Hollis-Jefferson on the floor, Lin and Russell can’t be all that they can be. Both are combo guards who like to drive the lane. But they’re also primarily probers as opposed to pure-speed rim attackers like John Wall or Russell Westbrook. The added congestion from the suboptimal floor spacing often leads to excess turnovers and more difficult shot selection.
After a summer playing at EuroBasket during which Mozgov said that he wasn’t allowed to shoot 3-pointers, he has been testing his range this preseason. He has hit on two of three 3-point attempts, which is too small a sample size to make defenders respect the threat. He has got a long way to go before anyone compares him to the metamorphosis made by departed center Brook Lopez. Hollis-Jefferson is slowly working to correct the hitch in his stroke, but the best we can hope for this season is more efficiency from mid-range areas.
You simply can’t play both of them against opponents’ best players. The solution should be to plug in newly acquired Allen Crabbe, Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks’ obsession the last two summers, for Hollis-Jefferson.
Crabbe was set back when he suffered an ankle sprain early in training camp, but he was well enough to drop 14 points in 11 minutes of Brooklyn’s 117-83 rout of New York on Sunday. Crabbe made three of his four attempts from behind the arc, showing why he was the league’s second-best 3-point shooter last season.
Sure, you’re giving up Hollis-Jefferson’s energy and quirkiness, and the switch would make the Nets even smaller and susceptible to nightly poundings on the glass, but they’d be awfully fun on the other end.
The Bench Brigade
Unlike last season, I don’t expect that Atkinson will be making hockey line changes. It seems he will keep either Lin or Russell on the floor at all times, which is the correct course on many levels. Both players need time as floor generals as opposed to codependents. It should also help prevent the complete offensive bogdowns we saw all last season.
However, where does that leave a player like guard Spencer Dinwiddie, whose length and low-turnover rate have made him a viable candidate on a position-less bench unit? Or wing Sean Kilpatrick, who is perhaps the Nets’ best reserve at creating his own shot?
Atkinson faces tough choices. If he indeed goes with 11, Hollis-Jefferson and sophomore Caris LeVert should be the first off the bench, with Dinwiddie, Kilpatrick, Trevor Booker and Quincy Acy following in some order.
That leaves …
Joe Harris might be the one caught up in the numbers’ game net. It’s unfortunate, considering how hard he has been working to reach his goal of 40 percent 3-point shooting (he is 6-for-14 in the preseason for 43 percent) this season.
Center Tyler Zeller, the only free agent Marks signed this summer (Russell, Mozgov, Carroll, and Crabbe all came over in trades), was pure big-man insurance. Barring injuries, towel waving will be his nightly activity.
The D-Leaguers (I’m still calling it that)
Isaiah Whitehead may have started 26 games last season, but that was because Lin was injured and Atkinson had nowhere else to turn. The NBA crash course accelerated Whitehead’s development, but it also exposed his flaws, such as ballhandling and perimeter shooting. He needs to be playing big minutes, which he wouldn’t be getting here this season due to the talent influx. The Brooklyn native is a tough cookie, so I would expect that he will use a demotion to Long Island as motivation.
The Nets’ 15th player is incredibly long-winged center Jarrett Allen, their first-round draft pick. It seemed fans went gaga over his every leap this preseason. Folks, he’s 19. He has so much work to do before he can succeed at this level. He needs to get stronger and his finishing skills, from everywhere on the court, are raw. The Nets should make him their new Chris McCullough, who shuttled between Brooklyn and Long Island on a nearly daily basis last season before he was dealt to Washington with Bojan Bogdanovic for the pick the Nets used to select Allen.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1