A Culture of Winning Will Help the Nets Going Forward

By Lenn Robbins | @lennrobbins

BROOKLYN - With the disappointment of Wednesday night’s 96-94 season-ending loss to the Miami Heat still churning in his gut, Brooklyn Nets G.M. Billy King wasn’t going to let his emotions distract or deter from the task at hand:

How does he continue to shape this team so it goes deeper into the playoffs than the Eastern Conference semifinals.

On the flight back from Miami, King spoke with a couple of players to gauge their state of mind.

There are a number of players – Alan Anderson, Andray Blatche, Jason Collins, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce - that have decisions to make regarding their basketball futures.

And the health of two key players - center Brook Lopez and point guard Deron Williams – also will have an impact on the 2014-2015 version of the Nets.

Williams came to training camp still healing a bruised and sprained right ankle. He sprained his left ankle four times during the season and postseason. Twice he took cortisone and anti-inflammatory injections.

Williams said he will undergo an MRI exam on Friday and will confer with the Nets medical staff. Minor surgery is a possibility. He is determined to return to an elite level.

“I definitely can play better, I can shoot better than I did in the playoffs,’’ said Williams. “But it was tough.

“Definitely confidence-wise, I used to step on the court and feel like I was the best player no matter who I played against, so I gotta get back to that. Even if I’m not the best player on the court, I gotta feel like I am.’’

Lopez has been steadily recovering from surgeries to repair a broken bone in his right foot and a soft tissue injury in his left ankle.

He said there is no question in his mind that he can return and be the same player that was averaging 20.7 points and six rebounds before getting injured in late December.

“I’ve been questioned a lot,’’ said Lopez. “I’m not worried about that.”

Nor does King have to worry if the Nets are on the right track. He pointed out that four years ago, when he became the team G.M., thoughts of the Nets making it to the second round would have raised eyebrows.

He believes if he can keep the core of this team intact, the Nets have the potential to go deep. The team’s Game 7 playoff win in Toronto and the relentless effort displayed in the Game 5 loss in Miami are evidence that a winning culture grows in Brooklyn.

“Last year, we couldn’t win Game 7 in our building,’’ King said referring to the playoff loss to the Chicago Bulls. “Not a lot of teams go on the road and win a Game 7, and that tells you a lot about the character and the culture.

“Or when teams go in to play the defending champs and you’re down 3-1, a lot of guys, I’ve been in situations where players are already on vacation. These guys, it hurt to lose last night. It showed the culture and the character they brought here, along with the other guys.’’

The linchpins to King’s off-season plans hinge on KG and Pierce, as they did a year ago when he acquired them from the Boston Celtics.

Garnett, who turns 38 on Monday, has a year left on his deal. He considered retiring after last season but returned for his 18th.

KG has declined to speak to reporters since after Wednesday night’s 96-94 loss in Miami. Knowing KG, he’ll take the appropriate amount of time, and weigh all the factors, before deciding if he still can give the game he loves everything he has.

That will be his bottom line, not the $12 million he’d leave on the table if he retires.

Pierce, 36, will be an unrestricted free agent, although the Nets hold Bird Rights, meaning they can offer him more money than any bidder.

"I think I still have something in the tank I can give a team," he added. "Maybe one or two [years] at the most."

Although KG and Pierce will be linked forever as NBA champions, teammates and friends, they are not a package deal. KG will make the best decision for him and his family. Pierce will do the same.

The decisions other players make will impact the depth the Nets had this season. It was that depth that made Brooklyn resilient and unpredictable. Any player could step up on any given night.

Alan Anderson, who gives the Nets a physical presence and a great locker room persona, can exercise his player’s option. After being an international journeyman for most of his career, AA found a real place with the Nets.

Blatche was a bit of an enigma this season. He had some terrific games, such as the double-double he posted in Game 3 win against the Heat in a roiling Barclays Center. But he was a no-show in Game 4.

If the Nets have a healthy Lopez next season, and the talented young big in Mason Plumlee, who Kidd jokingly said remains a rookie "until he plays his first regular season game," Blatche is the third center.

He said we would opt out of his deal, as is his right, and "see what's out there for me."

Collins, 35, the first openly gay player in any of the four professional sports leagues, was the consummate teammate. He has a unique opportunity to make an impact on society that might supersede what he can accomplish on the court.

“My goal right now is to empower others and also support those like Derrick Gordon, Michael Sam, Robbie Rogers, and over the next months, couple of years, whoever else joins that list of out, active players,’’ said Collins.

Kirilenko turned down more money last summer to join the Nets. The opportunity to vie for an NBA title alongside the likes of KG and Pierce was too good to pass up.

He can opt out of his deal, but like KG, he won’t make a hasty decision. AK47 is deeply devoted to his family and will make a decision based on what is best for them.

“Let’s see, let’s see how it goes,’’ he said. “It’s a lot of different things in the process. [The] roster is definitely one of those things. You want to be on a team which is competitive, that’s the main thing.’’

Perhaps no player benefitted more from this season than classy point guard Shaun Livingston. Livingston, who suffered a devastating knee injury in 2007, began the season as a backup.

He moved into the starting lineup alongside Williams midway through the year and finished with career highs in every category.

The injury prevented Livingston from getting a lucrative NBA contract. He should have that opportunity but is very close with Kidd.

The Nets can offer $10 million over three years. If another team comes up with a much better offer, Livingston will face a tough decision.

“You know they gave me an opportunity,’’ Livingston said of the Nets. “I think it was a great look, chemistry and fit-wise.

“You know playing for Jason obviously has been a huge benefit for me in learning the game. Being on this platform, this stage, I'm very grateful. I just tried to take advantage of it this year.”

Regardless of how the roster shakes out, one thing is certain: Owner Mikhail Prokhorov knows what a monumental step the Nets took this season.

A team with a new coach, new faces, and injuries to key players turned a 10-21 start into a thrilling finish that included a franchise-record 15 straight home wins in Barclays Center.

Last year the Nets went out in the first round of the playoffs. This year they went out in the second round. The best is yet to come.

“I'd like to thank Nets management and players for all their efforts over the course of this crazy season,’’ Prokhorov said in a statement. “Despite roster changes, injuries and a difficult start, you clawed us back into contention. It made for a thrilling spring.

“And to the fans, thank you for your support through thick and thin. Next season, we pick up right where we left off!’’

Nets Central

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