How Far Can Small Ball Take the Nets?

By Lenn Robbins | @lennrobbins
January 6, 2014

BROOKLYN—How far can small ball take the Brooklyn Nets?

As the halfway point of the season approaches, the Nets might have hit on a formula to save the season from utter disappointment.

It will take a complete shift in thinking and execution to make it work. And even if it does, small ball doesn’t seem likely to carry the Nets deep into the playoffs.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The Nets were built to win now, and win with a big, powerful team.

The envisioned starting lineup of point guard Deron Williams (6-3), shooting guard Joe Johnson (6-7), small forward Paul Pierce (6-7), power forward Kevin Garnett (6-11) and center Brook Lopez (7-0) would have given the Nets a height advantage at almost every position, every night.

With Andray Blatche (6-11), Reggie Evans (6-8), Andrei Kirilenko (6-9) Mason Plumlee (6-10) and Mirza Teletovic (6-9) coming off the bench, the Nets could go three deep in the frontcourt and not give up the height advantage.

Even the Nets backup point guard, Shaun Livingston (6-7) is tall for his position.

Putting together a team with this makeup took years of planning. Putting in an offense that ran through Lopez took months.

Then the Nets lost Lopez to a broken bone in his right foot. But even before the Lopez injury, Plan A wasn’t working.

The Nets were getting outrebounded almost on a nightly basis. They were getting pushed around in the paint like traffic cones getting blown away by 18-wheelers.

Enter Plan B: Coach Jason Kidd has moved Livingston into the starting lineup alongside Williams, who now has more freedom to be a scoring guard.

Johnson is a swing small forward, Pierce is a stretch power forward, and Garnett is an undersized center at 253 pounds.

"The league as a whole has gone mostly small at the four," Kidd said of Pierce.

There’s some truth to that but Kidd wasn’t about roll out that starting five in a 105-89 loss at Indiana last week. The Pacers have a legit center in Roy Hibbert and bruising, veteran power forward in David West.

And the Pacers, the best in the league at physical, grind it out basketball, have built their identity over the last two seasons. It got them to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. They have complete faith in their system.

The Nets can’t go small ball against teams such as the Pacers until they have gotten good enough in their new scheme to believe they can beat Indiana. The Nets are a long way from being believers.

A similar argument holds true for the other Eastern Conference power – Miami. The Heat use Rashard Lewis at the 4 and Chris Bosh, a power forward, at center. Bosh is comfortable in that role. KG still needs to master it.

Miami, the two-time defending NBA champ, has more confidence than South Beach has bikinis. The Nets do not.

The Nets (12-21), going into Monday night’s home game against the Atlanta Hawks, have won the three games in which they used the small ball lineup.

Williams, who saw a team doctor this morning to examine his sore left ankle, which he’s sprained twice this season, is a game-time decision tonight. He has excelled in the move.

In the three games the Nets have won, he’s averaging almost 20 points per game on 21-of-36 shooting. He possesses the rare combination of speed and size to play either guard spot.

“I’ve been wanting to do that a little bit more,’’ Williams said recently. “I get into a rhythm by coming off screens, playing like that.’’

“It’s good to have Shaun out there and being able to roam out there and being more aggressive. I like to come off screens, not to do everything off the dribble. I get into a rhythm like that. That’s how I like to play.”

Johnson has struggled in the new lineup. He’s averaging less than six points per game on 7-of-30 shooting. The size advantage he enjoyed at shooting guard isn’t there against small forwards.

KG also needs to find himself. He’ll be back in the starting lineup after getting the night off against Atlanta. Garnett averaged 8.5 points and seven rebounds in the two games the Nets won with him in the small-ball lineup.

The jury is still out on small ball but the Nets couldn’t go on as they had been. They have won two straight for just the second time this season and have a chance to finally generate some momentum.

Atlanta (18-16) is 6-11 on the road. Golden State (23-13), has won nine straight but when they play the Nets on Wednesday it will be the sixth game of a seven-game road trip and the back end of two straight games.

The Nets beat Miami, 101-100 in their first home game of the season. The Heat (26-8) and Nets, who play Friday in Barclays Center, have gone in opposite directions since then.

Now the Nets are trying a new direction – small ball. If it doesn’t work, there might not be any options remaining.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Kirilenko, who seems to have worked his way back from back spasms that cost him 25-straight games, has looked remarkably relaxed on the court. When asked why is he so poised, AK, broke up reporters with this response.

“I’ve always been like that. I guess it’s just I’m a cold-blooded Russian.”

Nets Central

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