By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2012 2:14PM
Their new arena is awesome and their new uniforms are sharp. They'll have more fans in the stands, more appearances on national TV, and more publicity in the papers.
It's a fresh start for the Brooklyn Nets. Their .252 winning percentage of the last three years (tied for worst in the league) is a thing of the past, and the anticipation for their first game against their neighbors from Manhattan is off the charts.
When the Nets do tip off the season though, the arena and the uniforms and the publicity won't matter. What will is how well they play defense.
The Nets are going to put points on the board. They have plenty of offensive weapons, starting with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, and continuing with Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks and Mirza Teletovic. Even Andray Blatche can come off the bench and get buckets.
Williams and Johnson will make each other and their teammates more efficient. Lopez is the post presence the Nets were missing in the Kidd-and-Carter days, Wallace will get to the line, and Brooks and Teletovic can provide punch off the bench. Really, there should be little for the Nets to worry about offensively.
But offense-only teams don't win championships. And if you were to listen to Joe Johnson on Media Day, it's clear that winning a championship is the goal in Brooklyn.
"I think we've got the chance to win the whole thing this year," Johnson said. "I'm not just saying that. I honestly believe it."
Johnson is the new guy, but the other five guys in the Nets' top six are returning from a squad that ranked 29th in defensive efficiency last season, allowing 106.9 points per 100 possessions. The 2011-12 Nets were downright brutal defensively. They were disorganized, slow-footed and apathetic. And they only avoided finishing last in defensive efficiency because the 7-59 Bobcats couldn't stop a CYO team.
So if the Nets are thinking about being one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference this season, they have to bring new habits and a new attitude, throwing away last year's defense with the red, white and blue uniforms.
"We must make a major step defensively," head coach Avery Johnson admitted as training camp opened. "We've got to be in the top 10."
Top 10 would indeed be a "major" step, but the Raptors made a similar leap (from 30th to 12th) last year. And wouldn't you know it, the last team to go from the bottom five to the top 10 in defensive efficiency was the 2004-05 Dallas Mavericks. Avery Johnson was a defensive assistant on that team before taking over as head coach for the final 18 games.
Those Mavs teams that Johnson coached were similar to these Nets in that they didn't have a lot of guys with defensive reputations. The Nets do have Gerald Wallace, and they were better defensively after he arrived from Portland, ranking 20th on that end after the All-Star break.
Further defensive improvement must start with Lopez, who played just five games last season and who doesn't have the quickness or athleticism of defensive studs Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett. In his last two full seasons, the Nets were much better defensively with Lopez on the bench than they were with him on the floor. He didn't protect the rim nor make it easy for his teammates to defend the perimeter.
Things can change, though. Lopez is plenty big enough to make a positive impact defensively. And if Andrew Bogut can become a great defender under the tutelage of Scott Skiles, there's no reason the Lopez can't make a similar leap.
"I'm just focused on being the guy in the middle that everyone can count on," Lopez said. "If they get beat, I'll be back there."
Coach Johnson has made defense the focus of training camp, passing out a handbook that spells out the team's defensive principles, which the players will be tested on four times before opening night. But ultimately, principles won't mean a thing if the Nets don't want to play defense. Pride has to come into play, and if there's one area where effort can overcome a lack of natural ability, it's team defense.
"It's about how you defend pick-and-rolls," Williams said. "It's how you help each other out. It's how you rotate. It's how you talk, communicate. Those are all big parts of having a good defensive team."
After a season and a half of losing in New Jersey, Williams is dying to play for a winner again. And Lopez would surely love to silence those who scoffed at the notion of him being the centerpiece of a trade package for Howard. But from the way he's been talking, Joe Johnson may be the hungriest player in Brooklyn.
"Just from being traded, it took my mind set somewhere else," he said, "to where I wanted to come out really prepared and try and do something I've never done before."
If Johnson and the Nets are going to get there, it must start with defense.
1. In the final year of his contract, Avery Johnson welcomes the pressure of raised expectations after two ugly seasons. "We're tired of not having any pressure," Johnson said. "I've been waiting for this type of pressure for two years."
2. The Nets are downplaying any rivalry with the Knicks, especially the importance of winning on opening night. Avery Johnson said that if the Nets happen to win on Nov. 1, "some people are going to want to have a Mardi Gras parade, but I won't be on one of the floats."
3. Only 42 percent of the Nets' 2011-12 minutes were played by guys who are still on this year's roster, so continuity is obviously an issue. But the Nets were one of the first teams in the gym this fall, with Williams leading informal group workouts in early September.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
LAST YEAR: 22-44, 5th in Atlantic
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2011-12 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2011-12 Stats|
DERON WILLIAMS, POINT GUARD
21.0 PPG | 8.7 APG | 3.3 RPG
Scored an NBA season-high 57 points (at CHA on March 4) and tied the season high with 20 assists (at GSW on March 30) last season.
JOE JOHNSON, SHOOTING GUARD
18.8 PPG | 3.9 APG | 3.7 RPG
The last time he played with a star point guard (2004-05 in Phoenix), Johnson shot an incredible 48 percent from 3-point range.
GERALD WALLACE, SMALL FORWARD
13.8 PPG | 6.7 RPG | 2.8 APG
Wallace's matchups against some of the best teams in the East: LeBron James, Paul Pierce, Danny Granger and Carmelo Anthony.
KRIS HUMPHRIES, POWER FORWARD
13.8 PPG | 11.0 RPG | 1.5 APG
One of only five players to average a double-double each of the last two seasons. His scoring won't be needed nearly as much now.
BROOK LOPEZ, CENTER
19.2 PPG | 3.6 RPG | 1.2 APG
Played just five games last season, but did score 38 points in a win over a top-10 defensive team (Dallas) in one of the five.
|MarShon Brooks||6-5||200||G||Backing up an All-Star, but could get big minutes in small lineups.|
|Mirza Teletovic||6-9||255||F||Another offensive weapon and another defensive liability.|
|C.J. Watson||6-2||175||G||Better shooter from outside the 3-point line than inside it.|
ADDED: G Tyshawn Taylor, G/F Jerry Stackhouse, F Mirza Teletovic, G C.J. Watson, F Andray Blatche, F Josh Childress, F Reggie Evans, G Joe Johnson
LOST: G Sundiata Gaines, G/F Gerald Green, G Jordan Farmar, F Anthony Morrow, F DeShawn Stevenson, F Jordan Williams, C Johan Petron
BROOK LOPEZ, CENTER
An iron man (he didn't miss a game in his first three seasons) before foot injuries limited him to just five games in 2011-12, Lopez offers the Brooklyn Nets the chance to be a formidable inside-outside threat -- if he can stay healthy and return to his 20-point self.
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