By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Oct 15, 2013 1:59 PM
The Brooklyn Nets have the pieces to win a championship. There's simply no other team in the league with as much talent from 1-8. This was a good team last year that, thanks to an owner with no spending limit, seemingly addressed all its shortcomings.
Porous defense? Kevin Garnett is the best defender of the last 10 years. Floor spacing? Replace Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace with Garnett and Paul Pierce, sprinkle in some Jason Terry, and you're in good shape. Need a defensive stopper on the wing? Andre Kirilenko is your man. Lacking mental toughness? Have we mentioned Garnett and Pierce?
The question is how it all comes together, how the players mesh and how new coach Jason Kidd manages them. Chemistry can become cliché, but it's critical when you have a talented group playing together for the first time.
The 2007-08 Boston Celtics had it, went 29-3 out of the gate, and won a championship in their first season together. The Big Three Miami Heat took a year before they were functioning at maximum efficiency, and last season's Lakers -- injuries or not -- were a disaster from the start.
The Celtics won just that single title before their window closed, so Garnett knows that there's an urgency to create that kind of chemistry right away.
"That's going to be the biggest question mark for this team," Garnett said at his introductory press conference, "how well are we able to jell and how quickly are we able to jell."
Look around the gym at a Nets practice and it hits you how talented this team is. There is nobody you can leave open in the starting lineup. There's no Wallace to ignore at the 3-point line or Evans to ignore wherever he may be standing.
But to maximize their offensive output, the Nets must make the defense work. It starts with Deron Williams' ability to create off the dribble and continues with ball movement. Williams, Pierce and Joe Johnson might be great isolation scorers, but scoring becomes much tougher against the league's best defenses (and in the playoffs) when you depend on too much iso-ball. Just ask the New York Knicks (who struggled to score in the playoffs) and the San Antonio Spurs (who didn't).
"We're going to try to get away from that one-on-one mentality," Kidd told NBA TV during training camp. "We got five guys that can put the ball in the basket."
If those five guys work together, the Nets could have a top-five offense. Kidd says he wants Williams averaging 10 assists, but is also looking for everybody to make plays for each other, "just basketball players playing the game of basketball at a high level."
"He doesn't have to dominate the ball," Kidd said of Williams. "He can get [10 assists per game] with the guys on the floor that can all make open shots. I'd like to have him get up there, because if he does, he's in the conversation as one of the best point guards in this league."
Defensively, the Nets will absolutely be better. Garnett's presence -- his experience, his intelligence, his voice and his size -- will ensure that. But just how much better the Nets are defensively depends on how well they work as a unit. Will KG be operating as one of five guys on a string, or will he just be cleaning up others' mistakes?
And how will the Nets defend in those 18-20 minutes a night that he's on the bench? Good enough to protect a lead, or will Kidd be wondering how long he has to wait to get his anchor back in the game?
The Nets ranked 18th in defensive efficiency last season and were the worst defensive team in games played between the 16 playoff teams. Garnett will carry them to the 12-13 range by himself, but to get into the top-10, where you need to be to truly contend for a championship, it has to be commitment from all 15 guys on the roster. Everybody must know that everybody else -- not just KG -- has their back.
It's this end of the floor that will truly determine the Nets' ceiling, and they know it. They have to be able to stay in front of Derrick Rose, keep the Indiana Pacers off the offensive glass, and keep LeBron James out of the paint.
"Right off the bat," Kidd said, "we've only focused on defense."
Health and durability are obviously a concern with three starters ages 33, 36 and 37 and with the other two having dealt with recurring injuries over the last couple of seasons. The Nets will obviously do their best to conserve Garnett's minutes, Pierce's minutes, and even Williams' minutes. But for the most part, the health factor is out of their control.
What they can control are the simple rules for maximizing basketball talent: play hard, play together and play defense. If they do all that, they'll have a chance to bring Brooklyn an NBA title.
1. Lopez is just 25 and Williams is only 28, but they may be bigger injury concerns than the 37-year-old Garnett or 36-year-old Pierce. Lopez has had three surgeries on his right foot in the last two years, while Williams was dealing with another ankle injury in training camp. He was two different players last season: an average point guard when he was ailing before the All-Star break and an elite point guard when he was healthy after it.
2. One spot where the Nets took a step backward is back-up point guard. Shaun Livingston is a quality playmaker and can use his length to be a solid defender, but he can't shoot. If the Nets leave Johnson or Pierce (or one and then the other) on the floor with the second unit, it would be optimal to have a shooter at the point guard spot (and maybe that's just Jason Terry). Livingston has made nine 3-pointers in his eight-year career and isn't nearly as good of an off-ball option as last year's back-up, C.J. Watson.
3. If the Nets take the same tack with Garnett's minutes as the Celtics did the last couple of years and sub him out after just five minutes, they would be smart to replace him with Mirza Teletovic instead of Reggie Evans. Teletovic's ability to space the floor is a better fit with the other starters, who will, in turn, make him more effective. Of course, Teletovic needs to improve defensively to stay on the floor.
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LAST YEAR: 49-33, 2nd in Atlantic
FINISH: Lost in first round of playoffs
2012-13 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2012-13 Stats|
DERON WILLIAMS, POINT GUARD
18.9 PPG | 3.0 RPG | 7.7 APG
Williams was an average point guard before the break last season. Then he turned back into a star after it, becoming more efficient even as his usage rate went up.
JOE JOHNSON, SHOOTING GUARD
16.3 PPG | 3.0 RPG | 3.5 APG
Johnson shot an incredible 9-for-10 in the final minute of tight games, but had one of the most inefficient seasons of his career. He should see less isos this year.
PAUL PIERCE, SMALL FORWARD
18.6 PPG | 6.3 RPG | 4.8 APG
Pierce has shot less than 40 percent in each of his last two postseasons, so giving him some days off during the season may be just as important as keeping KG fresh.
KEVIN GARNETT, POWER FORWARD
14.8 PPG | 7.8 RPG | 2.3 APG
No contender is in need of a defensive overhaul than the Nets, and no player can provide it more than Garnett. The question is how well they'll defend when he sits.
BROOK LOPEZ, CENTER
19.4 PPG | 6.9 RPG | 0.9 APG
Lopez is a scoring threat inside and out, and his defense improved quite a bit last season. But he still has improvement to make on D and passing out of double-teams.
|Andray Blatche||6-11||260||F/C||Effective scorer, no defense.|
|Andrei Kirilenko||6-9||235||C||Will spell both Garnett and Pierce.|
|Jason Terry||6-2||180||F||His shooting could be critical.|
ADDED: G/F Alan Anderson, F/C Kevin Garnett, F Andrei Kirilenko, G Shaun Livingston, G/F Paul Pierce, F/C Mason Plumlee, G Jason Terry
LOST: G/F Keith Bogans, G/F MarShon Brooks, F Kris Humphries, K Kris Joseph, G/F Jerry Stackhouse, F Gerald Wallace, G C.J. Watson
DERON WILLIAMS, POINT GUARD
Johnson, Pierce, Livingston and Terry have the ability to handle the ball, but Williams is the guy with the best ability to "create a problem" (as Kidd would say it) for the defense. If he can play a full season like he did after the break, Brooklyn is in great shape.