Much like their cross-river rivals, the Brooklyn Nets have undergone a roster face-lift, and are trying to start anew.
The Nets think the changes are for the better, as they purged themselves of the stubborn and unwanted, and believe they’ve brought in the right guys to fit their system. The buying out of former star point guard Deron Williams, who then took his eroding talents to Dallas, was a necessary move for a squad that was trying for a long time to find a way to rid itself of its cumbersome lead guard. The chemistry was rotting from within for Brooklyn, as reported friction continued to rise between Williams and star shooting guard Joe Johnson. But with the former gone, the latter seems to have some extra juice as he heads into the final year of his bloated contract.
Johnson, who is entering the final year of his six-year deal and slated to make close to $25 million this season, is coming off a disappointing season in which he averaged the fewest points (14.4) in his career since 2002-03 season – his third year in the league.
The 34-year-old Johnson said that despite the upheaval, he likes the Nets’ chances of getting back into the playoffs – and hopefully besting last year’s appearance in which they finished eighth and were bounced by the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in six games. It was the franchise’s third-straight playoff appearance, but they’ve yet to have a sustained run, as they’ve only advanced out of the first round just once in those three postseasons.
Head coach Lionel Hollins returns -- the first time that Johnson has had a returning coach in successive seasons since joining the Nets. This will be Johnson’s fourth season in Brooklyn, yet after each season, he’s had to work with a new head coach the following campaign (P.J. Carlesimo in 2012-13, Jason Kidd in 2013-14, and now Hollins). Stability is finally here in the coaching ranks, and on the floor, as the core also remains the same – sans Williams, of course. Johnson is joined by Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, Jarrett Jack, and Bojan Bogdanovic, a veteran group that will help usher in some valuable new faces.
Those new, young, faces include power forward Thomas Robinson, 24, who was a former No. 5 overall pick, two 20-year-old first-round picks in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough, and 23-year-old former Knicks point guard Shane Larkin. Brooklyn also added former Knicks forward Andrea Bargnani to the mix.
It’s an interesting blend for the Nets, who now have the horses to run, should Hollins allow, but also enough aged vets who know how to slow the tempo should they make the playoffs. The grizzled Hollins is best known for producing a slower-paced tempo in Memphis, but with so much youth infused, he may loosen the reigns. And with enough firepower coming out of the low post (Young and Lopez) and mid-range (Johnson and Bogdanovic), Hollins just may have the right balance to keep teams off guard. How fast they all gel will determine if Brooklyn is a legit playoff contender.
Hollins, for sure, thinks they’ll bond rather quickly, adding he believes this roster is a playoff bunch.
“Success is getting in the playoffs. That’s what everybody’s trying to do,” Hollins said after a recent practice. “Every team right now thinks they can [make the playoffs], and every team wants to. But every team won’t [so], we want to be one of those that do.”
Youth movement, veteran leadership, returning coaching staff, and chemistry all have a factor in the Nets’ success this season, but none is bigger than the health of Lopez. He’s finally “the man” on the Nets, so keeping him in the lineup nightly is the biggest key. Hollins is Lopez’s seventh coach in as many seasons, so a lack of stability has stunted his growth at times, but nothing more hindering than his ability to stay out of the trainer’s room.
The versatile 7-foot center is making $20 million this season as part of a new three-year deal he signed over the summer. And now that Mason Plumlee is gone (traded for Hollis-Jefferson on draft day), Lopez is the lone center on the roster. An extended injury of any kind would cripple Brooklyn, so it’s imperative he stays upright. Lopez dealt with multiple injuries in 2014-15, as he only started 44 games. A return to good health – and his All-Star status – would bode well for the team’s success.
Lopez said he knows how important it is to have him regularly anchor the lineup – as last season’s playoff push showed, when he averaged 23.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, on 58 percent shooting, down the stretch. If the Nets get that version of Lopez all season long, they’re going to be a real threat in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s good to have that continuity,” Lopez said. “It helps with the chemistry.”
Nets fans will find out soon enough just how well this new-look roster can compete, as they tip off the season Wednesday night against the Bulls at Barclays Center.
- If the Nets aren’t getting results by mid-season, look for Johnson’s name to be bandied about in trade rumors. His six-year/$123.65-million contract that he signed with the Hawks before the 2010-11 season is set to run out this year, meaning the shooting guard’s expiring contract – and veteran leadership – could be a desired asset of a contender.
- Johnson would add great value to whatever team he’s on this season, especially if he can get his 3-point shooting upwards of 40 percent – a number he hasn’t hit since the 2013-14 season. Last year, he shot 36 percent in 3s.
- Look for Hollins to use some of the same halfcourt sets in Brooklyn as he did in Memphis, when he used the versatility of center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph to execute unique sets. Hollins inverted the play of Gasol (an outside player) and Randolph (an inside player), which may lead to him using power forward Young on the blocks more and center Lopez on the perimeter as a face-up pick-and-pop player. The inverting would suit both players best.
- Larkin didn’t earn high praise from Knicks president Phil Jackson, but he may actually be a great fit for the Nets. The young point guard will look to replace Williams, who averaged 13 points and 6.6 assists, last season, and started only 55 of 82 games. Those aren’t irreplaceable numbers, so if Larkin is every bit as good as Lopez and Johnson say he is, the Nets will have an upgrade at that position.
- Brooklyn was 20th in the league last season in forcing turnovers. Hollins is banking on his younger, faster roster to ramp up the energy, so they can aptly apply the pressure on opponents.