The perception that the Nets were a soft team which wilted when adversity hit was not a secret throughout the regular season even as they won 49 games.
How the Nets were perceived became a harsh reality on May 4 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Bulls. Working to change that assessment was among the primary goals of the busiest offseason in the franchise’s history.
It also was a significant talking point for new head coach Jason Kidd’s first preseason press conference Tuesday afternoon at the team’s practice facility in East Rutherford, N.J.
“I think [our identity] was just vanilla and I think you guys can see after the trade with [Kevin] Garnett and [Paul] Pierce that it’s kind of changed,” Kidd said. “So I think we’re doing the right thing with changing the identity. It was just there was no flavor and no identity. So with that trade, that changes the whole game.”
The proof for Kidd is the body of work Garnett and Pierce have produced, the minutes they have played and the playoff battles they have waged with the likes of the Heat and other teams.
“It comes with minutes. It comes with the battles that they’ve been through, the players that they are [and] the person that they are. Paul’s a leader, Paul’s a winner. He’s won a championship. KG’s a winner. They’ll both be Hall of Fame players in this league, so they’ve seen it all. That’s walking into a team that didn’t have an identity. I think it changes it automatically.”
The Nets had less of an identity while the team was enduring several losing seasons and relocation to Brooklyn. Their “Big Three” of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson achieved notable things last season but the perception still remained about a lack of heart, which, besides the desire to win now, is why the trade was made.
Of course, Kidd is not a stranger to significant change for the franchise. Twelve summers ago, he was traded to a Nets team viewed as the NBA’s laughingstock.
Kidd boldly proclaimed that summer the Nets would win 41 games. The Nets exceeded that with 52 wins and a trip to the NBA Finals.
“This is kind of like being traded,” Kidd said. “When I got traded here, the unknowns were Jersey was at the bottom of the barrel, a laughingstock. It always was an automatic win if you played Jersey on the road. We wanted to change that and a lot of people laughed when I said 41-41. We exceeded that but that was the goal and we achieved that. I think we came together as a team and as a family and it kind of feels that way right now.”
Even with the perception of being soft, the Nets reached the playoffs for the first time in six years, mostly by beating teams they were supposed to beat. There were just too many failures when adversity hit against good teams which ultimately led to their demise in early May.
Kidd has already seen some of that changeover take place. Pierce and Garnett have been playing pick-up scrimmages at the practice facility to be better prepared and those have followed the August scrimmages in California that Deron Williams organized.
“The biggest thing is guys are in here working and when you see a Paul Pierce or a Kevin Garnett at 8, 8:30 in the morning here, it just shows you being professional, being a leader,” Kidd said. “Those guys have those qualities.”
Getting those qualities to translate to the court is the next step for Kidd, whose first goal is to get through training camp healthy and find the right combinations and right rotations.
Deron Williams made an appearance at his charity dodge ball tournament last week but could not participate because he was in a walking boot due to a sprained right ankle. Though that seems ominous, there is hardly any concern about the injury suffered in an offseason workout.
Kidd said Williams will have the ankle re-examined Friday in Utah before rejoining the team for training camp.
Ankle issues are nothing new for Williams. He dealt with pain in both ankles last year, which hampered his play in the Summer Olympics and at various points in the first half, and led him to get three cortisone shots.
That helped him average 22.9 points and eight assists after the All-Star break.
Now with more varied options besides Joe Johnson’s mid-range and 3-point shooting and Brook Lopez’s low-post game, Kidd has publicly stated he expects Williams to average 10 assists.
“He will probably have the ball the majority of the time but that’s something that we’re trying to work on as coaches and players to not be dominant with the ball,” Kidd said. “We like to use the pass. We’ve had success in this league with teams that have used the pass and won championships besides playing defense.
“So that’s something that when you say 10 assists he doesn’t have to dominate the ball. He can get it with the guys that are on the floor. They can all make open shots. That’s something that I said publicly that I would like to have him get up there because if he does, he’s back in that conversation of being one of the best point guards in this league.
Williams averaged double-digits in assists in four straight seasons (2007-11). He also averaged a career-high 12.8 assists in 12 games with the Nets in 2011 after being obtained from Utah.
Follow Nets beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.