Give Mikhail Prokhorov credit: it seems that from the very moment he became involved with the Brooklyn Nets, the franchise has been one of the most talked about across the entire NBA. Now, as the Nets stare at the prospect of what may be a very long season, the faithful fans of Brooklyn collectively wonder what the first year of the post-Deron Williams era will bring.
Built around Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young and Joe Johnson, when compared to the likes of the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and certainly the Milwaukee Bucks, the Nets seem to be a team headed in the wrong direction. Williams is off to Dallas and fans of this team wonder what the 2015-16 season will bring. Quietly, we wonder the same.
Basketball Insiders previews the Brooklyn Nets’ 2015-16 season:
The Nets haven’t been this unexciting since they officially moved to New York. While it’s good that they were able to hold onto Brook Lopez and add some exciting young talents like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Thomas Robinson, the reality is that the Jarrett Jack and Bojan Bogdanovic starting backcourt isn’t inspiring a lot of confidence in fans. The Nets have pieced together an interesting roster with loads of likeable players like Donald Sloan, Shane Larkin and Quincy Miller, but despite that it really is a pretty sad little roster. It’s a time of transition for the Nets, who very likely will entertain trade offers for Joe Johnson non-stop from now through February.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
The Brooklyn Nets are a team I expect to drop out of the playoffs next season. They snuck into the eighth spot last year with 38 wins, but that was by surpassing Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT teams set back by injuries. Deron Williams left the Nets this summer for the Dallas Mavericks, which could end up benefiting the team given his lack of consistency and production over the years. The Nets, however, have underperformed since a team of mega-contracts was compiled. Joe Johnson is in the final year of his deal and the Nets will have more flexibility to add new talent once that’s off the table. Until then, the Nets are poised to remain in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
The Nets have been one of the league’s biggest spenders over the past two seasons, but only have one playoff series victory to show for their investment dollars. Heading into training camp, the expectations surrounding the club are now much lower – and rightfully so. Seven-time All-Star guard Joe Johnson is the best player in the Nets’ rotation, but he’s been on a decline since 2012. Brook Lopez is a nightly 20-point threat, but has had more than his share of injury woes. The team has $81 million in guaranteed salaries on the books this season, but just $45 million for the 2016-17 campaign. Brooklyn may fall out of the playoff mix this season, but a quick bounce back next year isn’t out of the question.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
Ever hear of addition by subtraction? The Nets are certainly hoping to find some of that. Just two short seasons ago, with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Deron Williams, the Nets dreamed of toppling the Miami HEAT in the Eastern Conference. Now, amazingly, and in short order, none of those players are with the franchise. I can’t deny Brook Lopez’s above-average abilities, but I simply do not think that a team built around him and his gifts will ever be a championship contender. By necessity, his team will need to force-feed him and play down to his speed and I am just not sure if that is a winning recipe in today’s NBA. Aside from that, the Nets lost many of their best three-point shooters and defenders over the past few years and although they are getting much younger, they do not seem to be getting any better. Who is the emotional leader for this team? Who will lift their spirits? Who will teach the younger players? I honestly have no clue, just like I have no clue how they can expect to be any better than fourth in their division this year.
4th Place — Atlantic Division
Last year, Brooklyn managed to sneak into the playoffs with just 38 wins. This year, I think it’s going to take significantly more wins than that to be a playoff team in the East, and I have the Nets on the outside looking in. With that said, I like some of the young players they added including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Thomas Robinson, Willie Reed, Shane Larkin and Quincy Miller among others. The team cut bait on Deron Williams this offseason, which was the right move, and it’s good to see them bringing in some young players. They’ll take a step back, but creating flexibility is likely a smart decision.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Brook Lopez
With all due respect to Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez is the top offensive player for the Brooklyn Nets. Lopez may have his faults as a player and the mobility of dump truck, but he is an efficient offensive player who possesses both an ability to play with his back to the basket and confidently score from well outside of the paint. In 2013-14, Lopez averaged 20.7 points per game and although he scored substantially less last season (17.2 PPG), it’s because his usage seemed to deteriorate more as a result of Lionel Hollins playing off of his wing players a bit more. To his credit, Lopez still shot 51 percent from the field and handled a demotion to the bench quite well, all things considered. Assuming he can stay healthy, there is no reason to believe that Lopez will cease being one of the more productive and efficient big men in the NBA, and it is easy to consider him the top offensive force on the Nets.
Top Defensive Player: Thaddeus Young
After losing Kevin Garnett, Alan Anderson, Andrei Kirilenko and Shaun Livingston fairly recently, the Nets now find themselves devoid of many plus-defenders. For that reason, Thaddeus Young almost wins here by default. Young has always been a good on-ball defender, but does often struggle to stay in front of small players. Together, he and Brook Lopez form a credible tandem in terms of making opposing big men work for their baskets, but overall, the Nets may truly miss Alan Anderson. Newcomer Shane Larkin can be fairly pesky, but his lack of size has been perhaps the biggest obstacle he has had to overcome to this point, and he will continue to face challenges as a result. As for Young, while far from perfect, he is capable on the defensive end. Markel Brown certainly warrants mention here, as he certainly proved himself a capable defender last season, but with such a small sample size, we would have to say that Young remains numero uno in this regard.
Top Playmaker: Jarrett Jack
It’s amazing to us that a quality player and person like Jarrett Jack has been so transient in his NBA career. Now playing on his seventh team, Jack appears destined to be the full-time starter for the Brooklyn Nets at the point guard position. Jack hasn’t started as many as 50 games since 2010 but it certainly appears that the job is his to lose now that Deron Williams has taken his talents to Dallas. Overall, Jack is only a mediocre distributor, partially evidenced by his career 5.6 assists per 36 minutes. Where Jack excels, however, is creating space off of the dribble. Jack is an outstanding step-back shooter and is quite capable at dribbling around screens and shooting after creating a sliver of space. As the full-time starter and playing the lion’s share of minutes as the team’s point guard, Jack will be higher on the opposition’s scouting depth chart and will have an opportunity to consistently find his shooters. Though we prefer Jack in situations where he is creating his own shot opportunity, he has always been willing to move the basketball and has the ability to help Andrea Bargnani, Joe Johnson and the other shooters on this team shine.
Top Clutch Player: Joe Johnson
There are numbers and metrics that would support the notion that Joe Johnson is the top clutch player in the entire league, at least over the past five years. So yes, it is easy to declare that he is the top clutch player on the Brooklyn Nets. During the 2013-14 season, Kevin Garnett famously referred to Johnson as “Joe Jesus.” The reason? According to Garnett, “He may not be there when you want him, but he’s there when you need him.” Johnson earned the moniker after a January 2014 victory over his former team, the Atlanta Hawks. Despite a dearth of late-game heroics last season, at least comparatively speaking, there are few players across the entire league that strike fear in the opposition the way Johnson does.
The Unheralded Player: Thaddeus Young
Entering his ninth season, Thaddeus Young is a player whose name probably rings a bell to some NBA observers, but only those who live and breathe basketball. In other words, he is not a household name or known by many casual fans. Now, out of necessity, the Nets will lean on him to be one of their top playmakers and with that, for Young, will come tremendous opportunity. Always regarded as a capable defender over the years, Young’s game has improved immensely. He can finish around the basket and in traffic, possesses good athleticism and can create his own scoring opportunities off of the dribble. He is observant and engaged on either end of the court and also excels at playing off of the basketball. What was most impressive about Young last season, however, was that in his 28 games as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, he connected on 38 percent of his three-point looks. Although it was a small sample size, it may be indicative of his learning how to effectively play with and off of both Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. In his final season as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Young averaged 17.9, six rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. With the Nets, if he proves himself capable of shouldering a heavy load, his usage and minutes will likely increase to the point where he can best those numbers. The potential is certainly there.
Best New Addition: Thomas Robinson
Since being selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Thomas Robinson has had a tough time finding consistent minutes and productivity. His career 14.1 minutes per game average is all the proof one needs to recognize that Robinson hasn’t been given the requisite minutes to make a difference in the league. Entering his fourth season, it is fair to question whether or not Robinson has something to do with his lack of opportunity. Still, with the flashes he has shown, the Nets hope that they have acquired a youngster that will prove to be a late bloomer. And if there is one thing that Robinson has already shown, it is a ferocious presence on the glass. In just 22 games with the Philadelphia 76ers last season, Robinson grabbed 7.7 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game, translating to a ridiculous 15 rebounds per-36 minutes. Over the course of his career, Robinson has grabbed 12.2 rebounds per-36 minutes, proving that he has at least one bona fide NBA talent. Although he may be overly assertive with his shot selection, he is an impressive finisher around the basket and plays at a breakneck pace. The Nets have made other acquisitions this summer that may prove to be worthwhile for the club, but with his upside and ferocity, we lean toward choosing Robinson as the best among them.
Who We Like
Lionel Hollins: Without question, Lionel Hollins, both as a player and a head coach, is someone with identity. Hollins is a proven leader who believes in playing the game of basketball a certain way and if there is one thing he deserves credit for more than anything else, it was how he was unafraid to challenge both Brook Lopez and Deron Williams last season. At various points during the season, we received word that Lopez and Williams were the subjects of questioning and prodding by their head coach and each went through stretches of the season where their minutes and usage waned tremendously. That type of accountability is rarely seen in the NBA these days and it is hardly ever seen as it relates to a first-year head coach attempting to pull greatness out of the two players that many regarded as franchise mainstays. From an Xs and Os perspective, Hollins leaves a bit to be desired, but most coaches do. Tough-nosed and seasoned, he is a plus-contributor on the bench and is one of the few bright spots for a team that has become a perennial underachiever.
Their Young Players: During the 2013-14 season, nine Nets players were at least 30 years old. Last season, that number dipped to six. Entering the 2015-16 season, the Nets will have just three players on their roster who are 30 or older. Led by Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, the Nets have an array of youngsters – Markel Brown, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Wayne Ellington, Ryan Boatright, Thomas Robinson and Willie Reed – that still have some perceived upside. Over the coming years, the Nets will continue to shave their payroll, but they have at least added some young players whose best days seem to be ahead of them. In the short term, the team is not likely to challenge for the Eastern Conference Championship, but clearly, building around overpriced veterans was not a recipe of success for these Nets, so kudos for altering the game plan. Now, if only they still owned their draft picks…
Mikhail Prokhorov: Say what you want about Mikhail Prokhorov, but until you have actually stood next to him in person, you simply have no idea what kind of charm and personality the man has. One other thing he certainly has? It’s a way with words, and we say that sincerely. Prokhorov is witty and intelligent and has no issue with being controversial. He entered the NBA beating his chest and declaring his team to be a championship contender, and although he has fallen short of his own grandiose predictions, he is still committed to winning and is willing to spend money in that pursuit. At the very least, he is worth commending for that.
Strengths are admittedly difficult to find on the Nets, but if there is one thing that we can point to as potentially causing the opposition some headaches is size. With Brook Lopez, Andrea Bargnani and Thaddeus Young all getting minutes in the front court and Thomas Robinson expected to get some bench minutes, it seems that the big man platoon for the Nets may surpass its perimeter players in terms of productivity. Willie Reed, who was a Summer League standout, could also be a surprise contributor (much like Hassan Whiteside emerged for the Miami HEAT last year).
Another strength is how young they are, especially when compared to previous iterations of Brooklyn’s team. Lopez and Young are each just 27 years old while Joe Johnson (34), Jarrett Jack (31) and Andrea Bargnani (29) are the three oldest players on the roster. With a collection of youngsters, the Nets certainly have more upside than they have had in recent years.
The biggest weakness of the Nets is their seeming lack of an alpha-male and emotional leader. Brook Lopez is the team’s longest-tenured player and arguably their cornerstone, but he is not particularly emotional or otherwise able to galvanize and lead troops into battle. Joe Johnson is similar in that regard. Although a fine citizen and a tremendous teammate, Johnson is renowned for being soft spoken and leading more so by example than with his words. With youth surrounding Lopez and Johnson, it will be on them to set the tone for this franchise and for them to show their teammates how to make things work in Brooklyn. That may be easier said than done, at least for these two.
The other obvious weakness for the Nets may be outside shooting. As currently mentioned, it stands to reason that the team will primarily rely on Brook Lopez for their offense, but without capable shooters surrounding him, opposing defenses will have the green light to collapse on the interior and dare many of those who will be sharing the court with Lopez to fire away. That doesn’t necessarily apply to Joe Johnson, Andrea Bargnani or Bojan Bogdanovic, but the former two are among the older pieces on the team. After losing Deron Williams, Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson this past offseason, it seems that there is an obvious void in terms of proven three-point shooting ability.
The Burning Question
What exactly are the Nets doing?
After paying a king’s ransom for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the two have both been moved along and the Nets have very little to show for it. The team has $86 million on its ledger this coming season and just recently re-signed Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young for a combined $117 million dollars. Yet the team also cut bait with Deron Williams—the player who was the face of the franchise since arriving back in 2011. With Joe Johnson entering the final year of his contract, he will earn about $25 million, so by next summer, we will have certainly gotten an answer to the burning question.
Just what exactly are the Nets doing? Are they rebuilding? Restocking? Does general manager Billy King have another ace up his sleeve? Built around Lopez, Young and newly installed starting point guard Jarrett Jack, can the Nets compete in the seemingly tougher Eastern Conference? There are tons and tons of questions, but very little answers.
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