By Steve Lichtenstein
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The face of the Brooklyn Nets changed dramatically during the offseason. When the surgeon is general manager Billy King, however, the odds strongly indicate it won't be an improvement.
Gone is the dour one that was point guard Deron Williams, who exemplified the frustration of the entire organization over the last three seasons when Brooklyn was fraught with injuries, a lack of confidence, and chronic underachievement whenever the stage lights brightened.
D-Will's last two seasons of the five-year, $99 million deal he signed in 2012 were bought out and "stretched" over the summer, paving the way for his next stop in Dallas, while at the same time helping King clear a path to his primary mission of the offseason -- getting Brooklyn under the league's luxury tax threshold.
As the Nets get ready for opening night next Wednesday against visiting Chicago, their new focal point will be the happy-go-lucky visage of center Brook Lopez, who King re-signed to a three-year max contract this past summer.
By many accounts, the team has a different vibe. Williams was reportedly not well-liked in the locker room and his conflicts with the Nets' various coaches over the years were legendary.
Lopez, on the other hand, has been making an overt attempt to take the leadership mantle. The 7-footer was an All-Star in 2013 and, after a long hiatus while recovering from multiple foot surgeries, proved how dominant he can still be over the last third of the 2014-15 season. In 30 games after the All-Star break, Lopez averaged 19.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 52.5 percent from the floor and 81.7 percent from the free-throw line.
There's no doubt that without Lopez's step up in play the Nets wouldn't have gained entry into the postseason. Brooklyn may have stumbled to a 38-44 record, but it took top-seeded Atlanta to six games before falling, thanks to Lopez putting up materially similar numbers.
So what's my beef with giving Lopez the keys to the kingdom?
Let's ignore the injury risk for a minute. Even when healthy, Lopez's limitations, to adapt an old baseball manager's quote, are limitless.
Any opposing coach with a brain knows that the easiest way to score on the Nets is to get Lopez a little bit away from the basket and then make him move his feet. It could be pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, or simple off-ball screens off a Horns set where Lopez might be tempted to help down low and leave his man open on the wing.
Lopez has worked hard to expand his range (and may even attempt a few more 3-pointers this season) but guess what? So have many other bigs in the league. Kris Humphries is now knocking down treys for the Wizards for goodness sake.
Lopez rarely gets out to contest a jump-shooting center and heaven forbid he has to deal with the Chris Bosh-types who can extend out to 3-point range -- Lopez then becomes as much a spectator as the fans, only with a far better vantage point.
It's no better if those shots are missed. Lopez's lack of production in the rebounding department has been well documented. Even during the post-All-Star game stretch last season when Lopez was praised for picking up his total rebounding numbers, it should be noted that almost the entire increase was attributed to the offensive glass (4.1 defensive rebounds per game pre-All-Star break versus 4.2 post).
Offensively, Lopez is one of five Nets projected to be in the starting lineup who look for their own shot first. With Jarrett Jack, Bojan Bogdanovich, Joe Johnson and Thaddeus Young, there's not an elite facilitator in the group.
Nor is there anyone with the speed/quickness to beat his man off the dribble and get to the basket, with the limited exception of Young provided that he receives the ball close to the right block.
Usually the point guard is responsible for these tasks, but Jack is comparatively slow and doesn't see the floor well when he puts his head down looking to create space for his patented mid-range pull-ups. In 80 preseason minutes, Jack committed 11 turnovers, made only a third of his 3-pointers, and was a cumulative minus-9.
Get ready for the sequel to the joust between NBA analytics experts and Nets coach Lionel Hollins, who is a firm believer in Jack's intangible attributes.
To be fair, having Hollins back for a second season is one of the organization's few beacons of hope. It's a rare occurrence when this franchise isn't breaking in a new coach in the preseason.
Hollins will continue to play the role of curmudgeon, getting on everyone's case to play the right way: share the ball, communicate on defense, and generally get after it. He can take credit for prodding Lopez to take baby steps to diversify his game. Lopez has even been passing some out of the post in the preseason.
But there's only so much a coach can do, especially since Hollins has few options at his disposal. All of the Nets' so-called "youth and athleticism" is in the form of unproven and incomplete players on his bench. He can call on Thomas Robinson for rebounding, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Markel Brown for defense, or Wayne Ellington for 3-point shooting. Just don't ask for anything more -- and may he never call on Andrea Bargnani.
On paper, this is a 30-win team. Here are a few suggestions that I believe could improve that number:
1.) Run the offense through Joe Johnson, not the point guard
At 34, and heading into his 15th season, Johnson has been showing the effects of all that NBA mileage. His scoring and shooting percentages last season took a nosedive from his prior norms. But there's something about Johnson's deliberate game that is still effective. Everyone knows Iso-Joe, but Johnson probably sees the floor better than anyone on the team. He doesn't look the part when he handles the ball, but he's generally been reliable in not turning the ball over.
When Johnson starts at the top of the key, the defense has to respect so many options. There's the pick-and-roll with Lopez as the roll man -- if Johnson finds Lopez in the paint, it's game over. But if the defense sags, Johnson has the ability to step back and knock down a jump shot. The backdown for a post move is also on the table.
Hollins should ignore the temptation to run the offense through the traditional point guard. It's the Nets' weakest position by any measure. Neither Jack nor Shane Larkin have shown the necessary distribution skills required of the role.
Get what you can out of Johnson in the final season of his six-year $124 million contract. I'm betting he still has something left -- which should make it easier to get something of value back if King decides to pawn him off at the trade deadline to a contender as a rental.
2.) Make Bojan Bogdanovich the sixth man
Many in the media are expecting this to be Bogdanovich's breakout season. He's 26 years old with his NBA rookie adjustment period out of the way. There were times when Bogdanovich's long-range prowess lifted the Nets out of the doldrums last season -- over the last seven games of the regular season (when the Nets were in a dogged chase for the final playoff seed), Bogdanovich averaged 17.4 points per game on 55 percent shooting from the floor and 51 percent from deep.
Except that the player I see is someone who can't guard anybody at his position, is a lousy ballhandler, and whose additional exceptional skill of moving without the ball is often ignored by a group of teammates that won't recognize it. Bogdanovich had a rough summer after suffering a concussion and injuring his ankle at Eurobasket. He doesn't look to me like he's ready to take the next step.
Bogdanovich's role should be as a scorer off the bench. The Nets need someone in the starting lineup who can at least make a plausible effort to guard the top wings that they'll face nightly. If you're heavily relying on Johnson for offense, you don't want him wasting all that energy chasing the opponents' top scorers.
Hollis-Jefferson may be too green for the job (and too poor a shooter), and Brown is coming off an oblique strain that kept him out all preseason, so give the starting job to Ellington for the time being.
3.) Fire Billy King
OK, this one is beyond Hollins' pay grade. And from the answers owner Mikhail Prokhorov gave during a recent interview with NetsDaily.com, it's not going to happen this season. Or maybe even after this season.
Prokhorov hasn't yet given King a contract extension beyond 2015-16, but in the interview he seemed to let King off the hook for leaving the franchise in this current predicament.
The Nets are nearly back to the point where they were when they bolted New Jersey for the more valuable real estate in New York City. The future, with the improving Celtics owning the Nets' first round picks in 2016 and 2018 as well as the right to swap picks in 2017, appears to be just as bleak.
Even with cap space in the summer of 2016, it's hard to get players to move when the incumbents own such a huge advantage in the salary amounts they can offer. The Kevin Durants of the league are not coming to Brooklyn.
King has had to sign and trade his way to build teams, and he's been horrible at it. He has shown no clue that he understands what makes a player valuable or how to find players that fit together. The current roster is loaded with guys who can't defend and prefer taking mid-range jump shots over the more efficient 3-pointers and layups.
There may be more smiles in the locker room now that D-Will has left the building, but it isn't because they're a better team.
Prediction: 32-50 and no postseason.
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