By Steve Lichtenstein
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My holiday wish didn't come true.
There was no swapping of jerseys after the horn sounded to end the Nets' 107-99 victory over sad-sack Sacramento at the Barclays Center on Monday. Not even of the soccer-style good-game variety.
No, the Nets will certainly count point guard Deron Williams and center Brook Lopez among their roster members for at least Tuesday's visit to Chicago. No trades are imminent. The Kings may be in even worse shape than the 14-16 Nets, but they don't appear to be a match to land Williams--especially after they reportedly insisted on Mason Plumee's inclusion. No one wants any piece of Lopez.
What also is certain about the Nets' near-term plan, as Sheridanhoops.com's Michael Scotto averred in the press box, is that this team now belongs to Plumlee and Jarrett Jack, not the highly-marketed Lopez-Williams duo.
Well--it belongs to Joe Johnson too.
The point is that Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins has no room for sentimentality in his rotation, and his best players play.
Williams and Lopez may be former All-Stars on max contracts, but the Nets have been playing superior basketball when they are off the floor. The Nets' win over the Kings was their fourth in the last five games.
Initially thrust into the starting lineup after Lopez's back strain and D-Will's subsequent calf injury, Plumlee and Jack have maintained their roles in the three games since Lopez and Williams returned to active duty.
And why shouldn't they?
The ball movement, the get-after-it mentality—they've often been absent on the Williams/Lopez-led Nets. Jack and Plumlee at least bring energy and hustle every night and have combined to average 36.4 points per game over the Nets last five games.
Jack in particular has made Brooklyn's pick-and-roll a weapon with his probing and dead-eye mid-range shooting. (Entering Monday's game, Jack was 18-for-his-previous-23 on shots between 5-15 feet. He was less efficient on Monday but still produced 16 points.)
Now, we'll have to see if Jack regresses to the mean as the Nets' schedule stiffens, but with D-Will in another one of his legendary shooting funks, Jack has been the better floor leader of late.
Similarly--in addition to the limitations in his game that I outlined in my previous post--I have doubts that Plumlee will be as effective going against the Bulls' stout front line. He was stifled by Pacers center Roy Hibbert on Saturday.
However, Lopez is an absolute mess on both ends right now. While Lopez's 11 points and 6 rebounds on Monday at first glance indicate improvement over his scoreless outing against Indiana, he was taken to school by Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins so often Hollins couldn't risk extending his floor time beyond 12 minutes.
Hollins has also been made aware of his club's awful performance whenever Williams and Jack or Lopez and Plumlee have shared the court. Each pair has been outscored by their opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions, according to a report on ESPN.com.
Hollins has been known to pooh-pooh such modern-day analytics, but for the first time this season, he subbed in his so-called stars directly for Jack and Plumlee on Monday, resulting in fewer opportunities for Williams and Lopez to lay out their cases to Hollins.
"I just want you to know I did that just for you," said Hollins jokingly to the press contingent after the game. Hollins explained further that "different matchups I wanted to keep. I wanted to keep (Kevin Garnett) on Cousins as much as I could. The whole rotation worked out by the way they subbed and it helped us."
For their part, Williams and Lopez have been publicly supportive ("The first group is definitely rocking right now, so let them rock," said Williams), though I doubt this is something they want to get used to.
It's even harder for these two veterans to sit through crunch time, but Hollins had Jack and Plumlee on the floor to close out the Kings (until the final 43 seconds when Williams entered to give the Nets better ballhandling and free throw shooting).
And that's how Brooklyn will likely start in Chicago.
The Nets have failed chemistry the last few years. Their logo is not the accompanying picture next to the definition of "stability" in the dictionary. General manager Billy King has turned over the roster several times during his tenure, which is why at the start of every season the Nets have more difficulties than other teams.
Hollins thinks he has the right mix now, pedigree be damned. "Yes, Brook and Deron were starters," he said. "They've been out and if you noticed that while they were out we started playing better and winning. So why would I go back and change the lineup for now?
"I would hope they (Williams and Lopez) play better—and they did (on Monday)—and hopefully they'll continue to play well. Maybe we'll have a good mix of starters and bench. Before we didn't have a good mix. Both those guys are accepting their roles and amenable to helping us win and that's what this business is all about."
Hollins is right, but also know this: that sound you hear is Lopez's and Williams' trade values in free fall.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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