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Lichtenstein: Despite Question Marks, Nets Are Still A Playoff Team

By Steve Lichtenstein
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To gauge where the Brooklyn Nets stand at any given point during this upcoming 2014-15 season—which begins Wednesday night in Boston—one must look at the team's medical records in addition to the win-loss columns.

That's going to happen on a team where the locker-room stalls above four of its top eight players should be marked with a "Fragile" stamp.

It's also why making any predictions for this Nets season may seem pointless. I've read pundits who believe the Nets can win 50 games and take the Atlantic Division and others who are so down on Brooklyn that they have their win totals in the mid-30s—and missing the playoffs entirely.

Those naysayers are looking at center Brook Lopez, forwards Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko, and point guard Deron Williams, who are all coming off injury-plagued 2013-14 campaigns. All those games lost were one of the main reasons why Brooklyn's results didn't even come close to meeting the championship-thumping preseason hype. The Nets fell to Miami in five games in the second round of last season's playoffs.

Lopez is hoping to regain his 2013 All-Star form after his third right foot fracture prematurely ended last season's run after just 17 games. Lopez returned from the Nets' trip to China two weeks ago with what was diagnosed as a "mild" mid-foot sprain on the same foot and missed the Nets' final three preseason games. His status for Wednesday night is doubtful.

Williams had surgical procedures to clear out both ankles over the summer and his movement in the preseason has been encouraging. Except that his right wrist--which was surgically repaired in 2011--and thumb have been taped up lately. D-Will's early perimeter shooting efficiency bears watching.

The 38-year-old Garnett is entering his 20th NBA season with little tread on his tires. He was definitely a defensive factor whenever he took the floor last season, but his games and minutes were severely limited by then-coach Jason Kidd in an attempt to minimize long-term damage to his worn body. It didn't exactly work, as back spasms shelved KG for 19 consecutive games in March and early April.

That's the same injury that plagued Kirilenko virtually all last season. Kirilenko played in just 45 games and posted career lows in most statistical categories. According to Kirilenko, the spasms come and go as they please and they forced him to miss some practice time early in training camp.

So it's fair to say that health is a huge question mark in Brooklyn as they get set for their third season in the borough—and under their fourth different head coach since the move from New Jersey.

Lionel Hollins and his no-nonsense approach should be a refreshing change from Kidd's laissez-faire regime—at least at first. If the Nets sputter to another 10-21 start, well, the Nets will see first-hand why Hollins referred to himself as a "player killer."

I have to believe Hollins will have the Nets better prepared to face the NBA grind than rookie coach Kidd was a year ago, but there are other concerns outside the team's health.

At the top of Hollins' to-do list is how to turn a rather soft club into one with his signature ferocious defensive mentality. And that includes owning the defensive backboards, where the Nets struggled last season with and without Lopez.

If you're looking for two statistics to focus on over the course of the season to get a general idea as to how well they are taking to Hollins' defensive concepts, you should look at the Nets' rebounding percentage and their opponent's three-point field goal percentage. The Nets were near the bottom of the league in both categories last season.

The problem is that there aren't too many plus defenders on this roster. Garnett will rebound, but we'll have to see how long he can stay on the floor after averaging just 20.5 minutes per game last season. Williams may be better containing penetration now that his ankles are free of pain, but neither Joe Johnson nor Bojan Bogdanovich have the departed Shaun Livingston's athleticism on the wings.

Add in Lopez's deficiencies playing against pick-and-rolls and now you have opponents getting free range from three-point territory while the Nets scramble to help and rotate. The Celtics will be a great early test as they have no conscience about firing away all night from deep.

The offensive end appears to be in much better shape, particularly when a healthy D-Will can run pick-and-rolls with Lopez. The 7-footer gives the Nets the inside scoring presence that was sorely missed in last season's inverted offense, when the Nets best post players were guards Johnson and Livingston. Williams has a knack for getting the ball to Lopez where he can score off the catch, which doesn't bog down the offense as much as all those isolation plays.

Hollins has been working with Lopez on passing out of the post as well. Johnson, Williams and even Garnett are very capable jump shooters. Johnson quietly is one of the league's top bail-out scorers when the shot (or game) clock is running down.

The only question here is whether the Nets have a fifth starter who can space the floor just as well. In Hollins' flex system, uncontested corner threes should be abundant. Nets general manager Billy King let future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce walk out the door to sign with Washington over the summer, a move I will never understand. In the meantime, if the Nets can't find someone to knock down 35 percent-plus of these shots, scoring droughts could become an issue as opponents pack the paint.

Bogdanovich is the man out of the gate, though the Euro-stash rookie hasn't exactly lit up the scoreboard in the preseason. Bogdanovich appears to be somewhere along the learning curve as he gets used to the different ball, three-point distance, and overall speed of the game (especially how quick NBA players close out on shooters).

I would expect Hollins to give Alan Anderson and even Kirilenko opportunities here if Bogdanovich struggles to fit in when the games start to count. Neither, however, provides the sufficient three-point shooting efficiency the position requires.

The final area of concern is the Nets' depth. In a league where long-term injuries to key players are the norm—and much of the Nets' core personnel is far from invincible—no one will excuse the Nets should injuries shut players down.

Guys like Jarrett Jack, Mirza Teletovic, Mason Plumlee and Anderson are nice players off the bench, but what happens if injuries force them to move up on the depth chart? And who subs in for them if they have to start? The Nets are carrying five players (Sergey Karasev, Jerome Jordan, Jorge Gutierrez, and rookies Markel Brown and Cory Jefferson) who can best be described as developmental projects.

As a second unit, Jack and Teletovic both have the ability to score in bunches while Plumlee, Kirilenko and Anderson provide defense, rebounding and the knack for securing 50/50 balls.

However, if any of the above were required to play 30 minutes a game, they're shortcomings would be a lot more obvious. For example, Plumlee, whose rise from late 2013 first-round draft pick to 2014 NBA National Team member in the FIBA World Cup defied experts, doesn't have to be guarded if he's more than five feet from the basket. Kirilenko is a renowned passer, but he must have left his jump shot (and foul shot) in Russia last summer. Teletovic's game is limited to three-point shooting and Jack is far from a lock-down perimeter defender.

So why should anyone be bullish on Brooklyn this season?

Well, they still play in the Eastern Conference, which may have improved slightly over last season but really has only a few power teams (Cleveland and Chicago). Toronto, the defending Atlantic Division champs who lost a brutal seventh game at home to Brooklyn in the first round last postseason, will be gunning for revenge in the four meetings between the two teams this year. But the Nets aren't that far behind them in terms of roster completeness.

Two years ago the Nets entered the season with a team revolving around Lopez, Williams and Johnson. They had little else and needed P.J. Carlesimo to take over in midseason to right a ship off course under Avery Johnson's direction. That team won 49 games.

Now add Garnett to the above trio plus a host of reputable role players. And don't discount the effect of finally securing a coach who has been a proven winner. A playoff berth seems fairly attainable. The Nets should be right in the mix for the final five seeds in the East along with Washington, Charlotte, Miami, and Atlanta.

I say 45-37 sounds about right to me--good enough for fifth place in the East. And I'll set it even without an injury caveat.

For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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