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Lichtenstein: Nets Have Their Core Four, But Who Will Take The Fifth?

By Steve Lichtenstein
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With apologies to a certain baseball team in the Bronx, the Brooklyn Nets are marketing their own version of a "Core Four" as they begin their preseason campaign Tuesday night when they face Maccabi (Tel Aviv) at Barclays Center.

Assuming they stay healthy -- and that's a pretty big assumption given their medical history -- the Nets will revolve around the quartet of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett.

Forget the triangle on the other side of the city. The Nets feel that Williams, Johnson and Lopez can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league in terms of offensive production.  Add in Garnett -- who new coach Lionel Hollins said will no longer have his playing time limited the way it was last season -- for defense and rebounding, and the Nets have a chance to sneak up on some teams this year.

This as opposed to the nonstop hype that accompanied the club right from the get-go last season.

Hollins has been a refreshing change, bringing an all-business attitude to the practice facility in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  He has, in his mind, the type of team he wants to see on the court each night. It may not exactly mirror his Memphis Grizzlies that reached the 2013 Western Conference Finals, since these Nets have a long way to go to match that team's physical and mental toughness.

But this is a team that can beat you inside and out.  Garnett can play at the high post a la Marc Gasol, thanks to his efficient mid-range jump shot and underrated passing.  That puts Lopez in the Zach Randolph role, focusing more on his low-post game but still able to step out and knock down shots from the perimeter.  Hollins has been on Lopez's case during camp to get him to be more aggressive on the defensive end and backboards.

Williams will run pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll -- his stated preferred system -- and let's not forget Johnson, who is as good as it gets when the shot or game clock runs down.

Other than keeping this fragile Core Four upright, Hollins does have one other concern this preseason.

Who takes the fifth?

You need five guys -- not four -- to play basketball.  When the Nets decided to part ways with Paul Pierce over the summer, that fifth spot turned wide open.

The only reason to pay attention to any of these exhibitions -- which includes a trip to China next week -- is to watch the reality competition for Hollins' heart and the chance to play alongside the Core Four.

At the Nets' Media Day, Hollins stated that he wants that position filled by a "guard."  Hollins deemed Johnson a small forward and is looking for another ball handler/shooter to space the floor.

That would seem to eliminate Andrei Kirilenko, who did start as the fifth man in the initial camp scrimmage before his back tightened up, forcing him to miss about a week of practice.

Back spasms bedeviled Kirilenko all last season, and he never really fit into former coach Jason Kidd's small-ball rotation when he returned to health.  It was an awkward situation, considering Kirilenko brought to the table many skills that were lacking in his teammates: off-ball cutting, exquisite passing, the ability to defend multiple positions and a general sense and will that allowed him to secure a majority of 50/50 balls.

However, Kirilenko had one of the worst perimeter shooting seasons of his career.  Even his free-throw percentage took a nosedive. The career 76-percent shooter from the line dropped to 51 percent last season.

Kirilenko would seem an ideal fit for Hollins' weak-side motion offense, but until Kirilenko proves he has regained his shooting form, Hollins will likely look somewhere else for a starter.

I do expect Hollins to take a long look at European import Bojan Bogdanovich, a sweet shooter who lit up the competition at the FIBA World Cup over the summer.

Then again, so did Andray Blatche, JJ Barea and Luis Scola, none of whom will be starting for an NBA team this season.

Bogdanovich has a lot to overcome, from getting used to a different ball to the speed of the NBA game.  Can he defend?  Can he create his own shot?  It shouldn't come as a surprise if it turns out that Bogdanovich needs time to figure this all out.

Similar to Mirza Teletovic's entry into the league two years ago.

Teletovic is an intriguing possibility for the fifth starting spot, if only he were a guard.

Teletovic certainly would help space the floor, as opponents would have to respect his firepower from three-point range.  This is a guy who can score 20 points in a random quarter.

Unfortunately, he can also give that up on the other end, especially if he were tasked with guarding an athletic wing.

No, Teletovic seems destined for reserve "stretch-four" status on this team.  He will provide scoring -- and maybe even some rebounding this year -- to a bench brigade that will be led by Jarrett Jack.

There are those that believe that Jack, who was acquired from Cleveland to replace free agent Shaun Livingston, will be the eventual champion of this competition.  I think that Hollins won't hesitate to pair Jack with D-Will down the stretch of games versus smaller and quicker teams.

It's just that Hollins has hinted that he wants Williams to be his lead guard and not have him play off the ball.  Jack is coming off a down year and doesn't have the length to contest the bigger guards that Livingston used to check.  Also remember that Livingston didn't nail down the starting role until Lopez broke his foot and forced Kidd to alter the Nets' identity after the New Year.

So, by more than default, I predict that the job will be won by Alan Anderson.

He may not have Kirlenko's size, Teletovic's stroke or Jack's ball-handling abilities, but he has just enough of all three to make him a nice complement to the starting unit.

Anderson won't grouse about not getting enough touches in the offense.  He was a vagabond in the professional basketball circuit for many years -- even playing 20 games for Maccabi in 2009-10 -- before signing with the Nets prior to last season.  Anderson had opportunities to skip town as a free agent this offseason, but re-signed for less money to stay.

Anderson said he's been working all summer on improving last season's below-average 28 percent three-point shooting rate from the corners, as well as his finishes around the rim off the dribble.  There were times last season when Anderson tried to be too aggressive, and those efforts yielded poor efficiencies.

I think Hollins will have Anderson play with more discipline.  Anderson will work hard on defense, move without the ball and then settle into the weak-side corner in case the paint is packed.

The Nets might be better without a fifth All-Star this time.  After all, there's only one basketball.

So it won't be a Fab Five in Brooklyn, but it could work well enough.

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

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