By Steve Lichtenstein
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With much of the New York City area enthralled by the World Series, you're forgiven if you failed to notice that the Nets opened their 2015-16 NBA season on Wednesday night against Chicago at Barclays Center.
To be honest, there weren't loads of folks smitten with the team in their first three campaigns in Brooklyn when baseball was over by September and the Nets were fairly decent. Now that expectations have been lowered for this basketball bunch, there are fewer reasons to pay attention.
The Nets, who bricked all nine of their 3-pointers in getting dismissed with relative ease by the Bulls, 115-100, played the first and third quarters exactly as per general manager Billy King's tanking plan... oh wait…
As you may recall, the Nets do not have a first-round draft pick until 2019, so excessive losing reaps no benefit. To make matters worse, Brooklyn will be one of, oh, 20-something teams with significant salary cap space next summer that will attempt to lure prospective free agents, who these days rarely move if their incumbent organization takes advantage of the rules that allow them to offer significantly more money. Those select few difference-makers who opt to switch teams usually do so because they are enticed by the prospect of winning.
That won't happen here for quite some time.
However, despite all that negativity surrounding Barclays Center, this team might not be totally unwatchable after all -- with a few tweaks.
The first thing that coach Lionel Hollins must do is get rookie wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson more playing time.
The Nets were down 24-10 with 4:11 remaining in the first quarter when Hollis-Jefferson, who came to Brooklyn in a draft-day trade for center Mason Plumlee, played his first NBA minute. By the time he exited with 40 seconds left in the first half, the deficit was down to three points.
Hollins being Hollins, the Nets opened the second half with the same lineup that got down big in the first quarter. It is not very good. The once-hyped Brooklyn backcourt now consists of castoffs Shane Larkin (until Jarrett Jack heals from an injury) and Wayne Ellington. That they were outscored by the Bulls duo of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler 39-6 should not have been unexpected.
Someone needed to read Hollins the definition of insanity. As the Bulls were pulling away in the third quarter, Hollis-Jefferson went to the scorer's table to check in to the game, but was called back to his seat by Hollins.
"(Hollis-Jefferson) did give us energy," Hollins said. "He got in in the second half when he got in. I stayed with Joe (Johnson) a little longer. Joe had it going, and some other guys didn't. It's just the way the ballgame went."
Only when the Nets got down by 19 points did Hollins go back to Hollis-Jefferson. The Nets made a bit of a run in the fourth quarter, getting to within 100-94 with a little less than four minutes remaining, but the Bulls made the big shots necessary to close the game.
Hollis-Jefferson's aforementioned energy, particularly on the defensive end, was contagious. The Bulls committed 14 of their 20 turnovers during his 24 minutes. I don't believe it was a coincidence.
Hollis-Jefferson's activity led to deflections, altered shots, and extra possessions off 50/50 balls -- the types of plays that have been rarely witnessed by Nets fans in recent times.
Offensively, Hollis-Jefferson looked to have some jitters early, but he finished with 8 points on 4-for-6 shooting from the floor to go along with his 5 rebounds, 2 steals and blocked shot. He even knocked down a mid-range jumper.
It left me wishing I had seen more.
Hollins, though, will likely continue to experiment as the Nets hit the road over the weekend for as rough a back-to-back as there is in the League -- at San Antonio on Friday followed by Memphis on Saturday.
Some of that experimentation can be fun, such as when Hollins put sophomore guard Markel Brown at the point at the close of both halves to hound Rose and inject some speed and athleticism into the lineup. I guess that made up for the times Hollins sent out a unit consisting of Johnson, Donald Sloan, Bojan Bogdanovich, Brook Lopez and Andrea Bargnani, which may have been the worst defensive grouping in NBA history.
Bargnani on his own is so mercurial that I can sense that many Nets analysts will soon be using his name as an adjective and a verb in addition to a noun, similar to when Andray Blatche befuddled us during his two Brooklyn seasons.
The 7-foot Bargnani, who missed the entire preseason due to injuries after two desultory seasons in Manhattan, introduced himself to the sold-out Brooklyn audience by blowing a 3-foot layup. Over the course of the game, he attempted (and missed) a spinning 180-degree, over-the-head reverse shot from the middle of the paint; he air-balled a 3-pointer after being goaded by Bulls center Joakim Noah at the top of the key; and he had quite a view of multiple Bulls' scoring drives into the paint when he should have been attempting to help.
Bargnani also put up 17 points and 7 rebounds in just 22 minutes, so how can you judge whether he had a good or a bad game?
Hollis-Jefferson also felt there were areas in his game that weren't up to par.
"There were a couple of times I gave up some back-doors," he said. "A couple of times I let my man drive baseline, or not hearing the call correct. But it's part of basketball. You've got to keep playing hard and keep fighting through those mistakes that you make."
It's those mistakes that will likely keep Hollis-Jefferson from breaking into the starting lineup despite the Nets' obvious need for his particular skill set. Even though the analytics (Hollis-Jefferson was a plus-16 -- the next-best Net was reserve Thomas Robinson at plus-5 in a 14-minute sample size) and the eye test back up my thesis.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg came away impressed with Hollis-Jefferson.
"I think he's going to be a terrific player," Hoiberg said. "He's got great size and is a tough kid who can really defend. I think he's got a great future."
That future should start now.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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