Here's Part Two of The Artist Formerly Known As China Joe's Atlantic Division Preview series. Enjoy. -Seth
The entirety of human history has been shaped by a series of large-scale migrations - the Native Americans, the Huns and, more recently, the Nets. Recent evidence from archaeological digs has shown that the Nets migrated from the New Jersey area sometime around the year two-aught-twelve, AD, perhaps in search of more grazing land for the vast herds of goats. Fashioning rudimentary canoes out of tree bark and seal skins, navigating by the stars, they crossed the treacherous waters of the New York Bay, landing at last in the Promised Land of Brooklyn.
And Brooklyn is certainly happy to have the Nets. For too long Brooklyn was the only borough without a team - the Bronx had the Yankees, Queens had the Mets, Manhattan had the Knicks and Rangers, even Staten Island had the Wu-Tang Clan. To their credit, the Nets didn't choose some bush-league hedge of a name like a certain baseball team out west - calling themselves The Brooklyn Nets of the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut Tri-State Area or something like that. Instead, the Nets are doubling down on the whole Brooklyn angle, even co-opting the history of the Brooklyn Dodgers with their "first home game since 1957" posters. Most of us are too young to have seen the Brooklyn Dodgers play in person, but thankfully their memory lives on, since every single Brooklynite born between 1920 and 1950 has produced a documentary, book, or at least a New Yorker piece about the greatest fans in the history of the world and their hallowed temple of Ebbets Field. We're talking about fans so passionate and loyal that their owner moved the team to LA because he couldn't draw fans to watch a team that had been to six of the past ten World Series - that's love, people. Now, thanks to gentrification, a Russian billionaire and a rapper who is essentially a broke-ass Steve Novak, the Nets are moving into a billion-dollar, rust-colored arena named after a bank currently embroiled in the LIBOR price-fixing scandal. Brooklyn is back, baby!
How did last year's Nets fare in their season-long production of "Jersey Swan Song," their sequel to the Broadway smash "Jersey Boys?" Not particularly well; in fact, I'd wager even die-hard Net fans would have preferred tickets to "Jersey Boys" (my mom loved it!) The Nets finished dead last in the Atlantic, at 22-44. Brook Lopez was lost to injury early in the season. Deron Williams underperformed. On the court, they achieved a fairly impressive balance, finishing 23rd in the NBA in offensive efficiciency and 28th in defensive efficiency. Even their season highlight - Deron Williams 38-point f-u to Linsanity in late February - would have left a bitter taste in my mouth as a Nets fan. Congratulations, Deron, you showed the world that you, an Olympic gold medal-winning perennial all-star, are better than an undrafted kid who had already been released twice. Do you want a cookie? GO OUT AND PLAY LIKE THAT EVERY NIGHT! They finished off their season by losing their last six games, a tank job that was surely appreciated in Portland, since the Nets had sent the Blazers their first-rounder a few weeks earlier in the Gerald Wallace deal.
But all that has changed! They resigned Deron Williams, they resigned Gerald Wallace. They traded for Joe Johnson. They're getting Brook Lopez back after a season lost to a foot injury. More importantly, this team is hungry, this team is jacked-up. ARFF! Read a Nets season preview and you'll here about how revitalized Deron Williams will be this year; now he's got the guys he wanted, and all of them are ready to go out there are prove the haterz wrong. There's a buzz to this team, a real oomph, zing, zork, kapowza - call it whatever you want, in any language it spells mazuma in the bank.
There is a problem, however, with trying to predict a team's performance based on such ethereal qualities as "buzz" and "zork." I know these talented players who are excited to play together, and moving from an arena that last in attendance in '11-'12 to a brand-spanking-new palace full of rowdy fans can have a positive impact. Still, it's funny how quickly buzz can turn into pressure and unrealistic expectations. Coach Avery Johnson has already gone on record saying that the Nets aren't title contenders yet, a statement that might have sounded strange a few years ago coming from the coach of a last-place team. Welcome to today's NBA.
Which Net faces the most pressure this season? His story is well-known to basketball fans around the world. After an appearance in the NCAA championship game he was drafted third overall by a Western Conference team. He quickly developed into a star, leading his team to the Western Conference Finals and playing in the 2008 Olympics. Craving a larger market, he forced a trade to a New York-area team at the 2011 trade deadline, earning a reputation as a petulant coach-killer in the process. His first season in the New York area was sub-par by his standards, but he has rededicated himself this off-season, playing once again on the US Olympic team and promising to anyone who will listen that next season will be different.
...but enough about Carmelo Anthony...
Wait! All of those things apply to Deron Williams as well. The only difference between the two last season was Deron still had the leverage of his impending free-agency. Well, that leverage is gone. If he wants to know how New York fans deal with star players who under-perform in the first year of a long-term deal, I'm sure he's got Melo's number. Last season Deron's FG% and assists per 36 minutes dropped to their worst levels since his rookie season, while his turnovers per 36 minutes climbed to 3.9, his highest ever. It's hard not to see those numbers rebounding given all the firepower he now has at his disposal, but if they don't I'm sure someone will let him know.
Joining Deron in the backcourt is the recently-acquired Joe Johnson. Unfortunately for him, Johnson is now seen by most fans as some kind of Borg-like hybrid monster: half basketball player, half terrible contract. It is important to remember, however, that after the tip-off his contract becomes irrelevant, and that Joe Johnson is still one of the better two-guards in the East. Gerald Wallace is a damn fine defender and rebounder who can play both forward positions. I like Gerald Wallace, I'm sad he's a Net.
The Nets clearly have one of the best backcourts in the NBA. Championships, however, are rarely won in the backcourt. Almost every NBA champion has had a defensive anchor in the middle - the only exception being teams with a core of defensive freak of nature wing players like the Lebron-Wade and Pippen-Jordan combos. The Nets do not have that anchor. They certainly tried - they had been linked to Dwight Howard for what seemed like an eternity. They just couldn't overcome the simple truth that God loves the Lakers and hates the rest of us. With Howard, the Nets are a championship-caliber team; without Howard, they are not.
The Nets responded to the disappointment of losing Howard by signing Brook Lopez to a 4-year, $60 million deal. Brook is lucky that his one basketball skill - scoring - just happens to be the money skill. He can't defend, and his rebounding has devolved from bad to pathetic. He averaged 6.1 rebounds per 36 minutes during his last full season - to compare, Jason Kidd averaged 7.0 rebounds per 36 minutes during his seven-year tenure with the Nets. Last time I checked, Jason Kidd wasn't quite seven feet tall.
Rounding out the Nets' starting five is Kris Humphries - quality rebounder and the most hated man in America. I must say, I don't really understand all the Kris Humphries hate. I am aware of his TV show and sham wedding, but while all that stuff was going on back in America my wife was making me watch a Thai soap opera dubbed into Mandarin starring a talking golden retriever named Hengdu. The trade-off, I guess, is that every other American wants to boo Kris Humphries and I just want to laugh every time I see a golden retriever move its mouth. I feel incredibly lucky.
The Nets could be in trouble if any of their big-five goes down, because their bench is dreadful. They're praying to the basketball gods that MarShon Brooks shoots better, cuts down on the turnovers and turns himself into a quality sixth man, because if he doesn't they're in a lot of trouble. They signed Jerry Stackhouse, who apparently is still in the league. Good for him. They recently signed Josh Childress - sure, he averaged 2.9 PPG last year and got himself amnestied by the Suns, but he also played in Greece, so the Nets know he already has a passport. No problems entering Canada for Josh Childress! And let's not forget Andray Blatche!
In all likelihood, the Nets will go as far as their defense takes them. I think it's a little ironic that their team looks more like Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns than anything D'Antoni ever had with the Knicks - an elite point guard (Williams), talented scoring big (Lopez), versatile forward in the Shawn Marion mold (Wallace) and a shooter named Joe Johnson (Joe Johnson). I think D'Antoni would've had a lot of fun with this team...at least until he ran all of the starters into the ground because of their total lack of a bench. Give the Nets front office this: they're committing to defense, at least as far as the coach is concerned. Avery Johnson is known as a grind-it-out defensive coach. His Nets teams have finished 24th and 23rd in the NBA in pace during his two seasons at the bench. Will this year's team play more of an up-tempo game? Do they have the pieces to transform themselves into a quality defense? He certainly has his work cut out for him.
As you may have heard, the Knicks and Nets don't have to wait very long to resume hostilities. They'll play on opening night - Nov. 1, at the LIBOR Center. For the Nets, this is the biggest opening game in team history. For the Knicks, this is the biggest opening game since...last year, against the Celtics. The winner will be showered with praise; the loser will be taunted and booed until my throat is sore.