Saturday, February 16, 2013

Brooklyn Nets: A First Half Struggle For Respect

From the desk of:   THE HOOPS OF FLATBUSH

BROOKLYN NETS - It's Halftime At Barclays Center.

For the denizens of Kings County who aren't familiar with the NBA calendar, this is called All-Star weekend.  The first half of Brooklyn's inaugural season as a member club of the National Basketball Association is complete.  In his fourth full season on the court, Brook Lopez will be the Nets lone representative in this season's mid-winter hardwood classic.  Brook Lopez is currently the NBA's highest scoring center, averaging nineteen points per game.  Not incidentally, he is also the Nets highest scorer.  The big man is averaging 7.4 RPG, and 2.2 blocks this season.

As for the rest of the Nets, over the first half of the season, they are either still learning how to play with one another, or, they are a very flawed team.  The truth probably lies somewhere in between.  But for now, many are calling the Nets merely the best of the rest.  And it is hard to argue with that assessment.  They have defeated damn near every team (18-2) with a sub .500 record.  However, against the league's better clubs and contenders, the Nets have struggled mightily.  Against them, they have only achieved a 13-20 record.  That places a distinct cloud over Brooklyn's playoff aspirations.

The Nets enter the break with a 31-22 (.585) record on the season.  They currently occupy second place in the Atlantic Division, 2.5 games behind the New York Knicks.  Brooklyn is the fourth seed behind the division leaders in the Eastern Conference standings, and one half game better than the Chicago Bulls.  The Brooks have a 16-8 record under P.J. Carlesimo.  With three more victories, the Nets will tie a five-season high, when they last won thirty four games back in the 2008-2009 regular season.  They won a combined forty six games in their last two seasons in Newark, and fifty eight games in the last three.  This season, Brooklyn stands a chance to win fifty games.  Twenty nine games remain in the regular season.  The Nets are 18-2 versus teams with sub .500 records. Seventeen of their remaining games will come against them.

So where do the Nets go from here?  For Mikhail Prokhorov, that is the billion dollar question.  The Nets are at the exact mid-point of the owner's five year plan.  From here on out, it is playoffs or bust.  Most feel the Nets are indeed a post-season contender, but question how far can they go.  That could be problematic for a few people.  In dismissing Avery Johnson himself after being named coach of the month in November, the owner offered a glimpse as to how much autonomy may really exist under him.  Therefore, Mikhail Prokhorov's doomsday clock is ticking on Billy King's reign, and his Lugs of Flatbush. 

The Lugs of Flatbush are a slow, plodding, deliberate, team.  When they face the right opponent, they thrive playing a half court game and crashing the boards, which they do very well by the way.  They like to look for Brook Lopez down low, and usually outscore their opponents in the paint.  When they get that going, they then let the mid-range jumpers and three-pointers fly.  But when the Nets play against up-tempo teams, and can't slow them down, and get forced into playing transition basketball, they look lethargic.  Truth is, Brooklyn has no transition game, or quickness out of their starters, to speak of.  Even when the Nets do play their style of basketball, they are still a wildly erratic shooting team from the field.  From game to game, from half to half, and especially from quarter to quarter, they suffer horrible bouts of inconsistency, not just in their shooting percentage, but through lapses in defensive play as well.  As Deron Williams intimated very recently, that's when the finger pointing starts and team cohesion leaves the building.  Both Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace have been very vocal regarding their team mates' attitudes, moods, and effort.  And were it not for consecutive wins over Indiana and Denver, that is where the first half leaves off.  It is not entirely fair to speak that disparagingly of them however.  Just when they get embarrassed by the better teams around the league, they respond with a #5 overall ranked defensive effort, and change the running conversation again; as they did with the previously noted victories over Indiana and Denver.

Those last two wins incidentally came without Deron Williams on the floor.  The Nets point guard will not be participating in this year's all-star game, not because he is currently nursing two ailing ankles.  Instead, he will not be playing because he is arguably under-performing this season.  Deron's current 7.6 assist per game average is his lowest mark since his 2005-06 rookie year.  Between 2006-07 and the year he was traded to the Nets, Deron averaged 10.3 assists per game.  In his first season with the Nets (12 games after the trade), he averaged twelve assists a game.  Over the last season an a half, he has only averaged 8.1 assists per game.  Deron Williams clearly then, needs to do a better job distributing the ball.  More, he needs to start playing like the star guard the Nets thought they were acquiring from Utah.  That may sound harsh, for Deron seems only a slight adjustment away from playing to that level.  But he has been the first to admit his short-comings.  This is not the first time Deron Williams is dealing with ankle issues.  So his situation warrants more observation.

But you don't need binoculars to see his points are down this season as well. After averaging twenty points per game the last two seasons, Deron is currently only averaging 16.7  points per game - his lowest average since his second year in the league.  In his season and a half as the Nets point guard, Williams has posted the worst two FG% of his career.  He was a .463% shooter with Utah.  With the Nets, Deron Williams FG% has dropped to a .389 mark.  I am not necessarily holding the Nets last season in New Jersey against his record.  But with Billy King's revamped roster heading into this season, the case for Deron Williams weakened.  Bettering their shooting percentage alone will improve the team's overall fortunes immeasurably.  Deron Williams is a part of that.

But a few more things need to happen before the Nets are considered true Eastern Conference contenders.  Among them, the other half of Brooklyn's pricey back-court needs to exert himself just a little more than he does.  Outside of his contract, Joe Johnson is a hard guy to knock.  He has proven to be a clutch shooter.  He has won games with last second shots.  No problem there.  However, Joe needs to establish more of a presence throughout the game like he did against the Denver Nuggets recently, with nine assists and twenty six points.  At thirty-one years of age, the Nets may never get the shooter he was in Atlanta.  But Joe Johnson is not old, and should be closer to that player than he is.  In his last two seasons with the Hawks, he averaged eighteen points a game.  In the five seasons prior to that, Joe was a twenty-plus point scorer.  In his first season with the Nets, albeit in a shared back-court role with Williams, Joe Johnson is averaging 17.0 points per game.  And as with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson's shooting percentage has slipped since joining the team.  He was a 45% shooter in seven seasons with the Hawks.  This season, Johnson is shooting 42% - his lowest mark in ten years.

The Nets have done respectable work on the glass.  They rank 15th in the NBA in rebounding, pulling down 42.2 per game.  Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche have that covered off the bench.  At the point, C.J. Watson did admirable work in D-Will's absence against the Nuggets.  He pumped twenty five points into the Nets win, and also had six assists.

Even though the Nets scored a season high 119 points against Denver, they can stand to add a consistent outside shooter.  The NBA trade deadline is February 21st.  The Nets apparently seem anxious to rid themselves of Kris Humphries and his contract.  He clearly has not been the player the Nets thought they signed to a two year deal.  Truth is, he was an able player, playing huge minutes on a bad team.  With better players around him now, he has struggled to smooth out his game, and find a niche, or fill a role.  Word is, the Nets are reluctant to part with Mirza Teletovic.  Trade rumors involving the Nets and Lakers, and the future of Dwight Howard still have not gone away.  The Lakers' GM has stated they will not be trading their star center.  Due to the Nets cap situation, if Howard still indeed wants to play for Brooklyn, a trade is the only way to make that happen.  In light of the way Brook Lopez has developed, the Nets just might be inclined to stay put regardless of what Dwight Howard wants.

Enjoy the All-Star game, and let's go Brook Lopez.


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