Tuesday, April 8, 2014

NBA Team of the Week: The Bizarre Season in Brooklyn

After one of the strangest NBA seasons in recent memory, the Brooklyn Nets just might end up as title contenders.

The Brooklyn Nets may be having the weirdest season in the NBA this year. There are obviously a few other teams in the running for that “accolade”: the Knicks and their ongoing misery and disarray, the Milwaukee Bucks who have managed to be even worse than the 76ers somehow, and the Los Angeles Lakers and their odd assortment of “talent”. However, the Nets and their wild swing from title favorites, to awful, to “hey maybe they can beat slumping Indiana in the second round” has been bizarre in and of itself.

Remember when they demoted Lawrence Frank to writing daily reports? Remember when Paul Pierce wandered listlessly through the first half of the season? Remember when Brook Lopez broke his foot and you wondered whether or not Deron Williams was actually a good player (and kind of still are)? How about when you noticed that Jason Kidd’s terrible beard kind of made him look like Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (R.I.P. James Avery)? Yep, that all happened in a few mere months.

But after starting 10-21, the Nets have gone 32-13 and now sit as the number five seed in the Eastern Conference. Their turnaround came on January 2 after a spirited 95-93 win against the Oklahoma City in Oklahoma thanks to a Joe Johnson buzzer beater. The Nets finished with a 10-3 record in January and clawed their way back into playoff contention using a mixture of improved defensive focus, veteran leadership (once Paul Pierce realized that playing in Brooklyn was reality and not just a bad nightmare), and using lineups with long, versatile players that caused bad matchups for the opposition.

Even though the Nets are seeded fifth in the East, their rankings show a team well below league average in a variety of areas on offense. They are 20th in points per game, 29th in rebounds per game, and 23rd in assists per game.  However, overall, they are an above average shooting team. Their effective field goal percentage is 51.4%, which is good for eighth in the league and their 37% from three point range is the tenth best in the NBA.  However, over their last ten games they have upped their scoring average to 106.5 points per game which is a top ten rate and their 49% field goal percentage is good for best in the league over that span.

On defense, they are ninth in points allowed, but everywhere else they are very middle of the road. The allow opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 50.6% (16th in the league), 8.1 made three pointers per game (20th), and send opposing players to the line an average of 24.8 times per game (22nd in the league).

So, even though Brooklyn’s offense may be improving as we head to the Playoffs, their defense needs a larger overall improvement, which could come with Kevin Garnett’s recent return to the lineup. As Nets Daily points out, Garnett’s historic defensive instincts have not left him even as he has missed extended time.

But the Nets are worrying teams. They are 3-0 Miami this season in three very close games.  Their overall depth is impressive. If Kidd can effectively manage Garnett’s minutes, he will have a formidable trio of big men in Garnett, Mason Plumlee and Andray Blatche that brings a diverse skill sets to the court. Garnett can start the first few minutes of each half and give way to Mason Plumlee, who has been starting and developing nicely in Garnett’s absence. While Blatche can continue to play with the second unit players such as floor spacer Mirza Teletovic, jack of all trades Andrei Kirlenko, and mid-season addition Marcus Thornton.

The Playoffs are all about setting rotations and then making adjustments to those rotations as strategically and logically as possible. Kidd has a lot of diverse players to toy with: Blatche, Teletovic, Garnett and Plumlee are all big men that can be used in a variety of ways; Joe Johnson is a bad matchup for most two guards and can go toe-to-toe with all small forwards; Pierce has lost a step to handle elite level small forwards, but when used as power forward he can cause plenty of mismatches. Kirilenko is the perfect glue guy; and the backcourt of Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston (whose success ispossibly the best player story in the league this year) creates a nice mixture of strength and length as well as two point guards who won’t get flustered in crunch time. Well, depending on how you feel about Williams.

If the Playoffs started today, the Nets and Bulls would have a rematch of their legendarily boring seven game first round series from last year.  I for one am hoping that the Bulls pass Toronto for the three seed, so that Brooklyn and Toronto face off in the four/five match-up. The two teams have played four close games this season, including a pair of thrillers, one in Brooklyn and one in Toronto. I would much rather see a potential seven game series that features the scrappy Raptors taking on the veteran, “we’ve already been through enough shit this year, we’re not losing to some Canadian upstarts” late season version of the Nets than I would watch another rock fight with Noah and Garnett glaring at each other and everyone crying about how ugly the basketball is. Besides, I want to see the Bulls play the Wizards, just so I can see what happens when John Wall tries to run Noah and the rest of the Chicago defense off the court with his insane speed.

The Nets aren’t going to win an NBA Title this year. I don’t know if I buy into the recent hype that they may be able this weakened, dysfunctional version of Indiana or possibly even Miami. But they are rounding into shape and finding their odd identity at the right time. And their season has already been so strange, that them pulling an upset and making a 2012 Celtics type run to the Eastern Conference Finals wouldn’t be shocking in the least.

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