NEW YORK -- Last season, the Brooklyn Nets were a team without an identity.
Maybe it’s not exactly the identity the Nets thought they’d have, but it’s helped them tally the best record in the Eastern Conference (26-10) since the new year.
It all started when Brook Lopez was lost to a season-ending broken foot Dec. 20 in Philadelphia. Then, on New Year's Day in Oklahoma City, Nets coach Jason Kidd inserted Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup alongside Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
You see, going small has helped the Nets win big.
Since Jan. 1, the Nets rank first in percentage of opponents' possessions that end in turnovers (18.8) and sixth in defensive rating -- yielding just 101.7 points per 100 possessions.
Can’t rebound? No problem. Just have active hands, get deflections and come away with as many steals as possible to make up for it.
And on offense? Exploit every mismatch as often as possible, and make sure to move the ball from one side of the floor to the other. More passing, less dribbling.
Having players like Livingston, Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko -- players who don’t have to score to make an impact -- makes running this type of system a whole lot easier.
Asked to describe his team, Nets GM Billy King said: "I think it’s the way we play defensively, switching a lot on the perimeter, so you have guys that are very versatile. Probably versatile guys that can play defense, that are unselfish offensively, where the ball is moving in a free-flowing offense."
The Nets are 10-2 in their past 12 games. Garnett has missed the past 11, but the Nets haven’t missed a beat. Rookie Mason Plumlee has stepped up in his place, and the Nets have survived just fine without their defensive anchor, allowing 100 or more points just once in his absence.
"It’s been beautiful to watch and beautiful to be a part of," Johnson said. "It’s a great feeling that we can be playing so well so late in the season. This is what you would want. This would be the ideal situation as a team. It has been pretty good for us, but we are not satisfied."
The Nets don’t just have a $190 million roster. They have a $190 million identity to go with it.
"I thought this was the window we have to try to make a run," King said. "But I think some of the young guys have developed, we’ve made some trades to add some young guys and the biggest thing I think is with [coach] Jason [Kidd]. Now we have a system of how we’re going to play, an identity. So now, in putting a team together, I know which players to add to it. That’s something we’ve been searching for for a while, is getting an identity."