Despite going 33-15 since Jan. 1, the Brooklyn Nets will end the 2013-14 season with a worse record than they had last season. Still, these Nets were a success. If this season’s team couldn't fully overcome a disastrous 10-21 start, it did accomplish something more meaningful than a higher seed: It found an identity.
Last season, the Nets were numbingly predictable. They routinely beat up on bad teams and faltered against tough competition. It wasn’t a question of character -- they played hard. For all of their veteran players, the Nets didn’t play like a clever, cagey team. Against the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, they were undone not by their willingness to battle on the boards with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, but by their inability to contain Marco Belinelli in the side pick-and-roll.
It wasn’t just the X’s and O’s. Last January, Howard Beck, then with The New York Times, wondered: “Who defines the Nets? Who is their driving force, their conscience, their soul?” In that same article, Beck referenced Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as players who offer their team definition. They stand for something, whether it’s Pierce’s pump-up-the-crowd bravado or Garnett’s manic intensity.
Now that Garnett and Pierce have joined the franchise, it’s hard not to notice the changed vibe in the Nets’ locker room. Before Deron Williams emerges from the showers, Pierce holds court, lobbing trash talk across the room at teammates, endearing himself to local media and fans with ready wit and a gravelly voice.
Garnett is something of a basketball mystic. In October he explained to reporters the benefits of a diversely talented team: “How you would write a story is different from how you would write a story or how this lady would write a story. You might be able to chug a gallon of milk quicker than she can. I don’t know. We all have our strengths, is the point I’m making.”
Brash, quirky and serious all at once. It’s that sort of vibe that connects the Nets with their fan base, as does a two-month home winning streak.
On the court, this comes through in the team’s unorthodox playing style: with a switching, reaching, deflecting defense (the Nets force turnovers more frequently than any team but the Heat and Wizards) and an offense that moves the ball and fires away from deep (the Nets have increased their 3-point attempts every month except one).
It’s that upward trend in 3-pointers and wins that reminds us of the elephant in the walking boot at the end of the bench. It’s working now, but the reality is this team wasn’t built with Pierce’s special brand of funky, stretch-4 hoops in mind. It was built for Brook Lopez, the best low-post scorer in the NBA.
Listed at 7 feet, 275 pounds, Lopez is a mammoth who almost always demands a double-team from 12 feet and in. Before he went down for the season with yet another foot injury, he had a 25.5 PER (which would rank seventh-best in the NBA) and career numbers in every meaningful offensive category. And at 26 years old, he’s still getting better.
But after breaking his right foot twice and missing 185 games in the past three seasons, it’s impossible not be skeptical about Lopez’s future with the Nets, especially with two more years and about $33 million left on his contract.
He was immensely valuable to last season’s squad, but removing Lopez from the equation this season clarified everything. Lopez is not a role player; he needs to ball to make a real impact. Even when he was playing well, catering to Lopez put players like Pierce in unfamiliar roles. All of Lopez's touches have been distributed among Nets shooters, while their big guards (Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston and Williams) take turns attacking mismatches on the low block Lopez used to occupy.
Lopez’s injury also made way for Mason Plumlee. The rookie forward is the type of high-flying, tip-dunking, LeBron-blocking big man that perfectly complements the Nets’ switching defense. To get the most out of Lopez, a team must slow it down and really grind out games through the post. Plumlee is simply a better fit for how the Nets are playing now on both ends.
Things are going well, but the question persists, even on the horizon of another likely first-round series with the Bulls: How long can the Nets pursue their current strategy?
Their opponent on Tuesday, the New York Knicks, know what a delicate brew good NBA chemistry can be. Last summer they lost Jason Kidd to retirement and replaced Chris Copeland and Steve Novak with lesser shooters who have hardly played in the second half of the season. After winning 54 games and the East’s No. 2 seed last season, the Knicks this year will watch the first round from home.
There are no guarantees that Brooklyn’s current run of strong play will continue, with or without Lopez. The Nets aren’t exactly spilling over with young talent. Pierce and Garnett will be out of the league well before Lopez turns 30. Livingston’s injury struggles are well-documented, and Andrei Kirilenko hasn’t played 70 games since 2008.
The Nets could consider moving Lopez to upgrade their talent on the wings or improve long-term roster flexibility. Would post game-centric Denver be willing to trade Danilo Gallinari and a pick for a premier post presence? Would a couple of first-round picks get it done? The Nets have only one of those in the next three drafts.
When the Nets went “all in” by bringing in high-priced aging talent, the assumption was that Pierce & Co. were a luxury, but worth it. Overpriced, sure, but they would be a vital upgrade. Instead, they’ve contributed to a philosophical overhaul. In more ways than one, the Nets got more than they bargained for.