Can Hollins forge a new path for Nets?

New Nets coach Lionel Hollins must figure out a new identity in the team's third year in Brooklyn. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

At this time last year, the question in Brooklyn was whether the Nets’ old roster could stay healthy enough to make an impact in the postseason. Not whether they’d make it, mind you. That seemed a foregone conclusion after the team mortgaged its future to add Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to its pricey veteran core.

Expectations were quickly recalibrated once the Nets struggled out of the gate and Brook Lopez was lost for the season, but an Eastern Conference championship, even with Miami’s big three still in tact and boasting the past three East titles, at that time seemed within the realm of possibility.

Today, no one is looking at the Nets as a contender. After the offseason departures of Jason Kidd and Pierce, and the recent injury setback to Lopez, the question this season is whether Lionel Hollins, the franchise’s fourth head coach since the move onto Flatbush Avenue and into the NBA conversation in 2012, can forge some semblance of an identity from the remnants of last season’s all-in approach.

Hollins’ history is a mixed bag. His Memphis teams stressed defense first, with offenses that were below average. In training camp Hollins crowed that the Grizzlies players who ended up making first and second all-NBA defense teams weren’t known as shut-down defenders until he started coaching them.

Is what Tony Allen does really something you can coach? Is the way Marc Gasol moves 7-feet and 260 pounds to stymie a point guard something anyone can learn?

We’re about to find out.

It would be a mistake to expect Lopez to cover ground like Gasol, or anyone in the Nets backcourt to chase, harry and disrupt like Allen and Mike Conley. Hollins’ system in Memphis was a team effort, but it relied on superb individual defenders controlling one-on-one matchups. In contrast, last season’s Nets defended best when they switched with abandon, squeezing their opponents up against the shot clock as the offense searched for an opening against interchangeable defenders. Deflections, turnovers and long possessions: The effects were similar, the methods divergent.

Will Hollins follow in Kidd’s footsteps? It sounds like he is advocating the same all-out pressure and physicality he did in Memphis. “We want to make it so every possession is so hard that when we get to the last four or five minutes of a game, shots that may have been going in now start falling short because they’re tired, or because they’re getting lazy with passes, maybe they don’t execute as well and we get steals. It’s a process for 48 minutes.”

But is such a style sustainable in Brooklyn? It is a fool’s errand to expect his Nets, who may not start a single player under 30, to play with the same defensive energy as his much younger Grizzlies did. Back-to-backs, road trips and customary bumps and bruises that accompany the 82-game season will simply wear more on the Nets older joints. You just aren’t getting more than 20-25 minutes a night of all-out effort from Garnett these days.

Ironically, Hollins’ reputation for uninventive offensive tactics may not be much of a problem in Brooklyn. In Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, the Nets have three of the best post players at their respective positions. You could do worse than running something simple to get one of those three the opportunity to go to work from the mid post. Of course, you could also do better, do more.

That’s sort of where the Nets as a whole stand right now. You could do worse than what they have. Johnson is still a heck of a two-way player. Lopez, if healthy, is entering his prime and was wrecking opposing frontlines before he hurt his foot. Whether Williams ever recovers the burst that made him a superstar, he’s still a solid two-way guard.

But with the Nets’ obscenely bloated payroll and the attractiveness of the New York market to players around the league, you could also do a whole lot better. There’s little inspiration in the borough that is the creative hub of the world’s most powerful city. No draft picks, no projects, no imagination.

Pierce, who said the Nets told him they were not interested in chasing a championship this year, put it this way: “They're kind of in the middle right now. And I really didn't want to be in the middle.”

GM Billy King was more bullish. “Our goal is still to try to win a championship,” King said. “We're not taking steps back or anything like that.”

In broad terms, that may be true. But with owner Mikhail Prokhorov reportedly exploring selling his majority stake in the team, and yet another coach looking to reshape things, it’s hard to see how the Nets can move forward. Instead of championships, simply establishing an identity and culture that can last for more than eight months would count as a success.