Projected record: 45-37 (5th in East)
Head coach: Lionel Hollins
2013-14 record: 44-38
2013-14 ORtg: 104.4 (14th)
2013-14 DRtg: 104.9 (19th)
Players in: Lionel Hollins (coach), Bojan Bogdanovic, Markel Brown, Jarrett Jack, Cory Jefferson, Sergey Karasev, Jerome Jordan (camp), Willie Reed (camp)
Players out: Jason Kidd (coach), Andray Blatche, Shaun Livingston, Paul Pierce, Marcus Thornton
Projected Starting Lineup: Deron Williams, Alan Anderson, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez
Look, we’re not fooling anybody: nobody knows where this team’s going to end up.
It’s been a summer of reflection and re-tooling for the Nets, who went all-in on a promise to bring a championship to Brooklyn at any cost — seriously, any absurd, luxury-tax-bill-higher-than-every-other-team’s-total-salary cost — before undergoing the weirdest Nets season in recent memory: an awful 10-21 start with their star-studded lineup, the loss of their core big man for the season to a foot injury, a complete reinvention into a havoc-wreaking long-ball team, and a second-round exit to the Eastern Conference Champions that met only their late-season expectations.
It started worse than you remember. Call it hubris, call it inefficiency, call it whatever: after crowing championship for most of preseason, the Nets stunk to high Greenpoint for the first two months, stumbling to 10-21 before turning it around by revamping the very nature of basketball, flipping the court inside out by posting up their guards and spreading their big men.
But the key components that transformed the Nets from lottery to longball are out. Gone is heart and soul and Kyle Lowry stopper Paul Pierce, who left for presidential pastures and joined the Washington Wizards on a two-year deal. Gone is lanky guard-of-all-trades Shaun Livingston, who picked up a $16 million deal with the Golden State Warriors seven years after missing out on a big contract due to a horrific knee injury. Ditto for Andray Blatche, who didn’t have much of a hand in longball but was arguably the best scoring big man off the bench in the league. Amidst rumors of a partying spirit and poor conditioning, Blatche entertained a grand total of zero NBA offers, and ended up signing a five-month deal in China.
So why did our panel predict a one-game improvement in the standings? Well, for one, we’re probably homers. (Sorry.) But there’s also room for hope here. The Nets are now returning to a core of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson, a core that won 49 regular season games just two seasons ago. Surrounding their new-old “Big 3” is a horde of shooters: Jarrett Jack, Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic, rookie Bojan Bogdanovic, and Sergey Karasev can all fill it up from three-point range, and Kevin Garnett has comfortable range out to 18 feet.
There’s also the upgrade at coach. The impact of any one coach can be overstated, and even the most vocal Kidd critic would admit that the team gelled under him down the stretch in his lone season. But Hollins brings a coaching pedigree that Kidd just can’t replicate, and is comfortable instilling a system his way: Hollins wants to run a flow-heavy offense akin to Jerry Sloan’s in Utah, so much so that Deron Williams allegedly gave tips to the other point guards about how to run it.
Though Hollins’s offense will be under scrutiny all season — especially if Deron Williams scores under 15 points per game in it again — he’s known as a defensive-minded coach after molding some of the league’s best defenses in Memphis. On that end, it’s all about the Hollins, Garnett, and Lopez connection. Hollins has made no secret about his desire to go “big” with his Nets lineup, and a Garnett-Lopez pairing could pack the paint against teams that want to go inside. That lineup could struggle against teams that want to spread the floor, but it’s a tradeoff either way, and neither Garnett nor Lopez is sitting on the bench to start a game unless it’s in a suit.
But if you think you’re sure that this team is either lottery-bound or Finals-bound, you’re fooling yourself. Health is a fickle friend, and every ankle surgery in the world won’t save Williams if he twists sideways on a bad fall, or Lopez if his foot realignment doesn’t shift enough weight from his shaky fifth metatarsal. Implementing a new system sounds good when the last one only worked on a whim, but forgets that the Nets tried implementing a system for two months last year to no avail. The Nets are experienced veterans, or just old, depending on your vantage point. Lionel Hollins has already strung more coherent sentences together than his predecessor, but that won’t matter if the Nets can’t defend the perimeter. Even though he’s gone, this team is more like Andray Blatche than ever: all reason and rationale goes out the window when the train starts, and you just hope it ends without anyone getting hurt.
So we’re optimistic. A fifth seed makes sense, and 45-37 is smack in the realm of possibility with this core semi-healthy and competent coach. But swing this one ten games in either direction, and you’re not getting any disagreements.