New Jersey Nets Season Preview: I’m clueless, and so are you

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The 2011-12 New Jersey Nets season kicks off in a little over five hours. Here’s what we do know.

The points

The Nets boast, at worst, the third-best point guard in the league in Deron Williams, and two quality backups behind him. No one will argue that Jordan Farmar and Sundiata Gaines are starters, but as your second and third point guards, they add up to a deep point guard slot.

Despite his wrist injury last season, Deron put up averages of 20 points & 10 assists for the first time in his career. He’s the catalyst of the franchise’s offense, its de facto leader, and the unofficial assistant to the assistant GM. At full health, he’s a top-10 player in the NBA.

The Nets ran a fair amount of sets with two point guards, though they’ve bolstered the wings enough to temper that possibility going forward. With Deron likely playing anywhere from 35-40 minutes each night, both Farmar and Gaines are both expendable should the Nets seek a trade or buyout.

Grade: A

The wings

The Nets have five guys in the wing rotation. Anthony Morrow will start the season as the starting shooting guard, with DeShawn Stevenson and MarShon Brooks backing him up; at small forward, you’ll see Damion James on day one, with Shawne Williams also playing minutes at the 3. In my opinion, ideally they’d all come off the bench.

It’s a series of “but’s.” Morrow is probably the best player here on his shooting alone, and will be open forever next to Deron Williams, but he ranks as one of the worst defenders in the NBA. James is nothing if not insanely active at all times on both ends of the floor, but I’m still not sure what you can get out of him over the course of a full season. Shawne Williams came into his own with New York last season after a year away from the NBA, but needs to sustain it over a full season. Brooks has some serious scoring skills, but is still an unproven rookie who won’t be ready right away. DeShawn Stevenson brings a championship pedigree, but hasn’t had a true shooting percentage over 50% in three seasons and shot 28.2% — yes, 28.2% — from the field in 2009-10.

Finding a wing to put next to D-Will that can create his own shot and play competent defense isn’t the Nets’ biggest priority, but it’s up there. MarShon Brooks has an outside chance of becoming that guy, but that won’t happen immediately, if at all. Until then, the Nets will do what they can with what they’ve got.

Grade: C-

The bigs

Fresh off the news that Brook Lopez was out at least six weeks with a foot injury (more on that in a bit), the Nets wasted no time in acquiring Mehmet Okur from the Utah Jazz for a 2015 second-round pick. If fully healthy — and it appears he is — Okur can shoot from 3, grabs an unspectacular but solid amount of rebounds, and is a heady offensive player.

Speaking of rebounds, Kris Humphries is back on a one-year deal, after a breakout year in which he shot 53% from the field and grabbed over 22% of all available rebounds on the floor. Of course, he’s also the most disliked player in the NBA. Given the boos he heard at Madison Square Garden, I’d say that’s accurate.

The depth chart is wide open after those two — Shelden Williams will see a fair amount of playing time, Johan Petro is an Avery wild card, and the two rookies — Jordan Williams and training camp invitee Dennis Horner — may see some time as well. Expect Damion James and Extra E to get some time at the 4 during small-ball lineups, too. When Brook comes back, expect a four-man rotation including Humphries, Okur, and Shelden Williams, with less frequent small-ball lineups.

Grade: Incomplete

The staff

Avery Johnson has upgraded his coaching staff, adding former NBA player Mario Elie and former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo. Each has a different role with Avery — Elie’s there more for advance scouting for upcoming games and working with the guards, while Carlesimo is more of a “voice on the bench” to help guide Avery with in-game decisions. Popeye Jones, Tom Barrise, and Doug Overton also all return to the bench.

Everyone involved with the staff has raved about Avery’s commitment, system, and vision for the franchise. He’s looking to build, up and out, from Newark to Brooklyn. Now, as far as results go, all we can say is that Avery’s led one Nets team to a 24-58 record. But this year’s opportunity is different. We’ll see.

Grade: B

The scheme

Avery’s on record as saying that the Nets will run many more pick-and-rolls this year, though that information came before the Brook Lopez injury. He also highlighted the use of off-ball flare screens as a big component of this year’s offense, a natural fit with Deron Williams and Anthony Morrow. However, Avery says his is a type of system that adjusts to the personnel they’ve got on the floor, and not the other way around. So without Lopez, we’ll definitely see some different looks.

His goal? To put the Nets in the top half of the league offensively.

Defensively, Avery stresses the same basic tenets that any coach at any level stresses: a commitment to physical man defense, rebounding, protecting the paint, and forcing turnovers. That last one is the biggest hill to climb: the Nets ranked worst in the NBA in opponent turnover percentage last season.

The injury

As we’re all aware by now, Brook Lopez went under the knife and had a screw inserted into his right foot, following a fracture of the fifth metatarsal. The last time the Nets played a quarter without Brook Lopez, George W. Bush was President, DeSagana Diop was a Nets starter, the Detroit Pistons went 59-23, and the Seattle Supersonics were still a thing. It’s been a while.

Luckily, the prognosis looks good — the surgery was a success, and his twin brother who suffered the same injury was back on the court in less than two months. But for these two months, the Nets have to re-write the playbook, which may turn out as a good thing: having players like Okur, Extra E, Morrow, et al allows for a wide array of schemes centered around off-ball screens and floor spacing.

But until mid-February — at least — the Nets won’t have their second-best player. That hurts, no matter how you reinvent the roster.

The outlook

The Nets are a team of constant turnover. Three years ago, the Nets’ opening night starting 5 consisted of Devin Harris, Vince Carter, Bobby Simmons, X, and Josh Boone. Two years ago, it was Harris, Courtney Lee, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Yi Jianlian, and Brook Lopez. Last year, Harris, Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, Joe Smith, and Lopez. Monday night, you’ll see Deron Williams and Morrow for sure, with Damion James, Kris Humphries, and Mehmet Okur likely filling out the frontcourt. And that lineup could change in an instant.

I’m not confident about anything about the Nets this year, good or bad. They could win anywhere between 10 and 40 games and I wouldn’t blink. So much depends on Deron’s focus level, his ability to make his teammates better, and then their ability to rise to the occasion.

When the offense is clicking, they’ve got the chance to be phenomenal. When it’s not… we’re in for some ugly basketball.

We also, for at least a couple of months, have a new-look team. They haven’t been without Brook Lopez for a single game since 2008, and while Mehmet Okur and Johan Petro are the centers, they’re not interior players on Lopez’s level. They don’t have a single “true” center on the roster, giving Avery Johnson the opportunity to try smaller, quicker lineups that a Lopez-based offense doesn’t allow for.

An offense with D-Will and Morrow on the wings, Shawne Williams at small forward, and Okur and Humphries as the bigs opens up a number of opportunities offensively. A high-low game with Okur and Humphries, with off-ball screens for Extra E and Morrow to get open looks on the wings, opens up a number of scoring opportunities. Okur’s three-point range also means solid pick-and-pop opportunities between him and Deron at the top. Damion James also allows the Nets some flexibility; he can both run at the 3 and replace Humphries or Okur as a small-ball power forward.

Make no mistake: defensively, this is a nightmare. Brook’s a below-average defender, but Okur isn’t a massive improvement. Humphries is as strong as they come and surprised as a man defender last season, but his help defense is still shaky. Extra E’s not a porous defender, but Morrow is — and you can’t hide a wing player on either one of them. Go down the line, and the story’s the same defensively — there’s not one major impact defensive player on the roster. Unless Avery pulls a system rabbit out of his drawl, the Nets have no real combination of players to put on the floor that would result in an effective defense.

Still, I think the Nets are slightly overlooked when assessing the playoff picture. It’s not that they’re a shoo-in, but even with Lopez out early they can certainly compete for a lower seed.

My final prediction has little basis in reality, because reality as this team knows it is undefined. When you’ve got a top-10 player in the NBA, anything is possible on any given night. It’s just that the pieces around him are wholly unpredictable.

Final Prediction: 32-34, 8th in the Eastern Conference