Can the Brooklyn Nets Succeed?

The Nets three additions from Boston are critical to delivering a championship to Brooklyn. Credit: Mary Altaffer/AP

The Brooklyn Nets have had a blockbuster offseason; there is no way to dispute it.

Billionaire Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov and General Manager Billy King brought in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry in a landscape changing trade with the Boston Celtics on draft night.  This trade, coupled with the free agent acquisitions of Andrei Kirilenko and Shaun Livingston, has ballooned the Nets payroll to an excess of 100 million dollars.

Prokhorov has stated his goal is to win an NBA title by the end of the 2015 season.  Though the roster is improved from last year when the team went 49-33 and finished 4th in the Eastern Conference, it is difficult to see how this team will raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The starting five of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, and Brook Lopez is an impressive collection of individual talent with a combined 35 All-Star selections.  However, their combined usage rating from last year is an astounding 126.6 percent.  For comparison, the starting five of last year’s Los Angeles Lakers posted a 119.1 percent usage rating in 2011-12, the season before the supposed super team was assembled (and this was with Kobe Bryant posting a league leading individual usage rating of 35.7 percent).

The Nets are going to have to find a way to get everyone involved and understand that no one player can be allowed to dominate the field goal attempts.  In order to be successful, all players must sacrifice their own personal touches to create a lethal offensive attack where everyone is essentially an equally viable scoring option.

Creating a balanced starting unit that achieves a workable usage rating (the starters on the current Miami Heat championship team posted a 109.2 percent usage rating) without sacrificing team chemistry and efficiency requires adaptation.

Luckily, the Nets boast one of the league’s top five point guards in Williams, who will make it easier for the Nets to distribute the ball around the perimeter and feed the post.  If Williams can get back to his Utah Jazz form where he was routinely averaging over 10 assists a game, the Nets will have a much more diverse offense than last year’s isolation laden offering.

Although Johnson and Pierce are high isolation users on the wing, they are both capable outside shooters who Williams can feed, as he will not be needed to take as many shots as when he first came to the Nets.  If new Head Coach Jason Kidd and high-paid assistant Lawrence Frank can draw up some creative screening plays for Johnson and Pierce, floor spacing should be less of a concern.

However, one of the most concerning parts of Brooklyn’s offense is the play of Johnson.  As a starter he has never averaged less than 14 field goal attempts per game (this might be reduced as his minutes are reduced) and he is the least efficient scorer of the five.  Although every Nets starter except Garnett averaged between 14 and 15 shots a game last year, Johnson is the only one who posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) below 19.

In fact, Johnson’s PER dipped from 18.4 in his final year with the Atlanta Hawks to 14.1 last year in Brooklyn.  While he shot a solid 37.5 percent from three last season, his overall field goal percentage dropped by 3.1 percent.  Combine this with Johnson’s tendency to overuse his mid-range game and his lackluster defense and this starting lineup has a glaring weak spot.

Yes, Johnson had the lowest usage percentage last year of any current Brooklyn starter.  Yes, Brooklyn was statistically a much better team when Joe Johnson was on the floor last year, but this team has more and better options.  Cutting Johnson’s minutes by a little will help ensure balanced shot distribution without disrupting floor spacing too much.

Pierce and Garnett already know how to sacrifice their shot attempts for the good of the team from playing with Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo in Boston.  As long as Pierce and Garnett do not see their shots drop by over four attempts a game like Gerald Wallace saw last year when he only took 6.6 shots a game while playing 30.1 minutes a game, they should settle into their roles nicely.

Pierce’s career 37 percent three point shooting and overall diverse offensive game will add a new dimension to a Brooklyn team that struggled at small forward last season.  And Garnett’s infusion of skill at the power forward spot will finally give Brook Lopez a frontcourt mate with a competent offensive game.

While Pierce and Garnett are huge additions that Brooklyn cannot win a championship without, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez will determine the Nets success.  It is nearly impossible to win an NBA title without a top ten player in the league. Pierce and Garnett are still great players, but they are not the franchise players they once were.  Williams and Lopez need to play like franchise players if the Nets are to ultimately win.

Williams has proven he can be a franchise player, despite how injuries sapped him of his usual effectiveness before the All-Star break last season.  The return of his spectacular passing will be critical for Brooklyn to improve its offense.  It is also important for Williams to maintain a three point shooting percentage similar to the 37.8 percent he averaged last season in order to give the Nets three capable perimeter shooters in the starting lineup.

While Williams has the more proven pedigree, Lopez was actually the Nets best player last season.  Lopez posted a PER of 24.7 last year, good for fifth in the NBA behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony.  Arguably the second best center in the league, Lopez averaged 19.4 points a game in only 30.4 minutes a game, all while shooting 52.1 percent.

There is a tremendous amount of offensive talent in the Nets starting five.  However, Kidd needs to find the proper way to utilize this talent for the offense to truly become elite.  Brooklyn finished 8th in the NBA in offensive efficiency last season, but ranked 26th off the pick and roll.

The Nets have a top point guard-center tandem, yet ran the pick and roll less than any other team in the league.  This needs to change for the Nets to be serious contenders.  In an NBA that features an increasing amount of pick and rolls, an isolation heavy team with an inefficient pick and roll simply will not succeed.

Luckily, the Nets have the talent to diversify their offense.  Kevin Garnett is another excellent option as the screener in the two man game, and since he actually prefers to pop rather than roll, he makes an excellent counter to Brook Lopez’s primarily roll based game.

Also, Paul Pierce is one of the best passing small forwards in the league and gives the Nets another capable ball-handler besides Williams.  Even Joe Johnson is one of the top passers among shooting guards.

The Nets starting five has natural balance, they just need to use it properly.  There are three capable ball handlers and outside shooters at the one through three, and two offensively effective, yet stylistically different big men at the four and five.  An improved pick and roll, smarter use of isolation, and proper shooting balance will improve an already good offense.

Make no mistake, the Nets will score plenty of points and be fine from an efficiency stand point in the regular season.  However, postseason play rewards nuanced improvement on offense.  For the Nets to be truly competitive in the playoffs, honed ball movement, spacing, and pick and roll ability is a necessity.

While Brooklyn has multiple ways to improve on offense, the biggest thing holding them back is their play on defense.  The Nets ranked 17th in defensive efficiency and 23rd in opponent’s field goal percentage, despite being 6th in points allowed.

Their slow pace masked a team that struggled to defend and actually shot a worse field goal percentage than their opponents.  That is not a championship formula.

Kevin Garnett is essential in remaking the Brooklyn defense.  He posted a defensive rating of 99 last season, which matched his career average.  And Boston’s defense allowed 9 points per 100 possessions more when Garnett was off the court versus when he was on the court.

Garnett is not as great of a shot blocker as he once was, but he still gets into passing lanes and creates turnovers.  He is such a smart defender that he is able to read his opponent and force them to take bad shots.  Garnett is also still strong as a defensive rebounder, which is important playing next to Brook Lopez who only averaged 6.9 rebounds per game last year.

Garnett effectively complements Lopez’s skills on the defensive side of the ball.  Lopez improved significantly on defense and evolved into one of the best shot blockers in the league last season.  His rim protection combined with Garnett’s savvy should make it much more formidable in the paint for Net’s opponents.

The Nets post defense needs to improve significantly because their perimeter starters are not particularly effective defenders.  Pierce has always been a solid defender, but he will be 36 when the season starts and is slowing down.  Johnson and Williams have never been particularly good defenders, which will make it hard for Brooklyn to slow teams down, especially ones with good guard play.

While Williams posted a better defensive rating than Johnson last season, both have rather unsightly career defensive ratings of 110.  The Nets were at least marginally better defensively with Johnson on the court last year.  With Williams on the floor, the Nets were 4.6 points per 100 possessions worse on defense than with him sitting on the bench (in fairness the Nets were 6.6 points per possession better offensively with Williams on the floor).

This lackluster perimeter defense is the roster’s most glaring flaw.  The bench needs to play well defensively to lessen the impact of Williams and Johnson’s shortcoming.

Fortunately for Brooklyn, they have actually put together a very solid bench.  Many teams that spend big on their starters cannot afford a quality second unit, but Brooklyn was able to make it work.  Having a deep bench that contains players with a variety of skills on it allows for lineup flexibility that maximizes the ability of the roster.  Teams like last year’s Lakers that lack a quality bench can get exposed quickly, especially if an injury occurs.

The Brooklyn bench contains a nice mix of scoring, rebounding, and defense, though like the starting lineup, the bench has better post than perimeter defenders.

Keeping Andray Blatche for the veteran’s minimum was a coup for the Nets.  In 19 minutes a game last season he averaged 10.3 points on 51.2 percent shooting.  He also grabbed 5.1 rebounds a game and added a steal and .7 blocks per game as Brook Lopez’s backup.

Blatche’s spectacular season earned him a 21.9 PER, good enough for 13th in the league, and made it understandable why Lopez only played 30.4 minutes a game.  Considering Blatche was amnestied by the Washington Wizards before last season after posting a 10.6 PER in 2011-12, this was even more astounding.  Signing a player who averaged nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes for less than 1.5 million dollars is a terrific value, especially when he posted a 101 defensive rating on a defense starved team.

Although Blatche is probably the most talented player on Brooklyn’s bench at this point, Andrei Kirilenko is likely the most critical to the Nets’ success.  His versatility and defensive skill make him incredibly valuable to this bench.  He can play either forward spot, though he will play more three, and will help keep Pierce and Garnett from playing excessive minutes.

Though Kirilenko is not the defender he once was in 2004 when he posted a defensive rating of 97, or in 2005 when he blocked a league leading 3.3 shots a game, or in 2006 when he made his only first team all defensive team, he is still a talented defender.  His defensive rating of 104 is better than any Nets perimeter player other than Pierce, and Kirilenko has more quickness and athleticism left than Pierce.

Kirilenko’s quickness and length are essential to helping the Nets stop players like Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and to a lesser extent Loul Deng from ravaging their defense.  Kirilenko does not block shots like he used to, but he still averaged a block a game, as well as 1.5 steals a game for the Minnesota Timberwolves last season.  His massive wingspan allows him to continue to be one of the best shot blocking small forwards, even as his athleticism has declined somewhat.

Besides his value as the best perimeter defender on the bench, Kirilenko will also serve as an offensive glue guy who brings energy when he is subbed onto the floor.  He averaged 12.4 points a game on 50.7 percent shooting last year, and is still a solid rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass.  His passing skill also gives the bench a wing that can facilitate for others.

Brooklyn made a great signing with their mid-level exception.  They got a high efficiency (17.6 PER last year) player who does not need a lot of touches to impact the game. Kirilenko’s versatility makes him the perfect energy guy and perimeter stopper that they needed to have any chance at a title.

While Blatche and Kirilenko were two incredibly savvy financial moves from Brooklyn management, the trade with Boston also did wonders for the Nets bench.  Jason Terry will be the Nets best secondary perimeter scoring option.  While his numbers declined last year, he still averaged 10.1 points a game and shot 37.2 percent from three.

Terry is the best shooter off the bench and with the other bench options no longer has to be relied on to be the best reserve every night.  His presence adds a fourth outside shooting option and provides spacing off the bench.  The backcourt isn’t as deep as the frontcourt, but Terry should still see less pressure on him than in recent years.

The other key part of the Boston trade is the switch of sending Marshon Brooks to Boston instead of Reggie Evans.  Brooks was Brooklyn’s best (and pretty much only) young asset, but he had no place on a contending team that showed no desire to play him significantly last year.  Conversely, Evans had no place on a rebuilding team like Boston.

Evans has one crazy elite skill that makes him a tremendous bench player: rebounding.  Last season, Evans averaged 11.1 rebounds per game in only 24.6 minutes per game.  This was good enough for 6th in the NBA and translates into an absurd 16.3 rebounds per 36 minutes.  Even crazier, Evans 38 percent defensive rebounding percentage broke Dennis Rodman’s single season record.  Evans also led the NBA in offensive rebound percentage.

On a per minute basis, very few players come close to Reggie Evans rebounding skill.  His presence on the bench will help Brooklyn maintain its status as a top three team in rebounding margin.

Evans started 56 games last year, but he is the epitome of the singular elite skill role player.  He has no offensive game and while he posted a nice career high defensive rating of 100 last year, he is best served playing about 15 minutes a game and providing physicality and rebounding while Kevin Garnett is off the court.

While the top four players on the bench are the headliners of the second unit, the end of the bench has something to offer as well.  Losing CJ Watson as the backup point guard hurt, especially considering he joined the Indiana Pacers improved bench, but Shaun Livingston is a capable replacement on minimum salary.

Livingston posted a 2.83 assist to turnover ratio this past year, good for 11th in the league.  He will act as a solid facilitator for the reserves and help establish ball movement.  His lack of an outside shot is concerning for floor spacing, but he is an improved distributor compared to CJ Watson.  Brooklyn will miss Watson’s team leading 41.1 percent three point shooting from last year, but the bench is still much improved.

Last season’s European import, Mirza Teletovic, will be a third string forward.  However, he is the only big man with an outside shot, even though it was only accurate a disappointing 34.3 percent of the time.  When a situation calls for a stretch four, Teletovic is available and still brings serviceable rebounding.  There is also hope his efficiency improves based on his European pedigree.

The Nets also just signed Alan Anderson to add wing depth at the end of the bench.  Anderson is a decent, though inefficient, perimeter scorer who shoots about league average from three.  Though his defensive rating of 110 is comparable to the Nets poor perimeter defensive players, Anderson has a solid reputation as a capable defensive piece in the correct system.

This is a quality signing to solidify the rotation.  An extra perimeter player who can serve as three point and defensive threat  with an added scoring aggression helps solve the flaws in the Nets bench.  This signing likely means rookie big man Mason Plumlee and guard Tyshawn Taylor see almost no playing time.

If Brooklyn is to seriously contend, this bench is a major reason why.  However, there are just too many concerns to think the Nets will win a championship.

This is an old team that is not particularly good defensively, and the two best defensive starters are the oldest starters in Garnett and Pierce.  The Nets will improve defensively, but championship level defense is asking for too large a jump.

Players like Lebron James and Kevin Durant will tear this team apart.  Brooklyn has a relatively slow, unathletic roster that lacks strong perimeter defenders.  Stopping elite players who possess a good shot and athleticism will prove difficult for the Nets over a postseason series.

Andrei Kirilenko was a great signing to help address the team’s defensive woes, but he can only do so much as a role player.  Garnett should help transform Brooklyn into a good interior defense, but the roster lacks a single guard who can truly be a lockdown defender.

Another concerning aspect of Brooklyn’s perimeter play is outside shooting.  Williams, Johnson, Pierce, and Terry are all 37 or 38 percent three point shooters, but none are elite level marksmen.  Having four players that feature a consistent outside shot  as part of a well-rounded offensive skill set is great for an offense, however when a big basket is needed it helps to have a go-to sniper.

Losing CJ Watson hurt the Nets perimeter offense.  Jason Terry is the only reserve with an above average long range jump shot and that limits lineup flexibility.  Brooklyn tried to sign Kyle Korver to alleviate this problem, though ultimately using that money on Kirilenko was a much better move.

The Nets offense needs to adjust to be great.  It cannot remain isolation heavy and must improve its pick and roll.  They have the pieces to do this, but getting everyone enough touches will be difficult.  The players are here to keep the floor well spaced, but if the offense is not run properly and the ball does not move well, Brooklyn’s play will suffer.

This team is a grand experiment in mortgaging the future to buy a championship.  It has star talent, but lacks a sure-fire top ten player.  There are chemistry and coaching concerns, but from a basketball skill standpoint there are just too many things question marks.

The Brooklyn Nets have the pieces to win an NBA Championship.  Unfortunately, these pieces need to fit together so precisely for success.  These Nets will win a lot of games and be a good regular season team and a good video game team, but a second or third round playoff exit looks to be their future in an abysmal Eastern Conference outside of Miami, Chicago, Indiana, and the neighboring borough of Manhattan.

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