The Brooklyn Nets were among the "cool" picks to compete in the East at the start of the season, with Jay-Z serving as the ambassador of the franchise and hip-hop powered by some of Brooklyn's favorite sons and daughters throbbing over the P.A. system's speakers. But the road to the playoffs has little to do with "swag" and everything to do with perfect player-coach alchemy.
With Deron Williams at the point, that all-important blend led the roster to a somewhat surprising 11-6 start. Several players, such as troubled yet talented C/F Andray Blatche, veteran SF Jerry Stackhouse and rabid rebounder Reggie Evans, initially performed above and beyond what was expected of them, with Williams appearing to make a concerted effort to get the athletic Blatche involved in the offense.
The Nets have a big-man rotation that could arguably be considered among the top 10 in the league with Brook Lopez anchoring the paint, Gerald Wallace playing gritty defense on opposing threes and fours and Kris Humphries nearly averaging a double-double with almost 8 points and 8 rebounds per game. The only reason Humphries isn't averaging a full double-double is because his minutes have been nibbled on by Evans. Bringing in Reggie Evans off the bench for short spurts against teams with less brawn proved to be a noticeable factor in at least three recent games (11 rebounds vs. the Toronto Raptors, 10 rebounds against the Detroit Pistons and 18 rebounds in a loss to the New York Knicks).
Forcing turnovers and adopting the scrappy personality of head coach Avery Johnson masked the the occasional offensive ineptitude of SF Joe Johnson, Brooklyn's resident 19-million-dollar man, and showcased Williams' all-around brilliance. With Joe Johnson registering scoring, rebounding and assist averages that are below his career numbers, the Nets often end up riding Williams late in big games.
Johnson seems to disappear when the big boys (Miami Heat, OKC Thunder, Knicks) come to town. Joe is averaging 14.25 points per game against these three opponents, with his best scoring night (17 points) coming against OKC and his worst being an eight-point outing against the Miami Heat. These scoring totals do not indicate a big-time scoring threat. On December 18th, Joe Johnson showed continued signs of an offensive awakening with 21 points in a loss to the Utah Jazz.
Initially, the team's losing ways were blamed on Lopez's ankle, but the Nets' failure to close out opponents has continued even after the return of Brook Lopez and his newly refined shot-blocking prowess (he's averaging one full block over his career average according to NBA.com). As is often the case with sports franchises based in the New York metropolitan area, early success can lead to bloated expectations.
On November 30, center Brook Lopez went down with yet another foot injury. The Nets went 2-6 during that span, and are 2-10 in their last 12 games. The big man's 19 points, seven rebounds and career-high average of 2.5 blocks per game were sorely missed, as opponents marched right down the lane with no shot-blocking presence to deter them. Andray Blatche has proven capable of putting up similar rebounding numbers in Lopez's absence, and he has shown flashes of offensive brilliance as well, but his shot-blocking is putrid for a man of his stature at 0.6 blocks per game.
On paper, it appears as though the Nets should have the length and versatility to shut down virtually any team on any given night. But they do not, and have not. Outside of Reggie Evans, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, the Nets' grit drops off severely. No offense plus no defense equals no victories.
Is it the offensive sets or perhaps some friction going on between head coach Avery Johnson and point guard Deron Williams? After all, Johnson is notoriously hard on his guards, and Williams is notoriously hard on coaches. Just ask the now-retired coach Jerry Sloan. After their loss to the Knicks on December 19, the Nets would hold the the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference if the regular season were to end today. But fortunately for them, the NBA season is only a tad past the quarter-mark, and there's plenty of time to turn it all around.
With the level of talent that they have, the Brooklyn Nets are certain to return to their winning ways. The NBA is a talent-driven league, and Brooklyn has plenty of talent.
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