The Brooklyn Nets have been mired in mediocrity since Jason Kidd left the team five years ago. Now, for the first time in a long time, the Nets arguably have the Eastern Conference's second most talented roster on paper. So how much can this Brooklyn Nets team realistically accomplish in the NBA playoffs?
Here is a look at the current Eastern Conference standings as of 1/15/2013**:
Every adjacent team in between the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks are separated by one game or less, so the standings right now are unclear and those teams will probably not remain the same seed they are now come playoff time.
Generally speaking, playoff success is chiefly based on the matchups. Some teams match up well against specific teams because they are weak in a particular aspect of the game. For example, the Miami Heat last year won the championship, but does that classify them as the best team in the NBA? Had the Heat faced the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals—teams they have had trouble with in the regular season since the "Big Three" era began—would there have been a different result?
Let's break down every potential Eastern Conference team the Nets may face in the playoffs.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls
If the playoffs started today, these two teams would face off in the first round. It's a little difficult to gauge how this matchup could favor one side over another, mostly because it depends on how well Derrick Rose will play once he returns.
If Rose returns at the level he was during his MVP season or even better, it would obviously be a much harder series for the Nets.
The Nets do have a good shot of knocking off the Bulls, but it would have to be a total team defensive effort. Deron Williams is a good defender at his position, but one player cannot stop Rose. The two teams are eerily similar in most offensive and defensive rankings so far this season, with the Bulls being slightly better on defense and the Nets holding the edge on offense. But it's clear that the Bulls' offense would be run much more efficiently once Rose returns.
I can see these two teams play a grind it out, low scoring and tough defensive series. The deciding factors would likely be the contributions of role players and how well each team can shut down the other team's star players.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Atlanta Hawks
Like the Nets vs. Bulls series, a Nets vs. Hawks series will also draw similar play styles. Both teams are in the top six in defense this season so far, and both yield established scorers.
The key for the Nets in this series is the utilization of their three main stars, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, and closing out on the Hawks' overabundance of perimeter shooters. The Hawks like to play small, and these three Nets stars create mismatches at their respective positions.
Williams and Johnson need to take advantage of Jeff Teague and the Hawks' rotation of shooting guards. None of the Hawks' backcourt players have the size and strength of either Williams or Johnson. With Al Horford being the Hawks' primary, albeit undersized center, Lopez should size him up down low and take advantage of his length.
If played right, the Nets shouldn't have too much difficulty dismantling the Hawks in a playoff series.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Milwaukee Bucks
This matchup is probably the hardest to predict because the Bucks are inconsistent, and that's not always a good thing for the Nets. The Nets have lost to the Bucks twice this year, both in convincing fashion.
On paper, Brooklyn looks like they should destroy Milwaukee. Outside of the undersized defensive powerhouse Larry Sanders, the Bucks don't have any good interior defenders. On the perimeter, they have the smallest backcourt in the league, so Williams and Johnson should have a field day on offense.
The problem is that Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis both are just as likely to score 40 points as they are to go 1-15 from the field. If the Nets are unable to contain them throughout a seven-game series, then they will probably be going home. But if they those two have mediocre games for most of the series, the Nets should have a better chance of beating them.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Boston Celtics
This series would be the most evenly matched of the lot. It features two of the best point guards in the league in Williams and Rajon Rondo, as well as two topnotch swingman in Johnson and Paul Pierce.
The reason why the Nets would probably have an advantage in this series and ultimately defeat the Celtics is because of rebounding. Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries have two of the highest rebounding percentages in the league, leading the Nets to being the sixth-best offensive rebounding team in the league, while the Celtics are 28th.
But as Rudy Tomjanovich would say—"never underestimate the heart of a champion." The Celtics will find a way to win and give the Nets a great battle regardless of the circumstances. This will definitely be a fun series to watch.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Indiana Pacers
Similar to the Nets-Hawks series, this series would also be a grind-it-out affair, featuring prominent defensive efforts from both teams. The Pacers are the best defensive team in the league thus far, so this series will be hard, low-scoring battle.
Danny Granger's return would ease the current scoring troubles for the Pacers, but they still won't match the Nets' offensive prowess.
Like most defensive, low-scoring series, the difference would come down to the play of each team's stars down the stretch along with how well the role players step up.
Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson are both game-changing role players off the bench, and their play will help determine the outcome of the series. The Pacers' lack of quality depth will hurt them against the Nets.
Brooklyn Nets vs. New York Knicks
The Heat and Knicks are 1A and 1B in the Eastern Conference up to this point, and offer the two hardest matchups for the Nets.
The two cross-borough rivals have played three hard-fought games so far, with the Knicks taking the upper hand in the regular season series. Though Gerald Wallace is a renowned defender and can hold his own, he will undoubtedly need help defending the bigger, stronger Carmelo Anthony. But if Wallace gets into foul trouble—which is likely to happen—who else can match up against the bully on the block?
Nobody in the league can stop Anthony, but the Nets will need to throw some capable bodies at him to slow him down.
In addition, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler will slow down penetration and certainly not back down against Brook Lopez in the post.
In order to beat this team, the Nets will need a great team defense and for their stars to match the offensive firepower of the Knicks with their own.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Miami Heat
Speaking of stars stepping up, the Nets will need to do so in this projected series. To be blatantly obvious, there is no stopping LeBron James and there may not even be anyone capable of stopping Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.
But the Nets won't need spectacular individual defense to stop these players. Instead, they need to trust each other on rotations to maintain a solid team defense to attempt to slow down the production of the three aforementioned superstars.
The Nets are a better rebounding team, so they will need to get some easy putbacks and limit the Heat to just one shot per possession. The Heat's Achilles heel last year—rebounding—is also their Achilles heel this year. Knowing that, the Nets will have to physical beat them down on the interior.
Brook Lopez is arguably the best offensive center in the league not named Andrew Bynum. If he doesn't show up in this series, then the Nets are as good as done.
If the Nets maintain a top-five seed when the playoffs arrive and the Knicks and Heat are still atop the Eastern Conference, they will most likely be matched up against one of the five second-tier teams.
They have a solid chance to defeat any Eastern Conference foe other than the Knicks or Heat (and maybe the Bulls, depending on the circumstances).
In the second round, they will probably have to face either the Knicks or Heat, in which case they will need to play near-perfect games and limit their mistakes to have a chance at either of them. They match up better against the Knicks, so if they face them in the second round they still have a chance to make the Conference Finals.
But that's where they will bow out of the playoffs—to the Heat—if Miami has made it that far as well.